Not surprisingly, one of the guerrilla wars that the military historian Max Boot looks at in his massive new book, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (W. W. Norton, 750 pp., $35), is the war waged by the Vietnamese communists against South Vietnam and the Americans in Vietnam.
Boot—who, among other things is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and The Los Angeles Times —has two short chapters on the Vietnam War, proceeded by one that looks at the legendary CIA man Edward Lansdale and his work helping fend off a communist insurgency in the Philippines right after War War II.
Boot follows Lansdale to Vietnam, where he arrived in 1954 at the birth of the nation of South Vietnam. Lansdale came with orders from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to “do what you did in the Philippines.” Lansdale and his small team of CIA agents went about doing just that by playing a big role in installing South Vietnam’s first premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, in office.
Lansdale and his team went on to convince nearly a million Catholics in northern Vietnam to emigrate to the South before the border closed and the communists took over in North Vietnam. Diem then won a rigged election with Lansdale’s help and went on to crush rival South Vietnamese religious/political sects.
Boot goes over Lansdale’s hearts and mind theories in the book. Boot’s main argument is that one big reason the U.S. didn’t prevail in Vietnam was that the military (and war managers in Washington) didn’t listen to Lansdale—the man who was the inspiration for two famed fictional characters: the naive CIA man Pyle in Graham Greene’s Quiet American, and the effective Col. Hillendale in Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American.
Boot describes as “promising” the few counterinsurgency programs that the Americans did implement in Vietnam: the Combined Action Program, the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups, and the Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols, better known by their acronyms, CAP, CIDG and LRRPs. He also praises the controversial Phoenix Program, which critics have described as little more than a series of assassinations of anyone who spoke out against the South Vietnamese government. Boot simply says that Phoenix “sent American and South Vietnamese intelligence operatives to root out Vietcong cadres.”
All of those programs, Boot says, “produced more enemy kills and fewer casualties among American forces and Vietnamese civilians than more-conventional approaches.”
Boot concludes that, despite American missteps, South Vietnam “might have survived if the United States had been willing to keep its troops in place, as it had done after the Korean War.” Why didn’t we? Boot blames “public opposition to the war and the Watergate scandal, which destroyed Nixon’s popularity” after 1972, which resulted in Congress cutting off virtually all aid to South Vietnam in 1974. That argument is, to say the least, open to question.
The author’s website is www.maxboot.net