Wednesday, February 06, 2008

February 6

Edward Geary Lansdale was born 100 years ago today.

He was the sort of fellow for whom the term "blowback" was coined. During his long career with the Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the CIA, Lansdale is best known for his role as an adviser to the South Vietnamese government from 1954 to 1957. A specialist in counterinsurgency, Lansdale had previously enjoyed success in the Philippines, where he aided the former American colony in putting down the Huk rebellion during the early 1950s. Along with the 1953 Iranian coup and the toppling of Guatemala's elected government in 1954, the Huk rebellion persuaded the Eisenhower administration that the United States could impose its will anywhere it chose, with minimal cost and at a volume that was barely audible to the American public.

Following the vicious counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, Lansdale and his advocates hoped their success might be duplicated in Vietnam, where the French had just finished a catastrophic effort to retain their imperial footprint in Asia. Employing “psychological warfare,” Lansdale headed the Saigon Military Mission, a classified group of about a dozen United States soldiers and intelligence agents who spread rumors, counterfeited documents, and organized a campaign of sabotage throughout the North, all of which was intended to disrupt a vote on the reunification of Vietnam, which the 1954 Geneva Accords required. (Although the United States had participated in the negotiations, Eisenhower administration had ultimately chosen not to sign the agreement.) As the northern regions of Vietnam were transitioning from French colonial rule to a communist-dominated government, Lansdale hoped to flood the South with anti-communist refugees who could bolster the government being created and supported by the US. Lansdale’s efforts bore fruit, as more than a million people fled the north. Millions more would flee the region over the next two decades.

During his years in Saigon, Lansdale also helped develop an army that would -- he expected -- be capable of defending itself without the need for direct American intervention. He boosted the political fortunes of Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt autocrat whom the United States regarded as the best hope for a politically independent South Vietnam. Although Lansdale had left Southeast Asia in 1957, he earned the trust and respect of the Kennedy administration, which in 1961 took his advice and accelerated its support for Diem. By the end of Kennedy's first year in office, he had dedicated more than 15,000 American soldiers and military advisers to the cause.

By this time, Lansdale had moved on to other projects. Among other things, he oversaw the efforts -- known as Operation Mongoose -- to topple Fidel Castro, with whom the Kennedy brothers were especially obsessed. Over the next year, as the US began to take full custody of the war in Vietnam, Lansdale hired Cuban gangsters and drug-runners among various other unsavories to carry out raids against the Castro government. The Soviet Union responded by offering to place medium-range ballistic missiles on Cuban soil, a decision that helped bring the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.

During the 1975 Church Committee hearings, which exposed intelligence abuses over the previous several decades, a colleague of Lansdale’s, Thomas Parrot, described one of the battier schemes put forward by Lansdale’s office during the Cuban project.
He had a wonderful plan for getting rid of Castro. This plan consisted of spreading the word that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and that Christ was against Castro [who] was anti-Christ. And you would spread this word around Cuba, and then on whatever date it was, there would be a manifestation of this thing. And at that time -- this is absolutely true -- and at that time just over the horizon there would be an American submarine which would surface off of Cuba and send up some star shells. And this would be the manifestation of the Second Coming and Castro would be overthrown . . . Well, some wag called this operation -- and somebody dubbed this -- Elimination by Illumination.
Lansdale was eliminated by natural causes in February 1987. John Kennedy and Ngo Dinh Diem were eliminated by assassins in November 1963. Fidel Castro has managed, albeit barely, to hang on for quite a bit longer.