Edward Lansdale's Cold War
A cultural biography of a legendary Cold War figure
The man widely believed to have been the model for Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Edward G. Lansdale (1908–1987) was a Cold War celebrity. A former advertising executive turned undercover CIA agent, he was credited during the 1950s with almost single-handedly preventing a communist takeover of the Philippines and with helping to install Ngo Dinh Diem as president of the American-backed government of South Vietnam. Adding to his notoriety, during the Kennedy administration Lansdale was put in charge of Operation Mongoose, the covert plot to overthrow the government of Cuba’s Fidel Castro by assassination or other means.
In this book, Jonathan Nashel reexamines Lansdale’s role as an agent of American Cold War foreign policy and takes into account both his actual activities and the myths that grew to surround him. In contrast to previous portraits, which tend to depict Lansdale either as the incarnation of U.S. imperialist ambitions or as a farsighted patriot dedicated to the spread of democracy abroad, Nashel offers a more complex and nuanced interpretation. At times we see Lansdale as the arrogant "ugly American," full of confidence that he has every right to make the world in his own image and utterly blind to his own cultural condescension. This is the Lansdale who would use any conceivable gimmick to serve U.S. aims, from rigging elections to sugaring communist gas tanks. Elsewhere, however, he seems genuinely respectful of the cultures he encounters, open to differences and new possibilities, and willing to tailor American interests to Third World needs.
Rather than attempting to reconcile these apparently contradictory images of Lansdale, Nashel explores the ways in which they reflected a broader tension within the culture of Cold War America. The result is less a conventional biography than an analysis of the world in which Lansdale operated and the particular historical forces that shaped him—from the imperatives of anticommunist ideology and the assumptions of modernization theory to the techniques of advertising and the insights of anthropology.
The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, 1927–1961
"The strength of Nashel’s work is the complexity of his Lansdale profile. Not a standard biography, it seeks to assess Lansdale’s career and image in relationship to the events and culture of the Cold War. In addition to attracting scholars in the fields of foreign relations, American studies, cultural history, and Vietnam War history, it will appeal to many general readers of modern U.S. history and biography."—Christian G. Appy, author of Patriots:
The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides
"Presenting a 'mythography' of the Cold War's most mythic character, Nashel examines the many personae represented by Lansdale and by his multiple interpreters. People interested in foreign policy, cultural studies, or spy novels and movies will all enjoy reading this fresh and inventive look at the culture of the Cold War's secret operations. Nashel writes with a verve and color that is worthy of his subject."—Emily S. Rosenberg, author of A Date Which Will Live:
Pearl Harbor in American Memory
"Nashel writes a convincing study of Edward Lansdale and his place in American Cold War culture. Thoroughly researched. . . . (A) major contribution to the cultural and military historiography of the Cold War."—H-Net Reviews
"Nashel makes an important contribution through his careful sifting of the history, legend, and symbolic representation of the notorious CIA 'spook.' The book is well written, effectively organized, and accessible to scholars, students, and the public."—Journal of American History
"As Jonathan Nashel's assiduous, absorbing book reveals, Lansdale was a bundle of contradictions: furtive and flamboyant, shrewd and naive, conspiratorial and idealistic, a charlatan and (almost) an innocent abroad."—Journal of Cold War Studies
"An impressively three-dimensional portrait of this three-dimensional man. Nashel's honesty with his readers puts to shame Lansdale's bluff, faux candor. . . . Reading the book is rather like having an extended conversation with a really interesting person. Nashel's is the most thoughtful and sensitive study of Lansdale we are likely to get, and it is as entertaining and troubling as the subject himself."—Diplomatic History
"A biography of Edward Lansdale, American spook extraordinaire. . . . A specter is haunting Iraq, the specter of Edward Lansdale. Most American troops now battling Iraqi insurgents are too young to know Lansdale's name. But during the cold war he was the Zelig of Washington's global counterinsurgency effort, squelching a rebellion in the Philippines, plotting the overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba and blocking a potential Communist takeover of Vietnam in the first days of America's involvement. . . . Nashel is interested not so much in recounting Lansdale's life and career as in writing what he calls a 'cultural mythography,' exploring Lansdale's connection to American cold-war culture. . . . In truth, as Nashel convincingly demonstrates, the folksy, harmonica-playing Lansdale may have been able to befriend Filipinos and Vietnamese, but he remained blind to the profound cultural differences that separated them from Americans. To Lansdale, the American revolutionaries at Concord and Valley Forge would have recognized the Vietnamese as 'kindred souls.' But his injunctions to Ngo Dinh Diem to imitate George Washington by becoming the father of his country were so maddening that one day Diem shouted at him, 'Stop calling me papa!' As Nashel puts it, Lansdale 'combined a nearly anthropological interest in the indigenous traditions and concerns of Southeast Asians with a passionate and fatal assumption that those traditions could only be leading in the direction of an American-style democracy."—New York Times Book Review
"Jonathan Nashel has written not only a standard biography of Edward Lansdale but also a biographical rumination organized around several themes and offering a heavy dose of cultural analysis. . . . Nashel is broadly successful. . . This is a rewarding and thought-provoking book. The research is wide-ranging and imaginative."—American Communist History