Edward Lansdale (1908-87) was one of America’s most important military thinkers and practitioners, and yet he is barely known to the wider world. In “The Road Not Taken,” Max Boot aptly calls him “the American T.E. Lawrence ”: eccentric, rebellious and charismatic, a man who had an uncanny way of bonding with Third World leaders and who believed that the art of war was, as Mr. Boot puts it, “to attract the support of the uncommitted.”
He changed the course of history in the Philippines by leading a fight against Marxist guerrillas there in the 1950s and played a key role in the early stages of the Vietnam War—though with tragically less success. Had Lansdale’s advice been taken, Mr. Boot argues, South Vietnam might still have fallen to the communists, but far fewer than 58,000 Americans would have died there. “The Road Not Taken” is an impressive work, an epic and elegant biography based on voluminous archival sources. It belongs to a genre of books that takes a seemingly obscure hero and uses his story as a vehicle to capture a whole era.
Lansdale grew up in Detroit, the son of a businessman who worked in the auto industry. As the father’s fortunes rose, Mr. Boot tells us, the family moved from a working-class neighborhood to the suburbs. Lansdale attended UCLA, where he earned a degree in English and participated in ROTC, receiving a reserve commission in the Army. During World War II, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, though not as an overseas operative. Stateside, he gathered intelligence and recruited agents. “Not much in the way of heroics,” he later said, “but it was truly fascinating work for me.” About a year later he was accepted back into the Army and, near the war’s end, shipped out to the Philippines, where he remained for a few years after the war, returning there again in 1950 as an adviser to the government (and reporting to the CIA).
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