Reviewed by Charles Pellegrin (School of Social Sciences, Northwestern State University of Louisiana)
Published on H-War (December, 2006)
Analyzing the Life, Adventures, and Legend of Edward Lansdale
Jonathan Nashel, associate professor of history at Indiana University-South Bend, has written a compelling analysis of the life, adventures, and legend of U.S. Air Force Major General Edward Lansdale (1908-87). Nashel's book, Edward Lansdale's Cold War, is not a biography in the traditional sense, as the author freely admits. Rather, the author uses Lansdale's career to explain American activities during the Cold War and emphasizes those events where Lansdale had a significant effect on such activities. Nashel writes, "this book should be read as a work of cultural mythography, its main subject being American Cold War culture and the complex ways in which Lansdale both embodied and helped to shape it" (p. 11). In particular, the author pays explicit attention to two aspects of Landsdale's life and career and its relation to American Cold War culture--Lansdale as the career military officer and advisor, and Lansdale as Cold War celebrity.
Much of the book is devoted to Lansdale's military and intelligence career. Using the artistic skills he developed in college and his experience in advertising, Lansdale became the ultimate confidence man, "combining American belief systems with the persuasive forces of money and military strength" (p. 26). But according to Nashel, Lansdale was caught between liberal and warrior values. The career Air Force officer and apparent operative for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) empathized with the colonial struggle, and had an anthropologist-like interest in the cultures and history of Southeast Asia. Lansdale sought knowledge of Asian culture through his experiences, and then attempted to use that cultural knowledge to benefit American policy. Simultaneously, Lansdale used illiberal tactics (advertising schemes, propaganda, black operations, rigged elections, counterinsurgency) to put American policy into practice in Southeast Asia. As a result, Lansdale accrued a tremendous amount of power helping the governments of the Philippines and South Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. The heads of these two governments, Ramon Magsaysay and Ngo Dinh Diem, respectively, gave Lansdale tremendous latitude to create "layer upon layer of confidence schemes mobilized by the power of publicity" (p. 72) so as to win the hearts and minds of the people in the struggle against the spread of communism. Lansdale assumed that these plans, which met limited success in Vietnam and failed in Cuba, would ensure the success of American-style democracy. Nashel concludes that "Lansdale thus became the epitome of American liberalism when it goes abroad, in its missionary zeal and its well-intentioned short-sightedness" (p. 148).
The final three chapters examine the many controversies surrounding Lansdale as a Cold War celebrity. Nashel does an excellent job of discussing these controversies which revolve around Lansdale being the prototype for novelist Graham Greene's character Alden Pyle in The Quiet American (1955), and the inspiration for William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American (1958), as well as these works' subsequent Hollywood film adaptations. But why would Lansdale want such publicity and acclaim? Nashel contends that Lansdale hoped he could utilize this celebrity to carry out the "selling" of South Vietnam to the Americans. To wit, the author includes a verbatim transcript of a March 1956 letter from Lansdale to Joseph Mankiewicz, the director of the 1958 film version of The Quiet American, that suggested screenplay changes to make Vietnam a much more attractive locale and to place the communists in a more negative light, thereby "transforming the ideological purposes of a novel whose politics and tone he despised into a film he could enjoy" (p. 166). As a result, Lansdale realized the potential of using his celebrity and the film media to help carry out American foreign policy goals. The author further suggests that as Lansdale's military career came to an end, he became a prisoner of the very celebrity he garnered. Subjected to tough questioning during a select Senate committee investigation of CIA activities in the mid-1970s, Lansdale became the personification of what some critics considered ugly and underhanded about the American Cold War effort. According to Nashel, Lansdale "never escaped the images of him that arose in response to his fame ... it overshadowed everything he did or tried to accomplish" (p. 207).
In conclusion, Jonathan Nashel writes a convincing study of Edward Lansdale and his place in American Cold War culture. Thoroughly researched, the author relies heavily on Lansdale's own writings, in particular his memoir entitled In the Midst of Wars: An American's Mission to Southeast Asia (1972), as well as his manuscript collection located at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Additionally, Nashel makes tremendous use of government documents such as the Foreign Relations of the United States series and papers from the Church Committee investigations of the CIA, plus The Pentagon Papers (Senator Gravel Edition, 1971), and a number of oral history collections. Edward Lansdale's Cold War is an excellent companion piece to Cecil B. Currey's biography of Lansdale, entitled Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American (1988). In the end, Professor Nashel's work is a major contribution to the cultural and military historiograpny of the Cold War.
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Charles Pellegrin. Review of Nashel, Jonathan, Edward Lansdale's Cold War.
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