Lansdale’s growing fame led people to say (wrongly) that he was the model for the protagonist in The Quiet American and (rightly) that he was the inspiration for one of the few positive characters in The Ugly American. Some called him the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia” and the “American James Bond.” John F. Kennedy became an admirer, and turned to him for advice about Vietnam and counterinsurgency in general. As head of special operations for the Department of Defense, Lansdale appeared to be well on his way to becoming a dominant force on Vietnam policy within the U.S. government.
What happened? How did Lansdale plummet so quickly and so far from the heights of power and prestige? His career—like many other promising elements of the Kennedy administration—foundered on the island of Cuba, with ramifications that would in time be felt on the other side of the world in Vietnam.
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Lansdale received a thankless assignment at the end of 1961: to overthrow Fidel Castro, the bearded young revolutionary who in 1959 had had seized power in Havana. The Kennedy administration initially had tried to topple Castro, who was seen as a communist threat in America’s “backyard,” by backing a CIA-organized invasion of exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. That had turned into a fiasco. Now the Kennedys were hell-bent on getting rid of Castro any way they could, and they saw Lansdale as just the man for the job. His lack of experience with Cuba was seen as a recommendation: He was not tainted by the Bay of Pigs operation, which he had opposed.
Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who took on Castro’s overthrow as his personal project, put intense pressure on Lansdale to achieve results. At meeting after meeting, the president’s younger brother stressed that there had to be “maximum effort” and that “there will be no acceptable alibi” for failure. “Let’s get the hell on with it,” he would say. “The president wants some action, right now.” His performance at Mongoose meetings reminded the CIA’s deputy director, Marshall Carter, of “the gnawing of an enraged rat terrier.”
The only realistic way that Castro could have been toppled that fast was through an American military intervention. That is why Lansdale demanded an “early policy decision” on the fundamental question: “If conditions and assets permitting a revolt are achieved in Cuba, and if U.S. help is required to sustain this condition, will the U.S. respond promptly with military force to aid the Cuban revolt?” The answer from the White House was that President Kennedy was no more willing in early 1962 than he had been a year earlier, during the Bay of Pigs, to wage open war against Castro. Lansdale and his colleagues in Operation Mongoose were supposed to find some magical way to get rid of Castro quickly without ensnaring U.S. troops in combat. It was an impossible assignment, and led them to come up with ludicrous shortcuts.
A document declassified long after Lansdale’s death and not previously cited by any other author makes clear that, notwithstanding Lansdale’s protestations, this story was mostly true. On October 15, 1962, Lansdale wrote a memorandum on “Illumination by Submarine.” It proposed firing “star shells from a submarine to illuminate the Havana area” after dark on November 2, All Souls’ Day, in order “to gain extra impact from Cuban superstitions.” The memo did not mention the Second Coming, but it did suggest that the star shells could be coupled with a CIA-generated “rumor inside Cuba, about portents signifying the downfall of the regime and the growing strength of the resistance.”
Brigadier General William H. Craig, the Defense Department representative to Mongoose, submitted proposals such as Operation Free Ride (“Create unrest and dissension among the Cuban people … by airdropping valid Pan American or KLM one-way airline tickets good for passage to Mexico City, Caracas, etc”) and Operation Good Times: “To disillusion the Cuban population with Castro image by distribution of fake photographic material … such as an obese Castro with two beauties in any situation desired, ostensibly within a room in the Castro residence, lavishly furnished, and a table brimming over with the most delectable Cuban food with an underlying caption (appropriately Cuban) such as ‘My ration is different.’” An Air Force lieutenant colonel came up with an even more outlandish idea in response to a shortage of toilet paper and sanitary napkins in Cuba. He suggested that the CIA air-drop toilet paper into Cuba with pictures on alternate sheets of Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to “drive Castro mad.”
It is hard to imagine a more outlandish or distasteful document, redolent of the ruse that Hitler used on August 31, 1939, to start World War II: Wehrmacht soldiers in Polish uniforms attacked a German radio station on the border with Poland. That the Joint Chiefs would seriously offer these suggestions shows the fevered atmosphere of the day. “We were hysterical about Castro at the time of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter,” Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was later to say.
None of these plans were adopted, but the CIA did try to kill Castro. This part of the operation was run by William King Harvey, the pistol-packing, martini-swilling CIA representative to Mongoose. He had been assigned by the White House to run a program known as ZRRIFLE that tried to use mobsters to bump off the Cuban dictator. But Harvey did not tell Lansdale what he was up to. Everything was on a strictly “need to know” basis, and Harvey did not think that Lansdale, as an outsider no longer on the CIA payroll, needed to know. In any case, the CIA plots failed to eliminate the Cuban dictator.
As 1962 progressed and Mongoose failed to produce results, tempers frayed all around. The relationship between Bill Harvey and Bobby Kennedy, a CIA officer recalled, was “bad from the beginning, and then it deteriorated steadily.” At Langley, a story was making the rounds that when Bobby Kennedy demanded to know why a team of exiles had not yet been infiltrated into Cuba, Harvey replied they had to be trained first. “I’ll take them out to Hickory Hill and train them myself,” Kennedy snorted, referring to his mansion in northern Virginia. “What will you teach them, sir?” Harvey shot back. “Baby-sitting?”
Confidence was also faltering in Lansdale. In a contemporaneous memorandum, a CIA officer wrote, “Practically everyone at the operating level agrees that Lansdale has lost his value.” It was hardly Lansdale and Harvey’s fault that they had not been able to achieve impossible results, but they were set to become the fall guys.
Having failed to achieve the Kennedys’ most cherished objective, Lansdale lost their favor, and was left naked before his bureaucratic enemies. His military career ended less than a year after Mongoose did. “I think the thing that hurt me the most in the long run was the task that Kennedy gave me on Cuba,” he reflected decades later. “I’m sorry I ever got mixed up in those Cuban things.”
Lansdale’s Cuban failure was to prove historically significant not just for the future of that island nation but also for Indochina, because it ensured that he was cut out of American policymaking toward Vietnam just as relations between the Kennedy administration and the Diem government were reaching their breaking point over Diem’s handling of an uprising by militant Buddhists. The Kennedys were convinced that Diem’s heavy-handed repression was costing his government critical support in the struggle against communism—without considering whether the generals scheming to succeed him would prove any more popular. Throughout 1963, Lansdale presciently warned that giving the go-ahead to a military coup against Ngo Dinh Diem would be a catastrophic mistake. While Diem was flawed, Lansdale believed he was the best available choice, because he was not corrupt and he had nationalist credentials, having opposed both the communists and the French colonialists. By contrast, the leaders of the military plot against Diem were not only corrupt and lacking in democratic legitimacy but also tainted by their earlier service in the French army. Lansdale warned against Americans “trying to play God, by trying to pick a leader for Vietnam,” when a leader, no matter how imperfect, was already in place.
Lansdale’s warnings would be amply vindicated after the anti-Diem coup, which began on November 1, 1963, the very day Lansdale was forcibly retired from the Pentagon as a two-star general. One military dictator would follow another in South Vietnam, destabilizing that country and encouraging North Vietnam to step up its slow-motion invasion. President Lyndon Johnson concluded in 1965 that he had no choice but to commit American troops to save South Vietnam. Lansdale warned against a large-scale American troop deployment, just as he had warned against the anti-Diem coup, but his advice was again ignored.
South Vietnam was falling into the abyss, and it was going to drag America, tethered to it by an umbilical cord of commitments, down with it. Lansdale was left to watch this slow-motion tragedy unfold as a powerless spectator—a prophet without honor—his career having been ruined, and his reputation tarnished, by his inglorious association with Operation Mongoose.