Edward Lansdale: The Lone Voice of Reason In the Vietnam War

In Oliver Stone’s wildly conspiratorial JFK, the chief plotter behind the Kennedy assassination, identified as “General Y,” is obscured by the shadows, and is identified with enough letters visible on his nameplate on the desk to reveal the identity of “Y.”

“Y” is General Edward Lansdale, a counter-insurgency expert who, unfortunately for Stone’s thesis that Kennedy was killed by “Y” and his cohorts because the president was about to withdraw the American advisers from Vietnam, was actually less of a hawk on Vietnam than Kennedy; indeed, the more one looks at Lansdale the more apparent it is it that, among the hawkish Cold War establishment, he was a voice of reason.

Lansdale’s metier was training Third World troops in guerilla warfare against Communist insurgents. Having succeeded in training non-Communist troops in the Philippines to repel Communist forces, Lansdale was tasked by the CIA in 1953 to aid the French in their battle to retain their colony against the Vietcong.

Prophetically, Lansdale considered bolstering the French a losing proposition and instead began training the South Vietnamese army and attempting to influence the South’s upcoming election. The latter was to be achieved through released “documents” showing that the Vietcong along with their Chinese allies had crossed into the South and murdered innocent civilians.

In the 1955 South Vietnamese election, voters had the choice of the either the former Emperor of Vietnam, Bo Dai, or the sturdily Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem (Lansdale’s choice). Whether or not Lansdale had a hand in it, the election of Diehm had at least in one instance considerable corruption, as when Bo Dai meager followers were beaten up by Diem supporters at a voting place.

Now “elected,” Diem would make himself illegitimate in the eyes of the South Vietnamese people by claiming he “won” by 98.2 percent of the vote. Few voters in South Vietnam believed that.

Returning to the U.S., JFK appointed Lansdale Assistant Secretary of Defence for Special Operations and was involved in the CIA plots to overthrow Castro. But Lansdale would prove much less of a hawk on Kennedy’s Cold War policies.

Lansdale opposed what would become known as the disastrous Bay of Pigs when JFK used the Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. The invasion failed, humiliating Kennedy and handing Castro a propaganda victory.

According to Lansdale, Kennedy assigned him to create a plan to overthrow Castro. Lansdale regarding attempts to assassinate Castro as unrealistic.

Kennedy, however, didn’t listen and instead gave his brother, Robert, the assignment to overthrow Castro by any means necessary.

Humiliated by the Bay of Pigs and considered “weak’ by the Soviets, Kennedy sought to use Vietnam as evidence of his resolve against Russia.

He sent Lansdale back to Vietnam in 1963, where Lansdale immediately clashed with the hawkish General Maxwell Taylor, who was the military adviser to the President. Taylor believed the Vietcong could be defeated by military means.

By contrast, Lansdale favored adopting the means used by Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong to win the support of the peasants in Mao’s ultimately successful overthrow of the anticommunist Chiang Kai Shek government. This entailed winning the “hearts and minds” of Vietnamese peasants. Quoting Mao, who told his troops with regard to the peasants to”Buy and sell fairly. Return everything borrowed. Indemnify everything damaged. Do not bathe in view of women. Do not rob personal belongings of captives,” Lansdale believed that only such tactics could repel any invasions of the South by the North.

But Lansdale was once again a lone moderate voice against the more hawkish Kennedy administration, this time around regarding JFK authorizing a coup against Diem, who the President feared was on the verge of normalizing relations with the North. He practically begged Kennedy official Robert McNamara not to support the coup, stating, “There’s a constitution in place… Please don’t destroy that when you’re trying to change the government.”

Nevertheless, the coup went forward with the blessing of the United States, resulting, to the horror of Kennedy, the assassination of Diem by his own military officers. With the removal of Diem, who despite repressive policies did provide stability for the South, the U.S. was now tied to the health of the succeeding regimes, and the South never again had a stable government.

Rather than regarding this dilemma as validating Lansdale, hawks in the military got Lansdale removed from his post.

Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson shared the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in using the military to defeat the North. Lansdale, once again prophetically warned of the folly of this policy, stating its goal to “kill every last person in the enemy ranks” “humanly impossible,” and also objected to this goal on moral grounds.

Describing himself as a “conservative moderate,” (Lansdale once left an organization because it was a front for the ultra-right John Birch Society), Lansdale won the admiration of his employee Daniel Ellsberg, who later released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret record of how four administrations had lied to the public about Vietnam, because Ellsberg believed his boss was committed to democracy.

Lansdale, once again in vain, begged the administration to put the xenophobic Vietnamese in charge of U.S. economic policies toward the South, based on Johnson’s Great Society. But Lansdale regarded Johnson as too xenophobic himself toward the Vietnamese to do that. There was also LBJ’s notorious ego involved in refusing to allow the Vietnamese to head his welfare policies because he wanted credit for the programs’ success.

In 1968, Lansdale “radical” ideas were again validated with the Tet Offensive. As with many in the media and even among architects of the Cold War containment strategies from the late 40s, Lansdale regarded the Tet Offensive as signaling the death knell of the American commitment in Vietnam: “we lost the war at the Tet offensive,” he told a friend.

Now, according to Lansdale, the U.S. military no longer knew who among the Vietnamese were allies or enemies. Thus began the indiscriminate bombing, whose civilian casualties numbered in the thousands.

Finally throwing up his hands, Lansdale, no longer believing that the Johnson administration “can win the hearts and minds of minds” of the South Vietnamese people, resigned in 1968.

And this is Stone’s “hawkish” plotter.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.


  1. How is the JBS “ultra-right”? Only if you define the middle as being somewhere on the far left. Why is The Liberty Conservative publishing neocon globalist RINOs from National Review and Weekly Standard anyway? Those rags are the joke of the conservative movement.

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