For decades — from the days of Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan — U.S. policymakers have faced a terrible dilemma when confronting insurgent threats abroad. They could do nothing and risk losing territory to the enemy. Or they could use military force and risk being drawn into a quagmire.
There is a third way, but it’s not easy to pull off. It relies on sending a small number of American advisers to buttress an embattled foreign regime without a massive American military commitment. For such a low-level approach to work, it’s important that the advisers understand how to effectively influence local leaders without simply imposing “Made in America” solutions that may not work in a foreign context.
One of the most successful advisers in history was Edward G. Lansdale, an advertising executive turned Air Force officer and CIA operative who came to be known as the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia.” His methods, honed in the Philippines and Vietnam in the 1950s-60s, are more relevant than ever as America confronts a growing Islamist threat from West Africa to Southeast Asia.
When Lansdale was dispatched to the Philippines in 1950 by the Office of Policy Coordination, a super-secret spy agency that would soon be folded into the CIA, that country was threatened by a Communist uprising called the Huk Rebellion. The Truman administration feared that another Asian country was about to go “Red,” but, with the Korean War raging, there were no American troops to spare. So Lansdale was sent to fight the Huks with a handful of assistants.
The most important thing Lansdale did was to befriend a dynamic young war veteran who had just been appointed defense minister. Ramon Magsaysay was an effective leader who was not marred by the corruption prevalent in Filipino politics. Lansdale convinced him to rein in the Philippine Army — to tell soldiers that they would have greater success in treating the people as “brothers” rather than bombarding their villages with artillery. Once the people began to trust the troops, they would inform on the guerrillas in their midst. Lansdale was a pioneer of the sort of counterinsurgency tactics that General David Petraeus would implement in Iraq in 2007.
But Lansdale also realized that it wasn’t enough to beat the insurgents on the battlefield. The Huk slogan was “Bullets Not Ballots,” because everyone knew that elections were fixed. Until the peasants were convinced that they could bring peaceful change in a country dominated by a few rich landowning families, they would not stop fighting.
As I discovered during the course of my book research into once-secret archives and long-hidden letters, Lansdale organized Filipinos to prevent election fraud and served as Magsaysay’s de facto campaign manager in a bid for the presidency in 1953. He even composed a campaign slogan: “Magsaysay Is My Guy.” After Magsaysay won by a wide margin, the CIA officer was nicknamed Colonel Landslide. With a popular reformer in office, the Huks gave up their struggle. This represented one of America’s greatest, if least-known, Cold War victories — and it was achieved without sending a single American soldier into combat.
Lansdale’s “reward” was to be dispatched to Saigon in the summer of 1954, just after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, to create a new, noncommunist state in South Vietnam while Ho Chi Minh consolidated power in the North. Few thought that the newly appointed prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, would last nine weeks, much less nine years. That Diem managed to overcome all manner of foes — not only Communists but also French colonialists and the religious sects aligned with them — to consolidate his authority was due in no small measure to the expert advice he received from the laid-back Californian.
Lansdale displayed endless patience with Diem’s hours-long monologues, which drove other Americans to despair. After listening to Diem drone on, Lansdale would say, “If I understand what you are saying, you want to do…” And then he would subtly rephrase what Diem had said to get across his own ideas. “The art of friendly persuasion,” as Lansdale called it, sounds simple, but it’s far removed from the typical American way of dealing with allies, which is to lay down a series of non-negotiable demands.
Few others could do what Lansdale did, and after he left South Vietnam in 1956, relations between Saigon and Washington soured. In 1963 John F. Kennedy became so frustrated with Diem that he gave the go-ahead to a military coup despite Lansdale’s warnings that there was no better successor waiting in the wings. With Diem gone, the South Vietnamese state all but collapsed, and Lyndon Johnson sent U.S. ground troops to prevent a Communist takeover.
To avoid such fiascos in the future, the U.S. would be well advised to cultivate a new generation of Lansdales — soldiers and civilians who can bolster friendly but weak regimes so that they can take the lead in fighting our mutual foes. The Army is on the right path by creating “advise and assist brigades,” but there needs to be much greater focus on training not only military but also political advisers. The war on terror will ultimately be won by American advisers, not by American ground troops.