He was, for some, the genius cowboy who sometimes skirts the rules to achieve the just goals of Western democracy; for others, the embodiment of an arrogant foreign policy gone dangerously wrong.
A bit miffed at his last-minute orders to proceed directly from the Philippines to Vietnam, with no time to return home to Washington to prepare for his new covert mission or visit his family, Colonel Edward Lansdale flew into Saigon in the rattling bucket seat of an amphibian aircraft from the 31st Air-Sea Rescue Squadron. It was the first available flight out of Clark Air Force Base to Saigon, and the crewmen agreed to take him if he didn’t mind the extra flight time while they performed their patrol over the South China Sea. It was June 1, 1954, and as he sipped coffee from a paper cup he thought about what lay ahead. He’d heard about the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu and knew that the French and Viet Minh were working out a peace settlement in Geneva, but beyond that, his knowledge about the country was slim.
It was at a meeting convened in the Pentagon six months earlier to discuss Vietnam that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had turned to Lansdale and told him, “We’re going to send you over there,” to which Lansdale replied, “Not to help the French!” No, he was reassured, he would help the Vietnamese put down the Communist-dominated Viet Minh in Indochina. Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, joined with his brother in backing Lansdale to serve as the founder and chief of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission (SSM), which was to quietly enter Vietnam and help the pro-Western Vietnamese wage political-psychological warfare.
The CIA was willing to give Lansdale, a San Francisco advertising executive before World War II, great latitude based on his success in black operations in the Philippines from 1950-53. A U.S. Army officer who transferred his commission to the Air Force after the war, he had helped the Philippine army put down the Hukbalahap (Huk) rebellion. Philippine Communists formed the guerrilla group originally to fight the Japanese in World War II. After Huk efforts to participate in the postwar government were rebuffed and a reportedly fraudulent election took place in 1949, the Huks began their guerrilla war to overthrow the U.S.-backed government. In waging war against the Huks, Lansdale wielded a wide array of counterinsurgency and psywar tools, some playing upon Filipino superstitions. One such successful unconventional tactic exploited villagers’ belief in vampires, another on ghosts of dead Huks. In Lansdale’s “Eye of God” campaign, suspected guerrillas living in a village were targets of psywar teams that surreptitiously painted a menacing eye on a wall facing the suspect’s hut. Although most notorious for these types of psywar operations, it was primarily Lansdale’s application of advertising principles and media manipulation that led to the honest election of Ramon Magsaysay as president in 1953.
But Vietnam was a different country with much different problems.
Nevertheless, during his first two years there, Colonel Lansdale would solidify his top position in the pantheon of shadowy American psychological and unconventional warriors. He would become for some the prototype of the genius cowboy who sometimes skirts the rules to achieve the just goals of Western democracy; for others the embodiment of an arrogant foreign policy gone dangerously wrong in Southeast Asia. In either case, the “Chief,” as reports on his exploits referred to Lansdale, had an enormous impact on Vietnam in the pivotal months that followed the stinging defeat of the French, setting the stage for the deadly drama that would play out in the turbulent two decades to come.
After Landing at Tan Son Nhut air base in Saigon, Lansdale hitched a ride into the heart of the city to the home of Lt. Gen. John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, who was the post chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Saigon. The MAAG had been established in 1950 by President Harry Truman to work with French forces in Indochina.
Lansdale’s selection as the man to run paramilitary and political operations against the Viet Minh in Indochina shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise to the dapper 46-year-old, however. After all, he had served the previous year as a psychological warfare adviser on an evaluation team tour of French Indochina, headed by General O’Daniel. Lansdale’s observations, recorded in several memoranda on the nature of Asiatic insurgencies, dissected the Communists’ successful tactics, and underscored the French and American lack of fluency regarding counterinsurgency.
“There is general conviction that the Viet Minh has ‘national spirit’ on its side and that the Franco-Vietnamese forces do not,” Lansdale wrote in one memorandum. “This is the result of successful psychological-political warfare by the Viet Minh. There has been no effective psychological warfare by the Franco-Vietnamese forces to expose this as a myth.” Lansdale was intent on understanding, and applying, the psychological aspects of warfare against Communists. In Indochina, he aimed to use black propaganda and urge the French and their Vietnamese allies to seize the initiative in countering the Viet Minh’s hold over the people.
In Saigon, Lansdale took on the cover of an assistant air attaché at the U.S. Embassy, an arrangement that allowed him to work with both the ambassador, Donald Heath, and General O’Daniel’s MAAG. When Lansdale announced himself at the embassy, however, the diplomatic staff was indignant; the SMM was not the only CIA operation in town. A regular CIA station, responsible for traditional intelligence and spying, also existed, separate from Lansdale’s unit. The station chief, Emmett McCarthy, considered Lansdale to be an amateur. McCarthy insisted on control of all secret communications with Washington, and Lansdale had to comply because he had no independent communications channel. An intense rivalry developed. Eventually, after Lansdale quietly complained to Secretary of State Dulles about him, a more amicable station chief, John Anderton, replaced McCarthy.
For the first month after arriving in Saigon, Colonel Lansdale was the entire SMM staff. Then on July 1, Major Lucien Conein, an experienced covert operator who had been in the OSS and who had jumped into Vietnam to help guerrilla forces fight the Japanese during World War II, joined Lansdale’s team.
But the Chief faced some daunting challenges. Since Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam in September 1945, the xenophobic Vietnamese had only two choices: Support Ho’s Viet Minh republic or their French colonial masters. Addressing this, the French had created a partially autonomous government, called the State of Vietnam, headed by the aging playboy emperor Bao Dai. Although it had a governing body called the Chamber of Deputies, none of its members had any real constituency. Most Vietnamese hated the French and felt little loyalty to Bao Dai, who lived in France.
As the Geneva negotiations, which had convened in early May coinciding with the fall of Dien Bien Phu, progressed, the State of Vietnam’s French and American backers scrambled to shore up its legitimacy and capability. Ngo Dinh Diem, a well-known Catholic, anti-Communist nationalist residing in Europe, was appointed by Bao Dai—with U.S. support—as prime minister on June 16.
Good First Impressions with Diem
The day after Diem’s arrival in Saigon on June 25, Lansdale paid a visit and presented the new prime minister with an unofficial, “personal” paper full of actions he could take to handle the rapidly changing situation in his country. The Chief’s ideas included immediate steps to integrate all non-Communists military and paramilitary forces into a national army, encouragement of nationalist groups to participate in the political process and the institution of agrarian and economic reforms to make the government more responsive and effective. As his aide translated the letter to the prime minister, Lansdale recalled, “Diem listened intently, asked some searching questions, thanked me for my thoughtfulness, folded up the paper, and put it in his pocket.” Thus, as he had done with the Philippine leader Magsaysay, Lansdale quickly gained Diem’s trust and became his closest American confidant.
But how could he assist Diem in setting up a unified nationalist government in the south when none of the hundreds of sects, with their clandestine organizations, competing ideologies and armed camps, were interested in supporting a new government? Lansdale knew that Diem initially controlled virtually nothing and needed to quickly solidify his grip on power and improve the functioning of his government. Realizing that the army was the strongest and the only unifying factor in bringing a nationalist government to Vietnam, Lansdale set to work, conferring with officials such as Defense Minister Phan Huy Quat and General Nguyen Van Hinh, chief of staff of the Vietnamese National Army. Lansdale became an unofficial adviser to Captain Pham Xuan Giai, head of the 5th Bureau (G-5), the psychological warfare department of the Vietnamese army general staff, and immediately set about to establish a school to train the Vietnamese troops in psywar as well as to enhance their image among the Vietnamese people.
Lansdale fervently believed it was necessary for Diem’s government to appeal directly to the Vietnamese population, and he planned to employ classic psywar tactics to enhance those efforts. “If the Viet Minh have sold the idea of being anti-French, the Vietnamese can sell the idea of being anti-Chinese and prove that the Viet Minh are controlled by Chinese,” he had written in a memorandum. Lansdale was convinced that the Viet Minh had waged a successful psychological campaign by word-of-mouth, and he was determined to counteract it through the use of his own word-of-mouth rumors, black leaflets and other psywar methods. The colonel also believed that he would be able to convert many of the Vietnamese who had fought with the Viet Minh against the French but who didn’t necessarily want to be Communist—they just wanted French rule to end.
Meanwhile, at the Geneva Conference, the French and the Communists finally reached an accommodation on July 21, 1954. With the effective cease-fire date of August 11, the U.S. military personnel ceiling was to be frozen at its existing number. Lansdale had to scramble to beat the deadline to beef up his SMM. Word quickly went out and 17 additional CIA officers were recruited, including Army Lt. Col. Gordon Jorgenson as Lansdale’s second-in-command. Many of these recruits held rank in the U.S. military as well as the CIA and had experience in paramilitary and clandestine intelligence operations, but, as Lansdale grumbled, none besides him had served in psywar operations.
“I still had no office, but I had been assigned a small bungalow on Rue Miche near the heart of town the week before,” Lansdale wrote in his autobiography. “Gathering my newcomers at the bungalow, I described the situation to them. They were to be trainers in counter guerrilla warfare, but the French had yet to give permission for U.S. training of the Vietnamese in subjects known by the team. They would have to be patient and wait.”
The Chief split his staff in half and put Conein in charge of the SMM team sent north, which would temporarily operate out of Hanoi with two objectives: develop a paramilitary organization that would be in place once the Viet Minh took over; and sabotage the Communist government. The southern team based in Saigon focused on trying to help Diem establish a stable government.
In addition to the cease-fire, the Geneva Accords stipulated that there was to be a phased disengagement of the French Union and Viet Minh forces, and the 17th Parallel was established as a dividing point; the Viet Minh would regroup north of the line, and the French forces would regroup in the south. With the French departure, the State of Vietnam was to become fully independent. After a period of two years, a unified national election would be held in 1956 that would determine the governance of all of Vietnam, north and south. Ho Chi Minh was confident he could win in such an election, but the French and Americans believed that Geneva’s two-year window would give them the time needed to build a viable nation in the south that could win over enough of the Vietnamese to elect a Diem-led government—one that would be open to U.S. influence.
The Geneva Accords’ Article 8 was key to achieving that goal. It declared that for a period of 300 days everyone in Vietnam could freely decide “in which zone he wishes to live.” Lansdale saw this as a “Geneva-given” chance for large numbers of Vietnamese to move from the north before the Communists took over. He hoped to be able to influence 2 million to migrate to the south, giving Diem the upper hand in the Geneva-mandated 1956 vote.
Rumors, Black Leaflets & Fortune Tellers
To effect his scheme for persuading northerners to move south, Lansdale needed to convince them that their living conditions would soon deteriorate under Communist rule. Working closely with the U.S. Information Service, Lansdale’s team began a disinformation campaign wherein Vietnamese G-5 soldiers dressed in civilian clothes were sent north to local marketplaces to spread a rumor that the Viet Minh had made a deal to allow Chinese troops into the north again, and that those troops were terrorizing the Vietnamese, raping women and stealing. To help sell the idea, villagers were reminded of how Chinese troops had behaved after World War II and were so frightened that many of them packed up and moved south. The rumors were so convincing that Lansdale reportedly received a query from officials in Washington, asking him if there was any credence to the report that two Chinese regular divisions were in north Vietnam.
Building on the successful rumor campaign, the SMM started printing and covertly distributing “black leaflets” that were purportedly from the Viet Minh. These leaflets gave instructions to citizens on how they should conduct themselves when the Viet Minh takeover of Hanoi occurred in October. Included in the disinformation was the Viet Minh’s program for “monetary reform.” The leaflet ignited anxiety that gained momentum among the populace.
Within two days of the leaflet’s distribution, the Viet Minh currency reportedly fell to half its previous value. At the same time, the number of North Vietnamese registering to emigrate south tripled. The Viet Minh leadership, which quickly understood what was happening, took to the airwaves to denounce the bogus leaflets. But, as a testament to the effectiveness of the ruse, many Viet Minh and their supporters were convinced that the Communists’ radio denunciations themselves were actually a psychological warfare trick undertaken by the French.
With this one black leaflet, Lansdale’s team was able to sabotage the Viet Minh currency and subvert Viet Minh population-control efforts. It also managed to throw rank and file Viet Minh cadre into a state of confusion and disarray—just weeks before they were to assume control of Hanoi.
Another extremely effective SMM project aimed at convincing northerners to migrate capitalized on the widespread Vietnamese belief in astrology and superstition, and leveraged Lansdale’s background in communications and advertising. Noting the popularity of soothsayers among the general populace and an absence of any publication that carried their predictions, he struck on the idea of printing an almanac of predictions for 1955 from well-known astrologers and noted fortunetellers. His team sought out and paid leading Vietnamese astrologers to make predictions about coming disasters that would transpire coincident with the Viet Minh takeover of northern Vietnam.
While the almanac predicted prosperity for those in the south, it foretold of hardship and calamity in the north, including bloody reprisals against villagers resisting Viet Minh economic and agrarian reforms. These almanacs were smuggled deep into Viet Minh territory, and to enhance their credibility, they were offered for sale rather than distributed for free. As Lansdale predicted, they were then passed along throughout the north, and the almanac proved to be an especially big seller in the main refugee port of Haiphong. Indeed, the almanac proved to be so popular among the Vietnamese that it had a second printing and turned a profit, which Lansdale used to subsidize his other operations.
Knowing firsthand the power of the press, Lansdale sought to destroy the largest printing presses in Hanoi, and in September the northern SMM team raced to the site, only to find that the Viet Minh had already placed security guards at the plant.
In an effort to destabilize the north’s infrastructure, Conein’s people in Hanoi attempted to sabotage the transportation systems—contaminating the oil supply of the city’s bus company and taking initial action to impair of the north’s railroad system. Lansdale also wanted to sabotage the north’s power and water plants, and its harbors and bridges, but the U.S. adherence to the Geneva Accords prevented such action. Nonetheless, the team did compile detailed notes to use for future paramilitary operations against those potential targets. Conein’s team left Hanoi along with the last French troops to depart the city on October 9, 1954.
To discourage northward migration from the south, the SMM concocted another black leaflet, purporting to originate with the Viet Minh Resistance Committee, that was distributed in southern Viet Minh zones by Vietnamese National Army soldiers disguised as civilians. It helpfully informed people heading to northern Vietnam that “they would be kept safe below decks from imperialist air and submarine attacks.” The missive also instructed refugees to bring warm clothing with them. The “warm clothing” reference was then carefully coupled with a word–of–mouth rumor campaign that Viet Minh were being sent into China to work as railroad laborers. Lansdale wanted Viet Minh supporters to remain south of the 17th Parallel voluntarily so they could be “re-educated later.” He also hoped—by getting their families to resist—to stop the abduction of other young men to the north by the Viet Minh.
The vast majority of the Vietnamese Catholics lived in the north, and many of them required little convincing to move south for a new start under the anti-Communist Catholic Diem. But Lansdale was taking no chances. For those on the fence, the SMM spread rumors that Catholics would be arrested and executed in the north, and that even “the Blessed Virgin Mary had gone south.”
In the end, the SMM efforts contributed to a massive flow of northerners to the south. An estimated 900,000 sought transport to the south, which in turn led to a huge refugee problem as thousands of registrants flooded the Haiphong port for passage. This situation provided Lansdale another prime opportunity to get international publicity and support. Ultimately, several nations volunteered to provide assistance and, along with ships of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, transported refugees south in “Operation Passage to Freedom.”
In return, only about 90,000 people left southern Vietnam for the north. Even so, the SMM took advantage of the northbound refugee flow to facilitate infiltration of Vietnamese agents who had been trained for future operations against the Hanoi government. The movements of the paramilitary teams and their supplies were made under the pretense of working with refugees. While Lansdale’s SMM was successful in smuggling men and supplies from Saigon to sites in the north, these Vietnamese paramilitary groups actually achieved very little.
As the Chief saw it, this massive influx to the south would have a material effect on the Geneva-mandated Vietnam-wide plebiscite specified for the summer of 1956. Ultimately, while Lansdale fell short of the 2 million he hoped for, the transfer served to bring the populations of northern and southern Vietnam into closer balance, at about 12 million apiece.
Diem Solidifies His Grip
Knowing his most important mission was to solidify Diem’s grip on power and improve the functioning of his government, Lansdale worked diligently to coerce and bribe many of Diem’s southern opponents into at least tacit support for the new south Vietnamese leader. He thwarted a plan by the Vietnamese National Army’s chief of staff to launch a coup against Diem, and he made significant cash payments to several leaders of the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects to buy their support. The powerful Binh Xuyen criminal organization, which, with Bao Dai’s consent, controlled much of Saigon, proved the most difficult to deal with. Lansdale played a leading role in influencing key Cao Dai General Trinh Minh The into realigning with Diem after The had temporarily thrown his weight behind the Binh Xuyen in March 1955. With The’s support, Diem sent the army into the Cholon area of Saigon in April to brutally crush the sect.
As Diem’s support and power in the south grew and solidified, he was emboldened to undermine and erode Bao Dai’s political standing, and to make known his refusal to countenance the Geneva-mandated all-Vietnam election in 1956 that would likely pit himself against Ho Chi Minh. Lansdale was encouraging Diem that his prospects in such an election were good, and Western allies were hopeful that it would be the Viet Minh that would pull out of the accord, but Diem had other ideas.
On the anniversary of his installation as prime minister in July, Diem announced his intention to hold a referendum in October to determine the future of the country in the south. A week later, declaring a free and fair election with Communist participation impossible, Diem proclaimed, “We will not be tied down by the [Geneva] treaty that was signed against the wishes of the Vietnamese people.” France-based Bao Dai objected and ultimately removed Diem from his government, but was rendered impotent in Diem’s campaign against him. In early October, Diem announced the referendum, with himself and Bao Dai facing each other in the election, would take place October 23.
Hoping for an outcome similar to Magsaysay’s in the Philippines—a widely recognized fair election—Lansdale told Diem he would likely win overwhelmingly and that he should avoid rigging the vote. But that was not to be the case, and in an election fraught with intimidation and ballot stuffing, Diem emerged victorious with more than 98 percent of the vote. He was, however, thereafter viewed by many as morally compromised and corrupt.
While the United States had little choice but to accept and support Diem, even Lansdale’s immense efforts could not, in the long run, maintain American support for the leader in whom so much was invested. Diem would stand as America’s imperfect anti-Communist mainstay in Saigon until his overthrow and assassination in November 1963—green lighted by the Kennedy administration.
Without the assistance of Lansdale and the black operations of his CIA team, Diem’s success in achieving power and giving birth to the Republic of South Vietnam would have been highly unlikely.
Lansdale remained in Vietnam until the end of 1956, but would return in the 1960s as a major general. He was one of the first Americans to recognize the truly unconventional nature of the war in Vietnam, and his expertise in applied psychological warfare would not be matched by any other American officer. Edward Lansdale’s SMM operation in Vietnam only became known to the public with the release of the Pentagon Papers and the declassification of other confidential Pentagon documents in 1971.
Marc D. Bernstein is a freelance writer specializing in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He is the author of Hurricane at Biak and numerous articles on modern military and naval history.