Reflecting on Vietnam with Bestselling Author Max Boot
In his recent book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, bestselling author Max Boot examines the life of perhaps the least secret agent of the early 1960s. Boot joined the World Affairs Council on February 16, 2018 for a lunch discussion at Dorsey & Whitney LLP with Ted Van Dyk, author and former government official with a background in public policy and international affairs. Boot and Van Dyk took a closer look at Lansdale’s approach to the Vietnam War and what lessons can be learned from U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Edward Lansdale was a U.S. agent often considered the father of the modern counterinsurgency, placing more emphasis on embracing the people. Lansdale was a major player in counterinsurgencies in both the Philippines and Vietnam. However, rather than having a direct role in the Vietnam War, Lansdale advocated for the United States to assume the role as an advisor. His recommendations unheeded, Lansdale returned home from Vietnam to the U.S. in the summer of 1968 without the least bit of surprise when North Vietnam invaded the South. Boot argues that if the United States had listened to Lansdale, 58,000 American lives could have been saved.
Boot believes the most important lesson from the Vietnam War was the key theme of basic misinterpretation between Vietnamese people and the U.S. He suggests that borders of mind need to change more than physical borders of the state. Ultimately, Boot asserts that the United States should have withdrawn from the war in Vietnam. However, as Van Dyk emphasized, it is important to realize that lessons learned are not always universally applicable.
While counterinsurgency during the years prior to and during the Vietnam War was considered conventional warfare, the perception of threats has changed. Boot, though, argues that we can still learn from Lansdale despite this shift. Empathy, understanding the people, listening, and gaining their trust are among the most important approaches not just for diplomacy, but for the military as well. Lansdale, while pursuing this more inclusive approach, had trouble getting his insight up the chain of command. Boot argues that a positive step by the military would be to have specialized units focused on understanding the personalities of the country in question. For example, United States involvement in Afghanistan to establish a functioning government may not be the best way to serve the needs of the Afghan people. Afghanistan would be best served with a decentralized government with locals in leadership positions Boot explained.
In order to move forward and productively incorporate lessons from Vietnam, Boot emphasizes the importance of engaging countries with empathy and avoiding isolation. In addition, he called for a shift in focus from hard power to soft power. The United States’ role in global affairs, because of our allies, cannot be jeopardized by temporary distractions, Van Dyk added. The bright side, Boot noted, is that we are in a unique position to actually change how the United States acts in the future. We have the opportunity to be a voice for freedom, if we take the time to listen first.