The life of Edward G. Lansdale…
When Graham Greene wrote his classic novel The Quiet American, the question of which real life American did Greene base his character, Alden Pyle on arose much debate. For many it had to be Edward G. Lansdale, an Air Force officer whose theories on counterinsurgent warfare won him many admirers. This, despite Greene’s official biographer’s denial, has long proven the most common theory but according to Norman Sherry, Green wrote his book two years before Lansdale entered Vietnam in 1954. Despite that, Lansdale and Greene did meet, at the famous Continental Palace hotel in Vietnam in 1954, a somewhat frosty meeting which left Lansdale feeling Greene was ‘anti-American’
Born in 1908 he served in the Second World War with the Office of Strategic Services before gaining his commission as a lieutenant in the US Army where he worked in the Intelligence Division in which he eventually became in command of. Lansdale’s association with Asia began in the Philippines in the late 1940s when he was instrumental in organising operations and advising the newly elected leader Ramon Magsaysay against the Communist rebels. His close association and friendship with Magsaysay allowed him to develop new methods of black arts operations which would later see him rise to the top of the CIA in the region.
It was during this period in the Philippines which Lansdale formulated his initial theories on defeating communist insurgents in Asia. Whilst military action was a part of it, he believed in using political, economic and social aspects to maximize the effect and play the Communists at their own game of ‘hearts and minds’. Lansdale was some way ahead of his colleagues in other divisions of the intelligence community and quickly won admiration and approval from the military hierarchy.
By 1953 he was part of the American mission to Indo-China under the command of General John W. O’Daniel where he helped advise French forces on counter-guerrilla operations against the Viet Minh. Stationed in Saigon from 1954 until 1957 he became head of the Saigon Military Mission and organised Special Forces to carry out secret missions against the North Vietnamese Army whilst training the South Vietnamese soldiers. He mentored one of the period’s leading spies, Pham Xuãn Án who posed as a reporter for Time magazine whilst simultaneously working for the North Vietnamese. His undercover operations won him many plaudits and shortly before pulling out of Hanoi in 1954 he led a team of men in contaminating the oil supply of the city’s bus company which gradually wrecked the engines and caused havoc for the authorities.
Returning to Washington in 1957 he began work for the Defence Department where he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Special Operations. His role in the most controversial of the CIA’s history is in no doubt as he was commandeered to organise the overthrow the Cuban government which included plans to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Despite retiring from the Air Force in 1963 he returned to Saigon in 1965. For the next three years he worked as Minister for the US Embassy but made no efforts to hide his frustration at being marginalised and given a role with no clear directives. For many this was seen as yet another mistake by the US Army in Vietnam. Lansdale ‘got’ Vietnam and its unique and unconventional approach to warfare long before most others. He recognised the need for a ‘black arts’ approach which the NVA had operated so successfully against the French in the 50s. His career as Chief of the CIA in the area was most noted for his brilliance in developing psychological warfare tactics which was vital in securing the return as Prime Minister of the exiled Ngo Dinh Diem and the birth of the South Vietnamese anti-communist government.
Whilst he never quite made it in time to influence Greene’s writing there can be no doubt as to the importance of his role in the CIA during the French and American occupations of Vietnam and the intellectual contribution he made before the Americans resorted to carpet bombing the problem. Unlike Greene’s character, Lansdale was not inexperienced or idealistic. Like Pyle he did believe in a ‘third way’ but did so with vigour and ruthlessness. Whilst Greene spent much of the 1970s insisting he wasn’t the inspiration, Lansdale had retired and wrote his memoir in 1972, the same year a house fire destroyed most of his private papers.
Lansdale died of heart disease in 1987.