Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, brings solid credentials to this enterprise, having written well-received histories of guerrilla warfare and America’s “small wars.” Here he draws on a range of material, official and personal, including a stash of love letters between Lansdale and his Filipino mistress. The narrative dispenses briskly and effectively with the details of Lansdale’s early life, including his college years at U.C.L.A. and his successful entry into the advertising industry, where he learned strategies of psychological manipulation that he later applied as a covert warrior in Southeast Asia. A stint as an intelligence officer under “Wild Bill” Donovan in the wartime Office of Strategic Services convinced him that this work should be his life’s career.
What emerges is a picture of a man who from an early point possessed an unusual ability to relate to other people, a stereotypically American can-do optimism, an impatience with bureaucracy and a fascination with psychological warfare. All these qualities were on display in Lansdale’s first major postwar posting, in the newly independent Philippines, where on behalf of the C.I.A. he helped suppress the left-wing Hukbalahap insurgency in the early 1950s.
But it was in Vietnam that Lansdale would achieve his greatest renown — and frustration. Neil Sheehan’s assertion, in “A Bright Shining Lie,” that “South Vietnam, it can truly be said, was the creation of Edward Lansdale,” is surely an exaggeration, but it speaks to Lansdale’s fundamental importance. Beginning in mid-1954 he ran a covert intelligence operation that sent sabotage teams to North Vietnam and helped facilitate the flow of refugees from north to south.
More consequentially, Lansdale was from the start the closest American adviser to Ngo Dinh Diem, his car often parked outside the Saigon leader’s residence deep into the night. When in early 1955 the regime faced violent challenges to its rule from sects within South Vietnam, Lansdale persuaded the Eisenhower administration to stand firm with Diem, a critical move that in all likelihood preserved Diem’s hold on power.
This proved to be the high point of Lansdale’s influence in Saigon — and, for that matter, Washington. Diem grew tired of the American upbraiding him for undemocratic moves like closing opposition newspapers. “Do you think that’s the right thing for ‘the father of his…