The Spook

Edward Geary Lansdale

A son of Michigan, Ed Lansdale was born in 1908 and later raised in Los Angeles, California.  He was one of four sons born to Sarah and Henry Lansdale.  After graduating from high school, he worked his way through the University of California (Los Angeles) by writing articles for newspapers and magazines.  He later began work in advertising in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

At the start of World War II, Lansdale joined the U. S. Army Air Corps, where he was subsequently classified as an intelligence officer and seconded to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).  Lansdale’s OSS assignment eventually took him to the Philippine Islands, but the timing and duration of this assignment are unknown.  During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, U. S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Wendell Fertig led the primary resistance movement — but it may be true that Lansdale and the OSS played a role in MacArthur’s return to Luzon.  After leaving the Philippines in 1948, the Air Force assigned Lansdale as an instructor at the Strategic Intelligence School, Lowry Air Force Base, Colorado.  While serving in this capacity, the Air Force advanced Lansdale to a temporary lieutenant colonel.

In 1950, the President of the Philippine Islands, Elpidio Quirino, personally requested that Lansdale return to the Joint United States/Philippines Military Assistance Group to assist the Philippines in combatting the Communist Hukbalahap (also, Huks).  Lansdale, an early believer in psychological warfare, adopted a tactic used earlier by the Japanese during the Empire’s occupation of the Philippines.  In Philippine folklore, Aswangs are blood-sucking demons; Lansdale’s ploy spread rumors in the Philippines about these Aswangs.  Lansdale managed the capture of one of the communist soldiers and drained the blood from his body, leaving his remains where it could be found near a popular pathway.  This ploy seemed to convince many of the Hukbalahap to leave their operations area.  To what long-term effect this ploy had on most Huks in the Philippines is unknown. 

During Lansdale’s time in the Philippines, he became close friends with Ramon Magsaysay, then the Philippines’ Secretary of National Defense.  Some historians suggest that Lansdale had a hand in Magsaysay’s bid for the presidency, which he achieved on 30 December 1953.  Lansdale is also credited with developing civic actions programs and policies designed to help rehabilitate Huks prisoners of war.

Before leaving his assignment in the Philippine Islands, Lansdale served as a temporary member of General John W. O’Daniel’s mission to Indochina in 1953.[1]  As an advisor to French Indochinese forces (counter-guerrilla warfare), Lansdale’s mission was to suggest successful strategies against the Viet Minh (Vietnamese communist guerrillas) — but of course, the French had been fighting Indochinese nationalists for several decades in advance of World War II, so it not clear what contributions Lansdale might have made to the French effort.[2]  

It was a strange set of circumstances that after the OSS helped organize and arm Indochinese guerrilla forces (beginning in 1943), that the U. S. military would then (initially) assist the French in fighting these same guerillas — and even stranger still that the United States would take over that effort after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

After leaving the Philippine Islands, Lansdale’s next assignment was as a permanent advisor to the Military Assistance Group (Indochina) from 1954 to 1957, heading the military mission in Saigon, South Vietnam.  In addition to directing the training for the Vietnamese National Army (VNA), he helped organize the Caodaist militias.  He instituted a propaganda campaign to encourage Vietnamese Catholics (most of whom lived in North Vietnam) to move to South Vietnam.[3]

While in Saigon, Lansdale ingratiated himself with emerging leader Ngo Dinh Diem.  It was not very soon afterward that Lansdale moved into the Vietnamese White House upon Diem’s invitation.  This may have resulted from the fact that Lansdale helped to foil the attempted coup d’état of General Nguyen Van Hinh.

In one “egg on his face” episode, Lansdale began working with and mentoring Pham Xuan An, a reporter for Time Magazine.  Mr. An, as it turned out, was a highly valued North Vietnamese spy who, in addition to reporting on events in Vietnam, regularly provided helpful information to the government in Hanoi — information he obtained directly from Edward Lansdale.  In the good news department, Lansdale also mentored and trained CIA operative, John Deutch.  Mr. Deutch was one of the so-called Whiz Kids associated with Robert S. McNamara.  Deutch later became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and, as it turned out, no one killed more troops during the Vietnam War than Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

From 1957 to 1963, Edward Lansdale served in Washington, D. C. first, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and a member of the President’s advisory committee on military assistance, and later as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

In the early 1960s, Lansdale was primarily involved in covert operations designed to topple the government of Cuba, including proposals to assassinate Fidel Castro.  Known as the Cuban Project (also Operation Mongoose), Lansdale’s plan called for an extensive campaign of terrorist attacks against civilians by CIA hired insurgents and CIA covert operations designed to exploit the insurgents’ successes.  The plan received the approval of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and went into effect after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Even today, the U. S. government argues against the notion that the Cuban project (and its methodologies) were extralegal.  We know that along with Operation Mongoose was yet another, darker scheme, dubbed Operation Northwoods.  Northwoods called upon the U. S. military to create a series of incidents involving the loss of American and Cuban exile’s lives through the actions of phony Cuban revolutionaries.  The idea was to sufficiently enrage the American public to demand war against Castro’s Cuba.  Involved with Lansdale was William K. Harvey (CIA), Samuel Halpern (CIA), and Lansdale’s assistant, Daniel Ellsberg (of Pentagon Papers fame).  As bad as President Kennedy’s approval, the mastermind for this project was his brother Robert, the Attorney General of the United States.

Major General Lansdale retired from the U. S. Air Force on 1 November 1963.  Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated on 2 November 1963.  President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963.  According to retired U. S. Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, a former subordinate of Lansdale, Edward Lansdale’s fingerprints are all over Kennedy’s assassination.[4]

After he retired from the Air Force, Lansdale returned to Vietnam (1965-68), where he worked in the United States Embassy in a position of ministerial rank — except that no one seems to know what Lansdale’s function was at the Embassy.  Some have suggested he may have been the Dirty Little Tricks Officer.[5]

I leave my readers with the question of whether Colonel Prouty or Dr. Ellsberg have any credibility regarding Lansdale’s or the CIA’s involvement with the Kennedy assassination.  However, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s book titled The Ugly American (1958) may have modeled Colonel Hillandale’s character on Edward Lansdale.  Prouty’s book is no longer in print, but it is available “Online for education purposes at JAG 07146.co.nr.”  The URL co. nr is a “cloaking/masking” protocol.

From my perspective, there is a great danger in organizations that have limited or no oversight by the government (and people) whom they serve.  It is a disaster just waiting to happen (noting that some will argue it already has).  People with peculiar skills will respond to what their bosses tell them is “in the national interests,” and most carry out these assignments without ever questioning the legality or morality of their missions.   

Sources:

  1. Bamford, J.  Body of Secrets.  Doubleday, 2001.
  2. Boot, M.  The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.  Norton & Company, 2018.
  3. Currey, C. B.  Edward Lansdale, the Unquiet American.  Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
  4. Elliston, J.  Psy War on Cuba: The Declassified History of US Anti-Castro Propaganda.  Ocean Press, 1999.
  5. McAlister, J.  “The lost revolution: Edward Lansdale and the American Defeat in Vietnam, 1964-1968, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] LtGen O’Daniel saw combat service in both world wars and Korea.  Known as an outspoken officer in the same vein as George Patton, Eisenhower nevertheless appointed him to command the Military Assistance Group, Indochina.

[2] Given the sequence of events of World War II, where we find that the entire French army fell to the Germans in only six weeks, the subsequent collaboration with Germany and Japan of the Vichy government, and France’s inglorious return to Indochina in 1946, senior French colonial officials were in no mood to accept the advice of American military officers.  Their only inducement the French had to listen to what American military officers had to say was the monetary and material support offered to them by the U. S. government.

[3] Operation Passage to Freedom changed an important demographic in Vietnam.  Before 1954, most Vietnamese Catholics lived in North Vietnam.  After 1956, Vietnamese Catholics held the popular majority in South Vietnam, 55% of whom were refugees from North Vietnam.  To help facilitate this move, Lansdale air-dropped leaflets into Vietnam showing concentric circles drawn on a map, which suggested that a nuclear strike on North Vietnam may be imminent.

[4] Of course, if that were true, then Lansdale and all his co-conspirators would have to be the best-ever secret keepers in the history of the planet.  In the forward to his second revision of The Secret Team, Prouty claims that the CIA managed to abscond with “at least” 300,000 copies of his book that had been shipped by his publisher to Australia.

[5] Robert S. McNamara got his start as a “dirty trickster” in World War II.  Known as one of the “Whiz Kids,” McNamara moved to the board of Ford Motor Company before being named as JFK’s Secretary of Defense.  His “genius” resulted in significant American and RVN casualties during the Vietnam War.