Military history



Edward Lansdale and the Huk Rebellion, 1945–1954

THE SOBRIQUET WAS bestowed by the British novelist Graham Greene, who visited Saigon in the early 1950s and in 1955 published The Quiet American, a novel pitting a dissolute, world-weary British journalist, a Greene stand-in called Thomas Fowler, against a naïve young American named Alden Pyle who was widely believed, probably erroneously,6 to have been inspired by Lansdale. Pyle is forever talking about creating a Third Force to save Vietnam from both the Communists and the French colonialists. Fowler thinks that Pyle is “too innocent to live.” But his “ignorant and silly”7 outlook has been vindicated by history. Seen from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the Third Force—liberal democracy—has proved far more durable than either communism or colonialism. That was a lesson that Graham Greene, for all his literary genius, never grasped.

A more favorable portrait of Lansdale was penned by the lesser writers William Lederer, a U.S. Navy captain who actually knew Lansdale, and Eugene Burdick, a political science professor. Their best seller The Ugly American (1958) featured a motorcycle-riding, harmonica-playing Lansdale stand-in named Colonel Edwin B. Hillandale—or as he was better known to his staid embassy colleagues, “that crazy bastard.” Hillandale “ate his meals in little Filipino restaurants, washing down huge quantities of adobo and pancit and rice with a brand of Filipino rum which cost two pesos a pint.” He spent his weekends mingling with ordinary people in the provinces and generally “embraced everything Filipino.”8 To the authors he exemplified how American representatives in Southeast Asia should interact with the locals—but seldom did. It was an unassuming, self-effacing style that made the real-life Lansdale popular and influential from the moment he set foot in the Philippines.

He first arrived in the Philippines in 1945, pursuing, as always, an unconventional path. An ROTC cadet at UCLA, he had briefly joined the Army Reserves after leaving college without graduating in 1931. He then left the army to become a star of the San Francisco advertising industry. Among his achievements was helping a regional jeans maker, Levi Strauss, to roll out its products on the East Coast. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he went back into the army, working for military intelligence as well as the OSS and splitting his time between training new recruits and gathering intelligence. At war’s end, by then a thirty-seven-year-old major working in military intelligence, he was assigned to Manila, where he immediately began immersing himself in Philippine culture.9

He was particularly interested in the Hukbalahap movement (originally an acronym for Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon, or People’s Anti-Japanese Army, later renamed the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan, or People’s Liberation Army), a Communist group that in 1946 began to fight the newly independent government of the Philippines. Leaving behind Manila’s whirl of “slick” cocktail parties, Lansdale hopped into a jeep and drove into the rural areas, the boondocks, where he found, as he noted in his diary, that “fear starts as the sun sets each day.” Here, amid nipa huts and carabao tracks, besieged by ants and mosquitoes, either “stinking hot” from the sun or “sopping wet” from torrential rains, he spent long hours talking with “folks on both sides of this squabble.”10

In the process he developed sympathy for ordinary Huks, mostly “youngsters under twenty” who “believe in the rightness of what they’re doing” and are driven to “armed complaint” by “a bad situation, needing reform.” He even tried unsuccessfully to meet the Huk leader, Luis Taruc, whose secret headquarters was located close to the U.S. Air Force’s Clark Air Base. Lansdale almost got shot in the attempt.

Often he was alone on these expeditions. Sometimes he was accompanied by a Filipino friend; a particular favorite was a “lovely, witty” young woman named Patrocinio (Pat) Kelly, who would one day become Lansdale’s second wife.11 His first wife, Helen, was not nearly as taken by the Philippines as he was, and they grew increasingly apart, but Lansdale would wait until her death decades later before remarrying.

Although the fictional Hillandale spoke fluent Tagalog, the actual Lansdale never learned any foreign language. This did not prevent him, however, from establishing an impressive rapport with Filipinos, Vietnamese, and other foreigners.12 One of his subordinates later noted that “he had an amazing ability to communicate understanding through an interpreter.”13 It helped, of course, that most Filipinos spoke English, but he could use sign language and a few phrases to make himself understood even by primitive Negrito tribesmen who spoke only their own tongue. A colleague in Manila said, “He could make a friend of everybody except Satan.” His secret? “He was a very good listener.” A Filipino friend recalled, “He would always say things in such a nice, disarming, and charming way. He never ordered but only asked, ‘What do you think about doing it this way?’ or ‘Don’t you think this is how we should treat the problem?’ ”14

Lansdale’s soft-spoken, modest manner offered a welcome contrast to the bombastic, hectoring approach adopted by too many other Westerners in the Third World. When someone did not open up immediately, he pulled out his secret weapon—a harmonica. Music could melt social barriers even with those who were at first suspicious of this uniformed American with his crew-cut hair and brush mustache, and Lansdale always said he learned a good deal about a country from its folk songs.

THE MOST IMPORTANT friend Lansdale made in the Philippines was Ramón Magsaysay, who was just a congressman when the two met in 1950. By this time Lansdale had transferred from the army to the air force (he thought “there would be more elbow room for fresh ideas” in the new service)15 and had gone to work for the newly established CIA—a covert relationship that would last from 1950 to 1956.16 Lansdale established an immediate bond with the burly Magsaysay, who was the same age and had fought as a guerrilla against the Japanese before going into politics. Lansdale became Magsaysay’s closest confidant, for a time even his roommate. The two men saw eye to eye on how to combat the Huks—and it wasn’t the way that the Philippine security forces were going about it.

The army was attacking barrios with artillery and bombs and indiscriminately locking up and torturing suspects. “Democratic freedoms are completely smashed,” wrote one guerrilla leader; “farmers and other citizens are attacked, arrested, shot, jailed and even killed.”17 This campaign was not as brutal as the Japanese or Nazi counterinsurgent campaigns of the Second World War, but it was just as counterproductive and even less effective, because it was overseen by a government that Lansdale described as “rotten with corruption”18—one fault that the imperial Japanese and Nazi governments, for all their evils, at least managed to avoid. The Huks, who numbered 10,000 to 15,000 active fighters and had at least 100,000 active sympathizers out of a population of 20 million,19 only grew stronger under this ham-handed assault.

Magsaysay believed that the government had to win the trust of the people. So did Lansdale. He lobbied Washington to use its clout to get Magsasyay appointed secretary of national defense in 1950 to carry out this program. The new cabinet minister’s motto was “All-Out Friendship or All-Out Force.”20 In essence this was the latest iteration of the population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that could be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire’s combination of “bread and circuses” for compliant populations and crucifixion for captured rebels. The modern theory behind such an approach, which combined “attraction” and “chastisement,” was laid out by Marshal Lyautey a half century earlier and would be further developed a decade later by Robert Thompson and David Galula. These strategies had already proven successful in the Philippines against an earlier generation of rebels who had resisted the imposition of American rule, and were now being implemented at virtually the same time in Malaya. The difference is that the fighting against the Huk Rebellion, unlike that in the Philippine Insurrection or the Malayan Emergency, was not being done by a foreign force; Filipinos themselves formed the whole of the security forces. That automatically gave them a certain level of legitimacy, one of the most important assets in any battle against guerrillas or terrorists. But it also placed greater importance on improving the abysmal performance of the indigenous army. In the Philippines the faults of the locals could not be masked by foreign fighting forces.

With Lansdale’s advice, Magsaysay “practically had to reinvent the Armed Forces,” noted a Filipino writer.21 Troops “entering an inhabited area” were now told “to conduct themselves as though they were coming among friends,” and they were issued candy and chewing gum to hand out to children, while being warned that “a soldier who steals a chicken from a farmer cannot claim to be the farmer’s protector.”22 Magsaysay further burnished the army’s image by assigning military lawyers to represent poor farmers in court cases against rich absentee landlords.

To make sure that soldiers were doing as they were told, Lansdale and Magsaysay would travel together to stage snap inspections in the field, much as Templer would do in Malaya. “No commander, even in the most isolated outpost, could go to bed at night sure that he would not be awakened before dawn by an irate Secretary of National Defense,” wrote a Filipino officer who worked for Magsayay and an American officer who worked for Lansdale.23 Magsaysay also encouraged the public to send him cheap telegrams informing him “about both the good and bad things they saw government troops doing.”24

At the same time that soldiers were being turned into “goodwill ambassadors,”25 they were also being trained to become better raiders. Magsaysay doubled the size of the armed forces to 51,000 troops26 and sent well-equipped combat teams first into Manila, then into the boondocks to root out the hard-core rebels in their Luzon strongholds—“Huklandia.” In simultaneous raids in 1950 much of the Huk Politburo was rounded up in the capital, causing Luis Taruc to lament, “Disaster followed disaster.”27

Among the most effective units was Force X, whose men were disguised as Huks themselves—a technique also employed in Kenya by “pseudo-gangs” sent to ambush the Mau Mau and later in Rhodesia by the Selous Scouts fighting African insurgents.28 Other “dirty tricks” practiced by Magsaysay, with Lansdale’s guidance, included slipping the Huks booby-trapped ammunition.

As in Malaya, there was little use of artillery or airpower but extensive reliance on psychological warfare. As Templer was to do in Malaya, Lansdale and Magsaysay sent voice aircraft to overfly rebel areas and encourage surrenders by name while offering generous rewards for information that led to the capture or killing of Huks. Even the mother of the head Huk, Luis Taruc, was persuaded to make a broadcast calling for his surrender; he heard her voice “almost hourly” on the government radio.29 Those who gave up could expect lenient treatment, including in some cases the provision of free land for homesteading.

The centerpiece of the “civic action” program was free and fair balloting. Magsaysay and Lansdale knew that the Huks had benefited from public disgust over rampant vote stealing in the 1949 presidential election. To prevent a recurrence, they employed the Philippine army to safeguard the 1951 congressional election and the 1953 presidential election. The winner of the latter contest was none other than Ramón Magsaysay, who had been ably supported once again by Lansdale. After his friend defeated the corrupt incumbent, Lansdale earned a new nickname: Colonel Landslide.

The American had used his advertising expertise and the CIA’s covert funds to build up Magsaysay’s public reputation. He even came up with a campaign slogan: “Magsaysay is my guy.”30 But fundamentally the honest, modest, and hardworking defense minister won not because of public-relations tricks but because he had become, as two veterans of the anti-Huk campaign noted, “the personification” of “dedicated, aggressive leadership.”31 The “peaceful, clean” elections delivered the coup de grâce to the Huks, who conceded that people no longer saw “the immediate need of armed struggle.”32

“The Huks became,” in Lansdale’s words, “fish out of water.”33 Already isolated by geography from outside support (the waters around the Philippines were patrolled by the U.S. and Philippine navies), they were now cut off from internal support even in their central Luzon heartland. Luis Taruc had to seek refuge in mountains and swamps. In 1954, hunted and starving, he decided to follow the example of thousands of his followers and surrender.

Unfortunately the democratic reforms engineered by Magsaysay and Lansdale did not last, in part because Magsaysay did not live long enough to fully implement them—he died in an airplane crash in 1957. Thereafter Ferdinand Marcos usurped power and ruled as a dictator from 1966 to 1986, thereby providing an opening for both Communist and Muslim insurgents. After Marcos’s overthrow, democracy returned to the Philippines, although the government continued to be plagued by pervasive inefficiency and corruption. Lansdale and Magsaysay had not brought paradise to the Philippines, but they had defeated a large-scale insurgency. Along with the contemporary defeat of insurgencies in Greece and Malaya, the Philippine experience offered a template of how Communist rebels, or any others for that matter, could be bested even at the postwar height of their appeal by preventing them from receiving outside assistance, bolstering the government’s legitimacy and support, and improving the effectiveness and humanity of its security forces.

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