Edward Lansdale was born in Detroit, Michigan, on 6th February, 1908. During the Second World War Lansdale was a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an organization that was given the responsible for espionage and for helping the resistance movement in Europe.
According to Sterling Seagrave, Lansdale was sent by General Charles Willoughby to the Philippines after the war. Lansdale "joined the torture sessions of Major Kojima Kashii "as an observer and participant". As Seagrave explains: "Since Yamashita had arrived from Manchuria in October 1944 to take over the defense of the Philippines, Kojima had driven him everywhere."
In charge of Kojima’s torture was an intelligence officer named Severino Garcia Diaz Santa Romana (Santy). He wanted Major Kojima to reveal each place to which he had taken General Tomoyuki Yamashita, where bullion and other treasure were hidden." Ray Cline argues that between 1945 and 1947 the gold bullion recovered by Santy and Lansdale was moved by ship to 176 accounts at banks in 42 countries. Robert Anderson and CIA agent Paul Helliwell set up these black gold accounts "providing money for political action funds throughout the noncommunist world."
Promoted to the rank of major Lansdale was appointed Chief of the Intelligence Division in the Philippines. His main task was to rebuild the country's security services.
On his return to the United States in 1948 Lansdale became a lecturer at the Strategic Intelligence School in Colorado. However, in 1950, Elpidio Quirino, the president of the Philippines, requested Lansdale's help in his fight against the communist insurrection taking place in his country.
According to Sterling Seagrave Lansdale "was in and out of Tokyo on secret missions with a hand-picked team of Filipino assassins, assassinating leftists, liberals and progressives." CIA Director William Colby later commented: "Lansdale helped and perhaps created the best president the Philippines ever had...turned American policy away from support of French colonial rule in Vietnam to support of a non-Communist nationalist leader...he preached for Americans to support those willing to fight for themselves... He was one of the greatest spies in history... the stuff of legends."
In 1953 Lansdale was sent to Vietnam to advise the French in their struggle with the Vietminh. Dulles told President Dwight Eisenhower that he was sending one of his “best men”. The following year Lansdale and a team of twelve intelligence agents were sent to Saigon. The plan was to mount a propaganda campaign to persuade the Vietnamese people in the south not to vote for the communists in the forthcoming elections.
In the months that followed they distributed targeted documents that claimed the Vietminh and Chinese communists had entered South Vietnam and were killing innocent civilians. The Ho Chi Minh government was also accused of slaying thousands of political opponents in North Vietnam.
Colonel Lansdale also recruited mercenaries from the Philippines to carry out acts of sabotage in North Vietnam. This was unsuccessful and most of the mercenaries were arrested and put on trial in Hanoi. Finally, Lansdale set about training the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) in modem fighting methods. For it was coming clear that it was only a matter of time before the communists would resort to open warfare.
In 1955 Graham Greene published The Quiet American. The novel is set in Vietnam and involves the relationship between Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle. Fowler is a veteran British journalist in his fifties, who has been covering the war in Vietnam for over two years. Pyle, the “Quiet American” of the title, is officially an aid worker, but is really employed by the CIA. It is believed that the Pyle character is partly based on that of Edward Lansdale.
Greene had worked for the British Secret Service during the Second World War. Although a fairly successful novelist at the time, Greene was also employed by The Times and Le Figaro as a journalist. Between 1951 to 1954 spent a long period of time in Saigon. In 1953 Lansdale became a CIA advisor on special counter-guerrilla operations to French forces against the Viet Minh.
While it is true that Graham Greene admitted that he never had the "misfortune to meet" Lansdale, the two men did know a lot about each other. Lansdale recalls that in 1954 he had dinner with Peg and Tilman Durdin at the Continental Hotel in Saigon. Greene was also there having a meal with several French officers. Lansdale claims that after he and the Durdins were leaving, Greene said something in French to his companions and the men began booing him.
Lansdale definitely thought that Pyle was based on him. He told Cecil B. Currey on 15th February, 1984: "Pyle was close to Trinh Minh Thé, the guerrilla leader, and also had a dog that went with him everywhere - and I was the only American close to Trinh Minh Thé and my poodle Pierre went everything with me."
In the book Pyle is sent to Vietnam by his government, ostensibly as a member of the American Economic Mission, but that assignment was only a cover for his real role as a CIA agent. According to one critic "Pyle was the embodiment of well-meaning American-style politics, and he blundered through the intrigue, treachery, and confusion of Vietnamese politics, leaving a trail of blood and suffering behind him." As Fowler points out in the novel, Pyle was attempting to "win the East for Democracy". However, according to Fowler, what the people of Vietnam really wanted was "enough rice" to eat. What is more: "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
When the book was published in the United States in 1956 it was condemned as anti-American. Pyle (Lansdale) is portrayed as someone whose belief in the justice of American foreign policy allows him to ignore the appalling consequences of his actions. It was criticized by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers.
The director, producer and screenwriter, Joseph L. Mankiewicz was chosen to make the film of The Quiet American. He visited Saigon in 1956 and was introduced to Edward Lansdale, whose cover was working at the International Rescue Committee’s office. The most controversial scene in the book is the bombing of a Saigon square in 1952 by a Vietnamese associate of Lansdale’s, General Trinh Minh Thé. In the novel, Greene suggests that Pyle/Lansdale, was behind the bombing. Lansdale suggested to Mankiewicz that the film should show that the bombing was “actually having been a Communist action”.
When he returned home Mankiewicz wrote to John O’Daniel, the chairman of the American Friends of Vietnam that he intended to completely change the anti-American attitude of Greene’s book. This included the casting of Second World War hero, Audie Murphy, as Alden Pyle.
In a letter that Edward Lansdale wrote to Ngo Dinh Diem he praised Mankiewicz’s treatment of the story as “an excellent change from Mr. Greene’s novel of despair” and “that it will help win more friends for you and Vietnam in many places in the world where it is shown."
As Hugh Wilford pointed out: “It was a brilliantly devious maneuver of postmodern literary complexity: by helping to rewrite a story featuring a character reputedly based on himself, Lansdale had transformed an anti-American tract into a cinematic apology for U.S. policy - and his own actions-in Vietnam.”
Graham Greene was furious with Mankiewicz’s treatment ofhis novel. "Far was it from my mind, when I wrote The Quiet American that the book would become a source of spiritual profit to one of the most corrupt governments in Southeast Asia."
In October, 1955, the South Vietnamese people were asked to choose between Bo Dai, the former Emperor of Vietnam, and Ngo Dinh Diem for the leadership of the country. Lansdale suggested that Diem should provide two ballot papers, red for Diem and green for Bao Dai. Lansdale hoped that the Vietnamese belief that red signified good luck whilst green indicated bad fortune, would help influence the result.
When the voters arrived at the polling stations they found Diem's supporters in attendance. One voter complained afterwards: "They told us to put the red ballot into envelopes and to throw the green ones into the wastebasket. A few people, faithful to Bao Dai, disobeyed. As soon as they left, the agents went after them, and roughed them up... They beat one of my relatives to pulp."
After the election Ngo Dinh Diem informed his American advisers that he had achieved 98.2 per cent of the vote. Lansdale warned him that these figures would not be believed and suggested that he published a figure of around 70 per cent. Diem refused and as the Americans predicted, the election undermined his authority.
Another task of Lansdale and his team was to promote the success of the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Figures were produced that indicated that South Vietnam was undergoing an economic miracle. With the employment of $250 millions of aid per year from the United States and the clever manipulating of statistics, it was reported that economic production had increased dramatically.
Lansdale left Vietnam in 1957 and officially went to work for the Secretary of Defence in Washington. However, he was also employed as a senior officer in the Central Intelligence Agency. Posts held included: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations (1957-59), Staff Member of the President's Committee on Military Assistance (1959-61).
In March 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower of the United States approved a CIA plan to overthrow Fidel Castro. The plan involved a budget of $13 million to train "a paramilitary force outside Cuba for guerrilla action."
When President John F. Kennedy took office, Lansdale was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Defence for Special Operations. He argued that the CIA should work closely with exiles in Cuba, particularly those with middle-class professions, who had opposed Fulgencio Batista and had then become disillusioned with Fidel Castro because of his betrayal of the democratic process. Lansdale was also opposed to the Bay of Pigs operation because he knew that it would not trigger a popular uprising against Castro. Kennedy respected the advice of Lansdale and selected him to become project leader of Operation Mongoose.
Over 400 CIA officers were employed full-time on this project. Sidney Gottlieb of the CIA Technical Services Division was asked to come up with proposals that would undermine Castro's popularity with the Cuban people. Plans included a scheme to spray a television studio in which he was about to appear with an hallucinogenic drug and contaminating his shoes with thallium which they believed would cause the hair in his beard to fall out.
These schemes were rejected and instead Richard Bissell decided to arrange the assassination of Fidel Castro. In September 1960, Bissell and Allen W. Dulles, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initiated talks with two leading figures of the Mafia, Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Later, other crime bosses such as Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky became involved in this plot against Castro.
Robert Maheu, a veteran of CIA counter-espionage activities, was instructed to offer the Mafia $150,000 to kill Fidel Castro. The advantage of employing the Mafia for this work is that it provided CIA with a credible cover story. The Mafia were known to be angry with Castro for closing down their profitable brothels and casinos in Cuba. If the assassins were killed or captured the media would accept that the Mafia were working on their own.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had to be brought into this plan as part of the deal involved protection against investigations against the Mafia in the United States. Castro was later to complain that there were twenty ClA-sponsered attempts on his life. Eventually Johnny Roselli and his friends became convinced that the Cuban revolution could not be reversed by simply removing its leader. However, they continued to play along with this CIA plot in order to prevent them being prosecuted for criminal offences committed in the United States.
Lansdale later claimed that John F. Kennedy asked him to draft a contingency plan to overthrow Fidel Castro. But he added that the idea had not been viable because it depended on recruiting Cuban exiles to generate an uprising in Cuba, something that he said was impossible.
In 1963 Kennedy asked Lansdale to concentrate on the situation in Vietnam. However, it was not long before Lansdale was in conflict with General Maxwell Taylor, who was the military representative to the president. Taylor took the view that the war could be won by military power. He argued in the summer of 1963 that 40,000 US troops could clean up the Vietminh threat in Vietnam and another 120,000 would be sufficient to cope with any possible North Vietnamese or Chinese intervention.
Lansdale disagreed with this viewpoint. He had spent years studying the way Mao Zedong had taken power in China. He often quoted Mao of telling his guerrillas: "Buy and sell fairly. Return everything borrowed. Indemnify everything damaged. Do not bathe in view of women. Do not rob personal belongings of captives." The purpose of such rules, according to Mao, was to create a good relationship between the army and its people. This was a strategy that had been adopted by the National Liberation Front. Lansdale believed that the US Army should adopt a similar approach. As Cecil B. Currey, the author of Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American pointed out: "Lansdale was a dedicated anticommunist, conservative in his thoughts. Many people of like persuasion were neither as willing to study their enemy nor as open to adopting communist ideas to use a countervailing force. If for no other reason, the fact makes Lansdale stand out in bold relief to the majority of fellow military men who struggled on behalf of America in those intense years of the cold war."
Lansdale also argued against the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem. He told Robert McNamara that: "There's a constitution in place… Please don't destroy that when you're trying to change the government. Remember there's a vice president (Nguyen Ngoc Tho) who's been elected and is now holding office. If anything happens to the president, he should replace him. Try to keep something sustained."
It was these views that got him removed from office. The pressure to remove Lansdale came from General Curtis LeMay and General Victor Krulak and other senior members of the military. As a result it was decided to abolish his post as assistant to the secretary of defence. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for counter-insurgency work and became consultant to the the Food for Peace programme.
Lansdale continued to argue against Lyndon Johnson's decision to try and use military power to win the Vietnam War. When General William Westmoreland argued that: "We're going to out-guerrilla the guerrilla and out-ambush the ambush… because we're smarter, we have greater mobility and fire-power, we have more endurance and more to fight for… And we've got more guts." Lansdale replied: "All actions in the war should be devised to attract and then make firm the allegiance of the people." He added "we label our fight as helping the Vietnamese maintain their freedom" but when "we bomb their villages, with horrendous collateral damage in terms of both civilian property and lives… it might well provoke a man of good will to ask, just what freedom of what Vietnamese are we helping to maintain?"
Lansdale quoted Robert Taber (The War of the Flea): "There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert. Where these means cannot, for whatever reason, be used, the war is lost." Lansdale thought this was the situation in Vietnam and wrote to a friend that if the solution was to "kill every last person in the enemy ranks" then he was "not only morally opposed" to this strategy but knew it was "humanly impossible".
Lansdale added "No idea can be bombed or beaten to death. Military action alone is never enough." He pointed out that since 1945 the Vietminh had been willing to fight against the strength of both France and the United States in order to ensure success of their own. "Without a better idea, rebels will eventually win, for ideas are defeated only by better ideas."
Lansdale was anti-communist because he really believed in democracy. Lansdale had been arguing since 1956 that the best way of dealing with the National Liberation Front was to introduce free elections that included the rights of Chams, Khmers, Montagnards and other minorities to participate in voting. Lansdale said that he went into Vietnam as Tom Paine would have done. He was found of quoting Paine as saying: "Where liberty dwells not, there is my country."
He also distanced himself from the Freedom Studies Center of the Institute for American Strategy when he discovered it was being run by the John Birch Society. He told a friend: "I refused to have anything more to do with it… That isn't what our country is all about." Lansdale considered himself a "conservative moderate" who was tolerant of all minorities.
Lansdale continued to advocate a non-military solution to Vietnam and in 1965, under orders from President Lyndon B. Johnson, the new US ambassador in Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, put Lansdale in charge of the "pacification program" in the country. As Newsweek reported: " Lansdale is expected to push hard for a greater effort on the political and economic fronts of the war, while opposing the recent trend bombing and the burning of villages."
One of those who served under him in this job was Daniel Ellsberg. He liked Lansdale because of his commitment to democracy. Ellsberg also agreed with Lansdale that the pacification program should be run by the Vietnamese. He argued that unless it was a Vietnam project it would never work. Lansdale knew that there was a deep xenophobia among Vietnamese. However, as he pointed out, he believed "Lyndon Johnson would have been just as xenophobic if Canadians or British or the French moved in force into the United States and took charge of his dreams for a great Society, told him what to do, and spread out by thousands throughout the nation to see that it got done."
In February 1966 Lansdale was removed from his position in control of the pacification program. However, instead of giving the job to a Vietnamese, William Porter, was given the post. Lansdale was now appointed as a senior liaison officer, with no specific responsibilities.
Unlike most Americans in Vietnam, Lansdale believed it was essential for Vietnamese leaders to claim credit for any changes and reforms. His attitude aroused antagonism in the hearts of many within the U.S. bureaucracy who didn't like the idea of allowing others to receive credit for successful programs – although they did not object to blaming Vietnamese leaders for projects that failed.
Most importantly, Lansdale thought that the military should be careful to avoid causing civilian casualties. As his biographer, Cecil B. Currey pointed out: " Lansdale was primarily concerned about the welfare of people. Such a stance made him anathema to those more concerned about search and destroy missions, agent orange, free fire zones, harassing and interdicting fires, and body counts."
According to Lansdale "we lost the war at the Tet offensive". The reason for this was that after this defeat American commanders lost the ability to discriminate between friend and foe. All Vietnamese were now "gooks". Lansdale complained that commanders resorted more and more on artillery barrages that killed thousands of civilians. He told a friend that: "I don't believe this is a government that can win the hearts and minds of the people." Lansdale resigned and returned to the United States in June 1968.
Lansdale retired in 1968 and his book, The Midst of Wars, was published in 1972. Lansdale argued that the United States could still retain control of third-world nations by exporting ''the American way'' through a blend of economic aid and efforts at ''winning the hearts and the minds of the people.''