The Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken looks back at Edward Lansdale, the model for both The Quiet American and The Ugly American and the major proponent behind the “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency that the US never quite followed:

Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.

His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio “Pat” Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)

The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his “whole of government approach” to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms an obscure congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, as the country’s savior and promotes his candidacy in what is ultimately a free and fair — though OSS-funded — campaign.

Magsaysay’s slogan — “All-Out Force or All-Out Friendship” — exactly encapsulates Lansdale’s approach. Lansdale had no problem with military force — though he preferred advisers, infiltration, and subversion to large-scale ground troops — or with bribery and intense outside engagement in a nation’s affairs. He twinned this with insistence on developing broad-based political support for partner governments and urged attention to effective government, apparently clean elections, and stringent avoidance of civilian casualties. Washington could achieve those goals, he repeatedly proposed, by going outside its military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies to send a “small team of winners,” backed at the highest levels, to identify, promote, and support new leaders in the country under threat.

In the Philippines, this plan works splendidly. Magsaysay is popular, the Huks are defeated, Manila institutions seem to grow stronger. Soon Lansdale is off to Vietnam, where he arrives just as the country has been partitioned, an independent government replaces French rule in the South, Ho Chi Minh’s communists do the same in the North, and massive refugee flows are commencing. For the next two years, Lansdale builds his intimacy with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh and uses every trick of nation building and skullduggery to advance him at the expense of Viet Cong fighters, warlords, criminal gangs, the French, and, finally, even his own American colleagues. In 1955, when Eisenhower is on the brink of approving a counter-Diem coup, Lansdale successfully reverses these orders.

But the 1955 success is Lansdale’s high-water mark. Vietnam’s Diem doesn’t give Lansdale’s theories of popular legitimacy the same enthusiasm he gives to recruiting warlords. At home, Lansdale gains promotions and extraordinary access to a string of presidents and cabinet officials but suffers a reputation for insubordination and even nuttiness. His career detours into CIA scheming to assassinate Castro, and his later efforts to resuscitate support for Diem fail, with one of his old team members engineering the 1964 coup and Diem’s brutal killing.

When Lansdale finally returns to Vietnam in 1965, he cannot win support for his “hearts and minds” programming either from his American colleagues or the swift succession of military rulers in Saigon. As Marine Philip Caputo explains, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”

Ultimately, Lansdale leaves Vietnam in near disgrace and lives half-forgotten in suburban Washington. He resurfaces occasionally — as the target of opprobrium during the Church Committee hearings into CIA misdeeds (including the planned Castro assassination) and as an adviser to Oliver North in the early Reagan years. When Lansdale died, the Nation magazine was one of many to offer intense but mixed eulogies, calling him “the Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh.”

Boot argues that heeding Lansdale’s ideas on counterinsurgency, both in specific instances and more broadly in U.S. policy, would have led to better outcomes. Lansdale himself reportedly could not sum up his approach, but Boot’s summary produces three rather simple instructions: Learn (about the society). Like (“identif[y] and cultivat[e] influential individuals sympathetic to American interests”). Listen (instead of lecturing your developing-country counterparts).

Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries.


Lansdale himself perfectly exemplifies the core contradictions of the American nation-building project. He sees everything he does as pointed toward democratic institutions and the superiority of representative government — yet his achievements come by hand-selecting personalities and installing them by subverting the rules of democratic governance. While his bureaucratic opponents tend to be skeptical of even the outer forms of representative government in the midst of insurgency, neither he nor they appear to have the plans or the patience to let real local institutions flourish. He castigates his opponents for their failure to perceive the role played by nationalism — but the essence of his successful operations is to reshape governments toward serving American aspirations.


  1. If we’d only done it differently. Is that the cry of types like Boot?

    Boot and other Neocons want to, in the words of Victor Spinetti from the Beatles Help!, “Dare I say it, rule the world.”

    He does not get that America’s true core interest is extricating itself from trying to settle the world’s hash.

    I’m sure the book is great, though.

  2. FNN says:

    How does this book compare to the one by Hilaire du Berrier?

  3. Lu An Li says:

    The type of insurgency as confronted by Lansdale in the Philippines was far different from the type of war the American military faced in Vietnam. What worked in the Philippines had little chance of working in Vietnam. Main force VC units and large-size elements of the regular North Vietnamese army could not be countered by traditional and conventional COIN efforts that worked well in the Philippines.

  4. Lucklucky says:

    Like Lu An Li says, not all insurgencies are the same.

    Also Vietnam had the direct support of the Soviet Union and even China at times.

  5. Jim says:

    Max Boot is an idiot.

  6. The Fateful Lightning says:

    Lu An Li, Gen. Krulak’s version of a version of Lansdale’s methods worked for us in the hamlets and villages where I operated in ’68. The USMC and the Army today use those methods in COIN ops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are, in fact, what made the big difference in Iraq, not the ‘surge’.

    If you are the foreigner, you must win the people at the bottom.

Leave a Reply