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The Road Not Taken
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam
by Max Boot
(Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018)
Every once in a while, a book comes along that just dares me to read it, and this is one of those books. My fascination started when I found a half dozen hard-covers on the "military history" shelf at the local Barnes & Noble. Then the author appeared on one of those evening news commentary shows on MSNBC or CNN, and finally when he appeared on Book TV from a California festival, interviewed by General David Petraeus. Based up that TV interview, it seems that Max Boot and General Petraeus are great admirers of each other. General Petraeus has offered a most enthusiastic endorsement at the very top of the rear cover, suggesting that the story of Edward Lansdale's career, with landmark activities in the Philippines and Vietnam, "offers important lessons for the present day."
The Road Not Taken is almost surely destined to be another best-seller for author Max Boot. In his prologue, the author suggests that "the worst military defeat in American history might have taken a very different course... if the counsel of this CIA operative and Air Force officer had been followed." He describes Lansdale as a singular visionary, an unhonored strategist, a sidelined advisor who wanted to follow Robert Frost's "the road not taken." I was very familiar with the name Lansdale. Other books have described his influence in Vietnam, and in Washington, in somewhat less enthusiastic tones, and author Boot repeatedly reminds the reader that Lansdale's methods were at best unconventional. He was a charismatic fellow, able to engage the high and mighty in conversations, and to offer advice that this book tries to convince us was hugely effective. But to what effect? He may have become a close personal friend of South Vietnam's tyrannical President Diem, but his input certainly didn't alter Diem's cruel and dictatorial ways. The author's telling of the story comes across as almost hero worship, and there is precious little discussion of Diem's atrocities that inspired the Vietnamese to struggle so desperately for independence and freedom. There is even less mention of the American bombing or the use of chemicals such as napalm and the Agent Orange family of defoliants that were used to poison people, crops, and water supplies. There is virtually no discussion of the corruption that undermined both the Vietnamese and American efforts and no mention at all of the CIA's involvement in the Southeast Asian drug trade. And there is no mention of the millions of low-ranking GIs who were caught up in this international feeding frenzy. Throughout The Road Not Taken, Boot avoids any description of the dark side of covert activities. The Strategic Hamlet program supposedly blunted the efforts of the Viet Cong to infiltrate villages, never suggesting that the forcible removal of Vietnamese peasants from their ancestral homes inspired many to join the Viet Cong cause. I don't recall ever seeing the word "terrorism" occur throughout the book's hefty 717 pages, and it was surely never used to describe the activities of the CIA spooks in Vietnam.
Author Boot is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-government think tank, and it appears he is considered a mover and shaker in the creation of "prescriptions" for our country's foreign policy. One look at the front page of a newspaper will tell you how that has worked out.
For an esteemed foreign policy advisor, Mr. Boot sometimes gets a little careless with his facts. In his Introduction, page xlv, he writes that in the twenty-first century, "democracy has spread across Asia to such disparate lands as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, and Nepal." Really? In Burma, the official government position is that 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims do not even exist, and the word Rohingya is not allowed to be used, even by foreigners, while a program of extreme ethnic cleansing is underway. Boot discusses the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, in glowing terms. During World War II, Boot says "German officials dissatisfied with the Nazis were showing up in the sitting room of his cozy apartment," neglecting to mention that Dulles specialized in laundering the Nazis' money, fencing their stolen artwork and goods worldwide, and after the war, helping many of them to escape capture and trial. In fact, Allen Dulles lobbied to have a number of former Nazi officials placed in positions of authority after the war, arguing that they had "experience" in government. The Dulles brothers detested Communism, and they were among the originators of the Cold War.
Edward Lansdale was a gifted man, an adventurer, but also a CIA spook in Vietnam at the end of the French colonial period and the early days of the American intervention. The Road Not Taken acknowledges the American tragedy of Vietnam in its subtitle, but the author's concept of "tragedy" seems to be that a vast array of military and intelligence leaders did not give Ed Lansdale his due. In the overall debate over strategies and tactics, his opinions were often ignored. The author fails to see that Lansdale, like about 4.5 million of the rest of us, was used by the powers to further their genocidal campaign for power and riches. The real tragedy of America's war in Vietnam is that this head-in-the-sand telling of history is so prevalent today. The government's 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the war, the seriously flawed Ken Burns series on PBS TV, and now The Road Not Taken are all part of a package that has been gift-wrapped, tied with a pretty bow, and presented to the American people in an attempt to convince us that the Vietnam War was a noble and necessary event. I guess these things just come in threes.
It is curious that this book came to my attention as I was reading Frank Nelson's Blind Nation (reviewed here). Certainly, The Road Not Taken will be a big success. It is an entertaining read and would be convincing to folks who have not seen Edward Lansdale mentioned in other books. Students and others who wonder what really happened in the early days of the Vietnam War would be better served if they read Blind Nation.
John Ketwig is the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam which remains in print after 32 years and 27 printings (Macmillan, 1985). A new book, Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter is slated for publication early in 2019. John is a lifetime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.