Military history



Lansdale and Diem, 1954–1956

HAVING ENGINEERED THE defeat of the Huks, Lansdale found himself in demand in Washington as a counterinsurgency troubleshooter. His next assignment was to take him to Saigon, where his path would cross Graham Greene’s. He arrived on June 1, 1954, less than a month after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which signaled the end of French rule. Under the Geneva Accords a new government under the playboy-emperor Bao Dai was established in South Vietnam while the Communists took over the north. Bao Dai chose as his prime minister the veteran nationalist politician Ngo Dinh Diem, a fervent Catholic who had opposed both the French and the Communists. Few thought that Diem could last long. He was hard-pressed not only by the Communists but also by various sects with their own armies. These ranged from the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religions, which were Buddhist off-shoots (the Cao Dai worshipped Jesus, Buddha, and Victor Hugo), to the outright gangsters of the Binh Xuyen who ran the Saigon underworld. Diem’s formidable challenge was to build a new nation while under pressure from all sides—and without being able to count on the loyalty of his French-trained armed forces, whose chief of staff was plotting a coup against him.

Colonel Lansdale’s job as head of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission was to help “Free Viet-Nam” survive.34 Or as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put it, “Do what you did in the Philippines.”35 To assist him he had a dozen operatives who shared, an American diplomat wrote, “a devotion to Lansdale and a commitment to hard, sometimes dangerous, work.”36 They were separate from the regular CIA station, operating out of a four-room bungalow on Rue Miche that doubled as Lansdale’s living quarters. He always kept a good supply of hand grenades nearby in case of attack.

As in the Philippines, Lansdale spent long, wearying hours traveling around the country and cultivating its leaders. He was remarkably successful in spite of his inability to speak French or Vietnamese. Lansdale and Diem had to communicate through a translator but nevertheless “fell into the habit of meeting nearly every day” for hours at a time in the presidential palace over endless cigarettes and cups of tea. “Our association gradually developed into a friendship of considerable depth, trust, and candor,” Lansdale wrote, although he later added that it wasn’t “a blind friendship,” because Diem “put other Vietnamese friends of mine in jail or exiled them.”37 The American operative tried to teach the South Vietnamese politician about the principles of the American Revolution and encouraged this “roly-poly figure dressed in a white sharkskin double-breasted suit”38 to emulate George Washington’s example and become the “papa” of his country.

In his unobtrusive way, Lansdale shared with his new friend his counterinsurgency philosophy, what some would later call “Lansdalism.”39 This was his own, uniquely American twist on the similar philosophies being espoused by Robert Thompson of Britain, David Galula of France, and other contemporary counterinsurgency strategists, although, unlike them, Lansdale would never publish a theoretical work laying out his teachings. (The only book he ever wrote was a memoir published in 1972.) The essence of “Lansdalism” was implementing the “basic political ideas” set out in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, which he believed “form an ideology of dynamic universality, as alive today as when conceived, and close to the hearts of men of good will throughout the world.” He was convinced that “our ideology” was “far more appealing in Asia than anything the Communists can put forward.” This sounded naïve to cynics like Graham Greene, but Lansdale was by no means a proponent of “fuzzy ‘do-good-ism.’ ” Nor was he averse to tough military action—“a fighting man,” he said, “must ever be ready for a fight.” Like Galula and Thompson, however, he realized that it wasn’t enough to kill guerrillas. To give the “Communists a memorable licking,” it was necessary to practice “civic action” that would form “a bond of brotherhood between soldiers and civilians.” “If you win the people over to your side,” he told an audience of Green Berets, “the Communist guerrillas have no place to hide. With no place to hide, you can find them. Then, as military men, fix them . . . finish them!”40

UNDER THE GENEVA Accords, Communist sympathizers were allowed to move to the north, while anti-Communists could go to the south. Overcoming resistance from his embassy superiors, Lansdale organized a massive effort using American military ships and aircraft to transfer refugees to the south. Knowing of the Vietnamese respect for soothsayers, he arranged for the publication of a popular almanac in which notable astrologers predicted good fortune for the south and a “dark future” for the north.41 To discourage too many southerners from going north, he distributed a pamphlet allegedly from the Vietminh warning those who left to pack plenty of cold clothing because it would be useful when they went to join other “volunteers” in building railroads in China.42 It was hardly all, or even mainly, Lansdale’s doing, but nearly a million people went south while fewer than a hundred thousand moved north.

Lansdale’s attempts to infiltrate anti-Communist guerrillas into the north, in an echo of the World War II operations of the SOE and OSS, proved less successful. His men succeeded in sabotaging the oil supply of Hanoi’s buses, but that was the very limited extent of their success. Covert action was hard to pull off in an indigenous dictatorship. In World War II the Allies enjoyed limited success with sabotage operations in occupied lands where the Germans and Japanese were at an intelligence disadvantage. The Allies had no such success in the German and Japanese homelands, and neither did Lansdale in North Vietnam.43

He had better luck extending the reach of Saigon’s government across South Vietnam in an example of what would now be called “nation building”—an important part of any successful counterinsurgency effort because, to blunt the appeal of a rebel force, it is necessary to establish governmental institutions that can safeguard the populace and respond to its concerns. Lansdale’s instruments of civic action included a group of volunteer Filipino doctors and nurses whom he brought over, supported by both CIA and private donations, as part of a nongovernmental organization called Operation Brotherhood to offer free medical care to Vietnamese peasants.44 He also encouraged Vietnamese bureaucrats to get out of the capital, shed their French suits for peasant-style black pajamas, and “foster self-rule, self-development, and self-defense” in the countryside.45

In many parts of the south, the only representatives of the new regime were soldiers. The Communists had warned that these “corrupt French puppets” would rape the people.46 To counter such fears, Lansdale’s operatives printed a code of conduct modeled on the one Mao Zedong had promulgated. Its theme: “Every soldier a civic action agent.”47 Lansdale knew that civilians’ willingness to cooperate “sagged whenever military vehicles careered wildly through village roads, scattering inhabitants, chickens, and pigs in their path.” So he made sure troops “were lectured on the courtesy of the road,” and a “good driver contest was held, with prizes and medals for the most courteous driver in each unit.”48

Once a province was pacified, Lansdale encouraged Diem to travel there to establish a personal connection with the people. When he did, the prime minister was often mobbed by “highly enthusiastic” crowds.49 An indigenous leader such as Diem could generate far more popular support than even a relatively popular foreign counterinsurgent such as Gerald Templer, and his popularity was an invaluable, if short-lived, asset for his government.

THIS WAS AN era when new states were emerging around the world. The United Nations had been formed by just 51 nations in 1945. By 1970, following a wave of decolonization, there were 127 members and counting.50 The process of state formation was seldom smooth and easy. It certainly was not in South Vietnam, where Diem was having a hard time establishing control not only of the countryside but even of his own capital. The sects—the Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, and Binh Xuyen—had formed a “united front” with Emperor Bao Dai’s support to overthrow him. Together, they had nearly 40,000 fighters, and they were concentrated around Saigon, while Diem’s army, 150,000 strong, was of doubtful reliability and dispersed around the country.51 On March 29, 1955, and then again on April 28, the Binh Xuyen briefly lobbed mortar rounds at the presidential palace. The rebels were covertly assisted by the French, who still maintained 94,000 troops in the south and who opposed Diem because he wanted to end their dominance. Junior French officers were even caught trying to kill Lansdale and other prominent américains who were helping Diem.52 The French “hate our guts and want to see us fail where they failed also,” Lansdale wrote.53

Lansdale urged Diem to confront the “united front” in order to solidify his own rule. He helped the president by funneling CIA funds to buy off some sect leaders.54 The U.S. ambassador, retired general J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, had a different view. He had “grave doubts” about Diem and flew to Washington to persuade his old friend President Eisenhower to dump the prime minister.55 Lansdale was not afraid to buck his boss on this issue—or any other. In their very first “country team” meeting, the ambassador ruled Lansdale out of order for questioning his priorities. Didn’t Lansdale know that he was the president’s personal representative? Lansdale replied, “I guess there’s nobody here as the personal representative of the people of the United States. The American people would want us to discuss these priorities. So I hereby appoint myself as their representative—and we’re walking out on you.” And out he walked.56

Now, when he heard that Lightning Joe was trying to strike down Diem, whom he considered “a great patriot” and “probably the best of all the nationalists,” Lansdale furiously typed a lengthy cable to Allen Dulles warning that “any successor government to Diem’s acceptable to the French would be unable to carry out the reforms essential to deny Vietnam to the Communists.”57 A few years later he predicted that Diem’s successors would be “highly selfish and mediocre people [who] would be squabbling for power among themselves as the Communists took over.”58 It was a prescient prediction in light of the “political and security vacuum”59 that was to envelop South Vietnam after Diem was overthrown and killed in 1963 with American connivance. Diem’s overthrow was later to be seen by CIA Director William Colby, among others, as “America’s primary (and perhaps worst) error in Vietnam.”60

In 1955 Diem survived in no small part because Lansdale helped persuade the Eisenhower administration to stand behind him. Before long Diem’s army had routed the sects—an outcome predicted by Lansdale, who roamed Saigon to see for himself “the savagery of the street fighting,”61 but doubted by desk-bound French and American officials who thought “it was impossible for Diem to win by force.”62

Lansdale encouraged Diem to follow this military success by holding a national referendum to determine whether he or Bao Dai should be head of state. Despite Lansdale’s warnings to keep the election fair, Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu couldn’t resist committing fraud to ensure that his brother won 98.2 percent of the vote. In spite of that “totally unbelievable” margin, there is little doubt that Diem was genuinely popular; one of Lansdale’s team members believed he would have won 80 percent in a fair vote.63

By the time Lansdale left Saigon at the end of 1956, South Vietnam had defied the Cassandras to become a functioning state. Neil Sheehan was later to write with flattering exaggeration, “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale.”64

The question was whether his creation would be able to survive a growing Communist insurgency. By 1957 cadres were beginning a campaign of terror targeting the most honest and effective local officials, whom they denounced as the “spies, bandits and hirelings of the U.S. imperialists.”65The insurgents were no longer called the Vietminh. Now they were known as the Vietcong (Vietnamese Communists).66

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