Donald Trump’s presidency has left foreign-policy thinking in disarray. His scorched-earth campaign in the State Department continues, but intellectuals who once guided US affairs are already planning reconstruction efforts. In the minds of analyst-activists like Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow and now Washington Post columnist Max Boot, this hiatus from politics as usual provides an opportunity to reflect and to hone an agenda to restore constructive diplomacy.
Looking back on US war-making in Iraq and Afghanistan (which Boot supported), Boot wishes for an alternative history. If only the United States had been able to appoint “ambassadors and commanders” who could have established “rapport” and won the “trust” of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq and Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, events would have turned out differently, he claims. The problem, Boot argues, was not American foreign policy goals but the racial mind-sets of officials installed to pursue them. Boot’s new book, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, instructs America to purify its soul of bigotry.
Boot, a lifelong conservative, admitted earlier this year that he had always been suspicious of claims that racism defined American life.1 But Trump’s divisive first year in office, plus the unquestionable evidence of racially unjust policing, made white racism undeniable. Taking a surprising cue from black activists, Boot envisions applying the results of social justice struggles at home to US policy abroad. His effort, however, would be unrecognizable to those who inspired him. To promote antiracism, he has penned an admiring biography of the Cold War intelligence operative and counterinsurgency expert Edward G. Lansdale.
In a moment of profound confusion about the US mission abroad, it must be a balm to study a figure who never questioned the necessity of confronting an implacable foe all across the globe. Lansdale was committed to winning the Cold War in rural Southeast Asia. His flinty resolve flowed from a clear source: a mind uncrowded by derogatory ideas. Boot insists that Lansdale was “utterly devoid of condescension and racism” about the people of the Philippines and Vietnam, where his portfolio between 1945 and 1968 included diplomacy, espionage, and nation building. US officials vying for legitimacy abroad should “learn,” “like,” and “listen,” as Lansdale did. That is Boot’s prescription.
Before Lansdale could transform the Philippines into a foreign showpiece of the American Century, it was the showpiece of the “white man’s burden.” Poet Rudyard Kipling devised this phrase at a turning point in the history of overseas empire—when the United States joined the fray. The burden was to create people who possessed the capacity for self-governance. Deficiencies in this capacity provided the alibi for imperialists’ domination of the colonized. Not only would the vertiginous inequalities and brutal violence of imperialism be justified by white racism. They also proved its claims.
A few decades later, the global fight against fascism invalidated this way of thinking. And communists around the globe would never let the US government forget that it had so recently subscribed to such a notion. A coterie of US elected officials, liberal intellectuals, jurists, diplomats, and security experts sketched a new ideology to take the place of the white man’s burden.
US officials vying for legitimacy abroad should “learn,” “like,” and “listen,” as Lansdale did. That is Boot’s prescription.
The accommodation that defined the American Century was a semiofficial antiracism. As scholars such as Mary Dudziak and Jodi Melamed have shown, racial progress at home, including integration of the military and Foreign Service, became a bulwark against the communists’ critiques. The Carnegie Corporation’s 1944 opus, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, argued that by “saving itself” from its own racial inequalities, the United States could become “the Savior of the world,” a beacon of freedom across the globe.
For the United States to save itself in this way, it needed a strategy. Leading policy makers, including Secretaries of State Acheson and Dulles and Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, set out to purge the corrupted thinking that created the contradiction of bigotry and hatred in a country dedicated to equality. Existing global inequalities might progressively be minimized, thanks to a change of heart. American sentiment and policy would now match the nation’s original ideals.
With this transformed American directive, newly independent countries should feel no compunction about aligning with the United States and the global capitalist system it was attempting to steward. Any assistance Washington offered, and any material rewards it derived in return, could no longer be justified as beneficence based on American inherent racial superiority. Rather, it was precisely the eradication of the moral defect of prejudice among US citizens that would validate their global leadership. Addressed as much to domestic as foreign audiences, this semiofficial form of antiracism might best be called racial liberalism.
How could the United States assure that former colonies would accept this revision of the national attitude, particularly without much measurable change? That was where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the likes of Ed Lansdale, came in. He started out in the Pacific Rim, supposedly working for the US Army though he was really with the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA. He then joined the new Air Force and claimed throughout his life that it was his employer. But by the end of 1949, he was a CIA man. Lansdale shouldered two tasks for “the agency” in the Philippines: to stop a guerrilla insurgency commonly referred to as the Hukbalahap and to help elect a leader who would be resolute against communism and favorable to the United States. He succeeded in both, making him a legendary Cold War figure. For decades afterward, he would try to replicate these successes. He never did.
Boot has written extensively about counterinsurgency, observing how savage “brushfire wars,” as they were once called, can get. In this book, however, he tiptoes around the savagery. Lansdale’s reputation has rested on the way he dealt with counterinsurgency, merging psychological warfare, community development, and sharp violence. He coined the term “civic action,” the development assistance militaries provided, a crucial adjunct to counterinsurgency’s violence. And one of his acolytes invented the term “counterinsurgency” itself. Although Lansdale often operated covertly and cultivated the air of a magician, beating communist insurgency relied on slow, methodical, public work. The idea was to incentivize populations to accept a carrot by ensuring they knew how brutal the stick would be.
Boot claims Lansdale actually disliked violence and likely never pulled a trigger. Lansdale was intrepid, willing to roll up his sleeves and get his boots muddy. But save for a few adventures—during which a translator always accompanied him because he never learned a foreign language—Lansdale’s finest work occurred either over drinks in the palace or embassy, or behind a typewriter.
The Road Not Taken focuses on Lansdale the diplomat, the nation-building fixer. In this realm, the self-mythologizing Lansdale was a genius, Boot believes, adopting Henry Kissinger’s 1965 assessment: “He is an artist in dealing with Asians. He is patient, inspirational, imaginative. He has assembled an extraordinary group of individualists—each a remarkable personality in his own right. Anybody who could first collect such a group and then retain its loyalty over two decades is not an ordinary person.” The group Lansdale assembled included American and Philippine intelligence, security, and development experts.
Guided by a Jeffersonian ethos, this band of cold warriors shepherded nation-building projects. First came the Philippines, led by President Ramon Magsaysay. Second was South Vietnam, led by President Ngo Dinh Diem. These projects exemplified pro-democracy, pro–United States, anticommunist, counterinsurgent political modernization during the Cold War—until, that is, they didn’t.
These are tragic tales. Magsaysay died in a plane crash in March 1957. Democracy in the Philippines withered, though the insurgency did not succeed. Diem died in a US-backed coup coordinated by one of Lansdale’s on-again/off-again CIA buddies, Lou Conein, in November 1963. The assassination came after the Kennedy administration decided its aid to Diem had created an authoritarian monster who was not really helping the anticommunist cause. War ensued anyway. Each leader experienced triumph when listening to Lansdale, Boot argues, and failure when disregarding him. The argument is more plausible for Magsaysay than Diem, who tried Lansdale-style counterinsurgency methods without success.
Lansdale met Magsaysay in 1950. He was a congressman, soon to become a high-placed defense official, rough-hewn but principled. Lansdale, Boot argues, transformed him into a national hero. It wasn’t easy, and stories still circulate about the two coming to blows. Magsaysay’s slogan, likely crafted by Lansdale, was “all-out force or all-out friendship.” It might also have described their relationship.
It was precisely the eradication of the moral defect of prejudice among U.S. citizens that would validate their global leadership.
Magsaysay, Lansdale believed, could win the country’s loyalty, be elected president, and ensure the insurgency’s defeat. He was right. Boot argues, against conventional wisdom, that these successes did not rely only on the dark arts of espionage. At times more campaign consultant than spy, Lansdale helped Magsaysay barnstorm, glad-hand, and kiss babies, as any political hopeful might in the United States. (Lansdale was in advertising before he was in intelligence.) He obtained favorable press coverage, including in Time and Life, which were also popular in the Philippines. In 1953, Magsaysay won a landslide victory. Lansdale was rumored to have fixed the vote tally, but the win was so decisive that such claims are doubtful. Lansdale’s influence was nonetheless crucial. It modeled what independence and political autonomy would look like in the American Century: a popular, democratically elected nation builder who acted with the approval and support of the United States.
Lansdale, Boot maintains, stood out in this era because he realized that the only way for the United States to succeed against the Soviet Union in the Third World was for Americans to accept cultural diversity and refrain from bigotry. Boot calls Lansdale “color-blind,” which is not exactly accurate. He was actually fascinated by people of a different color, though the ones he knew best spoke English. His obsessions drew him to Asia like a magnet. Every trip stateside saw Lansdale calculating how he might be able to return across the ocean.
To make his argument about what Lansdale did right, Boot emphasizes his friendships. Most important for the Cold War was Lansdale’s affection for Magsaysay. Most important for Lansdale’s soul was his affection for a Philippine newspaper employee named Pat Kelly, his guide to the country, longtime lover, and second wife.
The Road Not Taken stresses Kelly’s role more than previous Lansdale biographies have, and certainly more than his memoir, In the Midst of Wars, which excluded her. Kelly quipped that the memoir, which turned out to be a publishing flop, read like an “edited, censored document that has been declassified.” The story of their affair and the practical help she gave him in the Philippines fell victim to such redactions. She wished Lansdale had written a book with unsanitized prose, more like the love letters he wrote her. Boot draws on these letters and some of her replies, which other historians have not accessed, to demonstrate Kelly’s importance to Lansdale.
Boot depicts their relationship as a partnership of mind and spirit. Kelly opened doors for Lansdale in the Philippines and helped him to understand what he encountered. She was shrewd, witty, and brash, much like Lansdale himself. As she chaperoned him around the country, he found in her his equal. Boot scripts this partnership as demonstrating Lansdale’s belief in the fundamental equality of races.
The book’s treatment of Lansdale’s affection for Kelly is meant to rehabilitate him. But it also diminishes her practical importance to his time in the Philippines. Lansdale first bonded with Magsaysay while trying to devise a way to return from Washington to Kelly’s arms. These men connected through a shared understanding of the insurgency, which Lansdale drew from lessons she taught him about the archipelago. The Road Not Taken credits Lansdale, not Kelly, for the cultural sensitivity that made counterinsurgency successful. In trying to dislodge any notion that Lansdale suffered racial bias, Boot reproduces the gender politics of Lansdale’s self-mythologizing: an American man among Asian men he treated as political partners, with this Asian woman as his partner in romance, not politics.
With The Road Not Taken, Boot is attempting to preserve racial liberalism as a means of managing freedom’s demands. The globe was in the throes of decolonization. Theorists of this transformation such as Aimé Césaire acknowledged that US empire differed from its predecessors. It would be more resilient and voracious. US policy makers responded by avoiding offensive utterances about potential allies across the globe. They allowed these countries a voice in international institutions and forums. They even advocated civil rights at home to reduce the chances of visiting diplomats from new nations running afoul of the US color line.
But if Boot is correct, Lansdale did not actually stand out in advocating antiracism. In trying to avoid the racism of other empires, he defined the rising paradigm of racial liberalism. He and his contemporaries saw racial liberalism was a Cold War weapon. Remedying individual acts of racism would bring the new nations of Africa and Asia into line with US designs, winning their support and inoculating them against communist influence. But this conception of racism focused on individual hearts and heads, not, as W. E. B. Du Bois had defined earlier imperial efforts, on a broader, power-based “relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” It was an individual flaw, a set of misbegotten beliefs and unfortunate practices. Improvement lay in correcting personal beliefs and reorienting them along a new path of fairness, kindness, and sensitivity.
With “The Road Not Taken,” Boot is attempting to preserve racial liberalism as a means of managing freedom’s demands.
The policy makers’ consensus definition of racism was confined to expressions of prejudice, mostly excluding material and political dimensions. As racism came to be defined in these individual, psychological terms in law and in the ideological firmament, racial liberals’ concern centered on conscious intent to discriminate rather than anonymous, inherited, and “structural” forms of exclusion, exploitation, and expropriation.
According to Boot’s interpretation, Lansdale bore no intent to subjugate entire countries, to put them under a neocolonial yoke as wards of a US-led world economy, because he carried no bigoted beliefs about the inferiority of the inhabitants of these countries. Whether this claim about Lansdale’s mind-set is accurate is difficult to discern—revealing a fundamental analytic challenge that this form of racial liberalism presents. Yes, Lansdale did not wish to see the B-52 Stratofortress rain fire on Vietnam. But he was unwilling to allow the South Vietnamese to choose a future that might include a communist revolution. And, Boot claims, Lansdale was among the first to recognize that forestalling such a future would be necessary in “many other places in post-1945 Asia,” from Indonesia to Korea. “Language, skin color, ethnicity: none of it made much of a difference to Edward Lansdale,” Boot insists. He might have added: as long as these Asian fellows weren’t Commies. The rising global hegemon may have appreciated the capacity for self-government of Third World peoples in a way that other empires did not, but it also consistently narrowed the forms of expression self-government would be allowed to take. All-out force or all-out friendship, indeed.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- “Longtime Conservative Says Trump’s Election Caused Him to Rethink White Privilege,” NPR, January 3, 2018. ↩