A Look at Cecil B. Currey’s “Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American”

What follows is a rather informal series of impressions of Currey’s biography of Edward Lansdale, the ad-man turned CIA operative who orchestrated Magsaysay’s rise to power in the Philippines and played main advisor to Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam.

Edward Lansdale meets with Ngo Dinh Diem in 1954

Cecil B. Currey calls Edward Lansdale the “unquiet” American (and certainly volume never seems to have been a problem for Lansdale—nor has talking out of turn), but perhaps “the ignored American” might have been a more apt moniker for the man Currey claims could have brought the Vietnam war to a close—had anyone bothered to listen to him. In his biography of Lansdale, Currey, in what can only really be called a loving tone, poses a series of “what if?” questions, which leave the reader wondering exactly how far they can trust this biography’s account of the life of the man John F. Kennedy called the American equivalent of James Bond (242). What if Kennedy had listened to Lansdale and fought to keep Diem in power? What if any number of government higher-ups had listened when Lansdale stressed that this war was a People’s War and needed to be won by the Vietnamese, not by American interlopers? What if either Kennedy had listened when Lansdale insisted that Bay of Pigs was a bad idea? I really could go on with the list of “what ifs” Currey brings up forever. It’s clear, reading Currey’s biography, that Lansdale is some kind of personal hero to Currey, though, and as a result it’s a little bit hard to take the incessant lionizing seriously.

Having read only Currey’s version of events, I can’t be sure whether I’m right in thinking that Lansdale couldn’t possibly have been this perfect. Maybe he was. Maybe the pictures painted of him in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and in William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American are unfair as Currey claims. All I know is that Currey’s biography is decidedly one-sided, citing almost wholly the works and opinions of Lansdale’s admirers and almost completely ignoring those of his detractors (and when these last are mentioned, it’s with a tone of pitying condescension for the poor souls who just couldn’t recognize Lansdale’s genius).

None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy the biography, nor that I don’t like Lansdale. In fact, the sole reason I chose this topic was that I’d found everything I’d heard about Lansdale either hilarious (as in stopping a coup by giving the generals planning it all expenses paid tickets to a resort in Manila hilarious), delightful (recording hundreds of traditional Vietnamese folksongs because he felt they needed to be appreciated), or impressive (marching into McNamara’s office and depositing a load of VC weapons on his desk to illustrate the type of war America’d gotten herself into). I just simply had to keep reminding myself as I read that I was most definitely reading a biased account and that I couldn’t let myself get swept up by Currey’s romantic portrait of an American hero immaculate in every aspect. 

This caveat aside, reading the story of a UCLA English major turned ad-man turned top CIA agent turned Air Force General turned nation builder was quite fun. Lansdale himself is an interesting character, flawed or not, and it is this, more than anything else, that drives Currey’s biography. Lansdale was a something of a walking paradox. He was practical, yet idealistic. He held a firm belief in understanding the native peoples of the countries he operated in, but never once made an effort to learn any of their languages, constantly relying on interpreters. And among his fellows, he was something of an anomaly, as he never desired any kind of empire for himself, detesting bureaucracy and the petty politics of power. He was a smooth talker and put his background in advertising to good use throughout his career. He was a devout patriot whose belief in American ideals was unwavering. He never really fit in in Washington, where the double-talk of politicians proved incomprehensible to him and where he was much disliked for his direct manner and refusal to take part in political games.

In the early ’50’s, Lansdale was assigned to the Philippines as a CIA operative, where he first began to make a name for himself as he helped Ramon Magsaysay take control of the newly independent Philippines and install a democratic, American-friendly government. His efforts proving successful in the Philippines, Lansdale—by now a close personal friend of Magsaysay—became a kind of hero to the people of the Philippines, installing in him a firm belief in a strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the people. Almost immediately upon returning from the Philippines, Lansdale was assigned to Vietnam, where he immediately set about putting his ideas about counterinsurgency to work: Lansdale determined to win the Vietnamese people over to the American cause and get them to carry the fight against the North Vietnamese.

This section of Lansdale’s life proved the most interesting as his first stint in Vietnam is peppered with anecdotes of his crazy psywar schemes (many of which call to mind his background in advertising), his frustration with bureaucracy and the men making all the decisions about Vietnam, his solo trips out into the Vietnamese countryside to get to know the people. Reading through this section of the book, it proves hard not to like Lansdale and appreciate his hard-hitting, direct manner. One incident comes to mind during which Lansdale asked US ambassador to Vietnam Joseph “Lightning Joe” Collins “When do you do your thinking? Maybe I could help you with that,” to which Collins replied that he usually thought during his afternoon nap. Lansdale was so incensed by this response that he asked Collins if he minded if Lansdale accompanied him up after lunch so that “if you’ve got something, you can think out loud?” Collins eventually allowed Lansdale to do so, but revoked this permission a few days later saying that it had been a bad idea. Lansdale remarked that this was probably because Collins “was missing his sleep” (170-171). This anecdote is indicative not only of Lansdale’s relationship with Collins (whom Lansdale detested because, though he always let Lansdale advise him, he never actually took heed of anything he said and usually went off and did the complete opposite), but of his relationship with most of the representatives of Washington Lansdale came into contact with. He was easily frustrated by their lack of action and complete disinterest in the Vietnamese people, their country, and its history. Lansdale himself had done a good deal of reading on the country before taking up his post as he was convinced that the key lay in understanding how the Vietnamese thought, something none of his American compatriots were interested in. Lansdale knew of Vietnam’s history of rebellion and xenophobia and he understood that the Vietnamese viewed the Americans just as they had done the French, no matter what the Americans said. To the Vietnamese, an outsider was an outsider and no outsider was good unless he was just that—outside. Understanding this, Lansdale determined to make the Vietnamese understand that he was not like the others, that he was there simply to help, to become friends. And he had great success with this, creating friends who would remember him years later, when he returned for his second stint in Vietnam, and who would prove the main reason he resisted his removal from the country. Lansdale even succeeded in becoming the only American trusted by Ngo Dinh Diem, president of South Vietnam. When asked about this relationship, Lansdale persisted in answering that it was possible because he recognized that “Diem is human, just like anyone else” (219). Later on, during Lansdale’s second stint in Vietnam (from 1965 to early 1958), Daniel Ellsberg (yes that Daniel Ellsberg, he was a member of Lansdale’s team before he was assigned to the Pentagon) commented that Lansdale’s “magic”  was “very simply that he did not show contempt for [the Vietnamese]. It was true of. . . most other Americans [in Vietnam. They] were patronizing, condescending toward people. . . [Lansdale] had respect for them, acted respectfully. . . He would listen to them. . . . They really did feel like they were being heard respectfully and reasonably, and that’s all it took. He didn’t have to speak their language. . . . All he had to do was listen to them” (296).

If only the other Americans had done the same (I’m not sure if I’m referring to wishing the other Americans had listened to the Vietnamese or wishing they’d listened to Lansdale. Both, preferably). If nothing else, Currey’s account of Lansdale is a condemnation of American pride. One of the many “what ifs” he poses is “what if a few more people had gotten off their high horses and simply listened? What would have happened then?” It is clear that Currey thinks the war wouldn’t have dragged on as long as it did and I can’t say that I disagree with him. While Lansdale certainly isn’t without reproach (his relationship with his family makes me certain of this), his experience with American bureaucracy and American high command makes you want to tear your hair out. It’s no wonder that Lansdale hated most of the Americans he worked with; they were constantly saying things they didn’t mean and doing their utmost to get ahead. Lansdale didn’t want to get ahead; he had no dreams of power. He simply wanted to live up to his ideals and spread them to the greatest number of people possible. I found it very funny (and bitterly ironic) that the one time Lansdale tried to play at politics, he failed miserably. He was in a meeting with President Kennedy and Kennedy turned on him suddenly and asked if he’d like to be the ambassador to Vietnam. This was exactly what Lansdale wanted and had been angling for ever since his removal from the country in 1957, however he demurred, telling Kennedy that it was hardly in his field, thinking that Kennedy would pursue him. Lansdale was disappointed, though, when Kennedy pressed the issue no further, turning instead to find someone who would accept the job eagerly. In his attempt to play the Washington game, Lansdale had lost his window of opportunity. Never again did he let his direct manner leave him following that incident.

Following his removal in 1957 from Vietnam, Lansdale was assigned to the Pentagon and what follows is one of the most boring chapters I have ever had to slog through. If Currey was trying with his writing to capture Lansdale’s own boredom with his Pentagon desk job, he did a brilliant job of it (though I doubt that he was). So, let us not dwell on that period. Suffice it to say that nobody listened to Lansdale when he said Bay of Pigs was a bad idea (not that this will surprise any of you). (Nor will it surprise you when I tell you that Currey says that had they listened “the history of the United States might have been very different” (250)).

At this point in his rather oddly organized biography, Currey interrupts the narrative of Landale’s life with an entire twenty-three page chapter dedicated to his philosophy and the many speeches and articles he gave and wrote over the course of his life. While containing very useful information, this chapter (which was even entitled “Interlude”) made absolutely no sense to me as it went all over Lasndale’s timeline and caused me to forget completely what had been going on before the “interlude.” This isn’t exceedingly important in the grand scheme of things, I just think it’s the best example of the biography’s poor organization, which, at times, was seriously off-putting. On the other hand, it’s interesting that Currey chose to include a whole separate chapter dedicated to Lansdale’s philosophy and it really underscores Currey’s point: that Lansdale’s philosophy and his ideals were entirely overlooked by those around him, the press, and the American people in favor of a false image projected onto him by the media and such critics of the war (and America) as Graham Greene. By the end of his biography, it becomes clear that Currey’s thesis is that Lansdale was made a scapegoat by the press, the populace, and the politicians, taking heat he never deserved. Lansdale himself was simply an American patriot, wholly dedicated to his country and her ideals, with too little power and too many American political enemies to make a difference. And maybe, as his immediate senior officer put it, “he [wasn’t] enough of a son-of-a-bitch” (304).

Currey, Cecil B. Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988

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