Imagine a Vietnam War fought as a counterinsurgency by small units of South Vietnamese Army soldiers accompanied by a few American advisers, beating the Vietcong at their own game.
Imagine that the ARVNs, with U.S. help, conducted civic action projects to win their country’s hearts and minds in support of the central government. Imagine that religious tolerance and democratic elections were a given. Imagine that air strikes and helicopter assaults were never conducted if there was a chance of any civilian casualties.
Black operations, psychological operations, guerrilla tactics — that’s the way Edward G. Lansdale wanted to fight the war. He said, 20,000 U.S. advisers should be “more than sufficient to cope with most military aspects of the Vietcong insurgency.”
Max Boot’s new biography of Lansdale, who rose to the rank of major general but whose advice largely was ignored in Vietnam, indicates that the results might have been different if it was heeded. Would South Vietnam have survived as a second South Korea, an independent nation? Would 58,000 Americans have died there? We’ll never know. But “The Road Not Taken” provides food for thought.
Lansdale was marginalized as a dirty tricks expert whose approach had worked in Malaysia and the Philippines but was not applicable in Vietnam. Under prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled from 1954-63, some progress was made. From 1955-59, Communist Party membership in South Vietnam declined by two-thirds, Boot writes, but Diem alienated opponents and never captured enough hearts and minds.
Lansdale, an adviser to three presidents, observed an ARN artillery attack on a village during Diem’s rule and said, “In a people’s war, you never make war against your own people.” Lansdale said he subscribed to the three L’s: Learn (about the country and its customs and history), Like (cultivate friendships with influential people sympathetic to American interests) and Listen (to what those people have to say). He said, “Are paddy farmers in a combat zone to be shot just because they inadvertently are standing in the way of Vietcong targets or are they to be protected and helped?” In a people’s war, he said, firepower is counterproductive.
In 1962, Diem launched the Strategic Hamlets program overseen by his brother, in which villages were surrounded by moats and barbed wire and protected by a hamlet militia that could call for the army if necessary. It didn’t work and caused more resentment than it was worth. The next year he ordered raids on 12 pagodas and the arrest of 700 Buddhists, which resulted in one monk lighting himself aflame for the world to see. When President John Kennedy asked Lansdale if he would help initiate a coup against Diem, Lansdale said, “No Mr. President, I couldn’t do that. Diem is my friend.”
The result was that the CIA did help topple Diem, who was followed by a succession of poor leaders and which resulted in the North Vietnamese soldiers invading the South for the first time in 1964. Vice President Hubert Humphrey became one of Lansdale’s biggest supporters, but is seemed President Lyndon Johnson was determined to fight a big war. The results were a troop buildup, massive civilian casualties, destruction of villages and cities, producing thousands of refugees and a gradual erosion of support for the government under Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu.
Lansdale hosted quiet dinners from 1965-68 with Vietnamese government officials to argue his views but early on he said privately, “Ky and Thieu are weak leaders…Given their natures, I doubt they will improve very much.”
The American command became obsessed with body count, Lansdale observed: “We mostly sought to destroy enemy forces. The enemy sought to gain control of the people.” Vietnamese leaders, Lansdale said, had “dominant political influence over no more than half the population” because LBJ never pressed Thieu to make his rule more popular and effective.
On April 6, 1975, long after Lansdale had passed out of the loop and 24 days before Saigon fell, he joined a group of Vietnamese friends in front of the White House for a prayer vigil. But under President Gerald Ford and a Congress that was war-weary, there were no last rescue missions, no help for a South Vietnam that imploded. Makes you wonder about “The Road Not Taken.”
I am a 1966 graduate of Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY. I graduated from Nassau Community College in 1968 and Hofstra University in 1970. I was a sports reporter at Newsday from 1966-1999, covering 5 Super Bowls and 9 Stanley Cup Finals. I was a features desk copy editor from 2000 to Dec. 31, 2014, when I retired. I am married to Lynn, a social worker, since April 9, 1978, We have one son, Peter, 33, an air traffic controller in Ohio.