Soft Power

Lansdale was a key influence on Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem -- and a critic of the policies that resulted in his overthrow.

Flickr. Lansdale was a key influence on Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem.

Edward Lansdale is now all-but-forgotten — a state of affairs I hope to rectify by publishing a new biography of him. But at one time he was a legend.

An Air Force officer who spent his most influential years working for the CIA, he was the man who helped to put down the Huk Rebellion — a Communist uprising — in the Philippines in the early 1950’s and who in 1954 did as much as anyone to create the state of South Vietnam. He pioneered what is now known as counterinsurgency doctrine, dubbed “Lansdalism” by reporters of the time, and helped to make this a primary mission of the Army Special Forces (the Green Berets). He was said (wrongly) to be the model for the protagonist in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American and (rightly) to be the model for one of the heroic characters in Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s 1958 novel The Ugly American. What is indubitable, however, is that Lansdale was one of the most successful military advisers of the 20th century, second perhaps only to T.E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” Indeed, Lansdale was sometimes called “the Lawrence of Asia.”

The way in which he won this sobriquet is worth studying for anyone holding a leadership position in the contemporary world. As few others in the military-political world have, Lansdale mastered the art of what might be called strategic listening. That’s the astonishing notion of actually paying attention to what your interlocutor is saying and using his own words to fashion your response. This is an essential skill for anyone in any job — we must all influence bosses, clients, and colleagues, to say nothing of spouses, children, and family members.

This skill was also essential for the establishment of Lansdale’s two most important professional relationships — with President Ramon Magsaysay of the Philippines and with President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. It was his ability to quietly influence these newly minted leaders that made Lansdale so successful. The basis of Lansdale’s approach was extending respect and dignity to whomever he was dealing with. He did not exhibit the racism and condescension that were typical in those days for Westerners in “Oriental” societies. He especially took care to avoid lecturing Vietnamese or Filipinos as colonialists had long done. A Filipino commented that “Ed Lansdale was more Asian than some Asians,” because of “his beautiful philosophy of life” which led him to recognize that each “Filipino has a human dignity.” Another Filipino friend said, “Ed had a way, he could make a friend of everybody except Satan, I think. And he was the one American that was liked by practically every Filipino.”  Lansdale amply returned their affection: “Filipinos and I fell in love with each other. Almost everything I did there was done with tremendous brotherly love.”

Lansdale began with Magsaysay by mentoring him during his tenure as defense minister starting in 1950; from there it was a natural step to masterminding Magsaysay’s 1953 presidential campaign. For a time, when Magsaysay was getting death threats and had to move out of his own house, they even lived together in Lansdale’s quarters on a U.S. military base in Manila. The two of them would stay up late into the night, talking over the problems of the Philippines and brainstorming possible solutions. Lansdale would appear to defer to Magsaysay and yet gently guide his thinking. As one of Lansdale’s friends noted, he would say, “Don’t you think this is how we should treat the problem.” If there was a controversial point he would say, “We don’t have to do it this way.” One of Lansdale’s trademarks was to reformulate what Magsaysay had just said to him, subtly changing his summary to get across more of his own message. Everything was said, a Filipino friend of Lansdale’s noted, in a “disarming and very charming way.” Lansdale took care to make sure that his protégé got full credit for Lansdale’s own brainstorms. Another Filipino friend noted that he was “very low key, always low key; and [always] letting somebody else exploit the idea which he implanted.” Thus was born the strategy that crushed the Huk Rebellion, focused primarily on drawing the army closer to the people, limiting corruption and other abuses, and holding free and fair elections.

He used a similar approach with Diem — one that seems to have been tailor-made for the famously loquacious leader. Lansdale arrived in Saigon in the summer of 1954 shortly before the signing of the Geneva Accords, which created the states of South and North Vietnam, and started working his  magic on the newly appointed South Vietnamese prime minister at once. Lansdale would regularly, almost daily, visit the palace for long talks with Diem, which were typically held in a small alcove off Diem’s bedroom — a tiny room very much like a monk’s cell, piled floor to ceiling with books and documents. His knees almost touching Diem’s, Lansdale would show his trademark patience as the Vietnamese leader chain-smoked cigarettes and drank little cups of tea while expounding for hours at a time on his views of every aspect of Vietnam.

Lansdale displayed practically unlimited willingness to listen to Diem’s rambling monologues, which drove other Americans to distraction. Among American reporters and diplomats in Saigon, a two-hour session with Diem was considered a “quickie.” One “ashen-faced American newsman” said that “Diem had kept him for six and one-half hours, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with no lunch, and that the last 90 minutes had been spent standing in the doorway after the newsman had gotten up to try to leave.” What made the one-way conversations particularly hard to endure for most Americans was that they had little interest in the political minutiae that fascinated Diem. Lansdale was different. “I never met another Vietnamese that knew as much about those subjects as he did personally,” he recalled. “When something would happen he would tell me not only who had been involved but go into a family history, telling me who the man’s father was, why he had handled something the way he had, and usually go back about 200 years in history about a particular little place in Vietnam to tell me why the people felt the way they did about things . . . Amazing detail.” 

As he had done with Magsaysay, the soft-spoken American adviser would listen carefully and then respond “by summarizing what he had said, but in a form stressing the principles involved and enumerating the factors that a man should look at and examine very closely in order to make a decision.” “By laying this out for him verbally,” Lansdale explained, “it would help him clarify the issue in his mind, so that he could then make a decision. He apparently found this quite useful. That was the basis for our relationship.” With Lansdale’s help, Diem managed to survive a multitude of threats during his first years in power. He even managed to win a large measure of popularity — which he sacrificed by imposing more dictatorial measures after Lansdale returned to the United States at the end of 1956.

Complex theories of leadership through communication abound nowadays. We live in an age of media saturation and dubious pop neuroscience. But Lansdale, the veteran covert operative, used a method almost profound in its simplicity: listen and repeat. There’s no formula for it, other than overcoming the human inclination to argue and interrupt, to assert oneself through rhetoric. That so few leaders have adopted Lansdale’s soft-spoken approach is a testament to its difficulty. Yet it remains as relevant as ever — in fact, it could prove the most effective tool in America’s arsenal for dealing with insurgencies such as the Taliban and ISIS. If only the U.S. can influence local leaders as Lansdale did, it just might be able to prevail. Assuming, of course, that it is not already too late.