America’s Mandarin 4

Dulles used the same argument that month in Paris against Prime Minister Mendes-France, who described Diem as “wholly negative.” The following May, a similar dispute was to set Dulles against Mendes-France’s successor, Edgar Faure, who called Diem “not only incapable but mad.” Faure’s fury secretly delighted Dulles, since it precipitated a French decision to pull out of Vietnam prematurely— which they might have done anyway to redirect their resources to the war that had broken out in Algeria in November 1954.
The U.S. commitment in Vietnam hardened, but American sway over Diem was always ephemeral. The plaintive if imperious tone of a message from General Collins to Washington at the time expressed the chronic U.S. diplomatic headache: “He pays more attention to the advice of his brothers . . . than he does to me. ”
One American did influence Diem in those days, though his clout has been exaggerated by both his admirers and critics. Colonel Edward G. Lansdale had served with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and he afterward helped Ramon Magsaysay, the Phil¬ippine leader, to crush the Communist-led Hukbalahap rebels. A de¬ceptively mild, self-effacing former advertising executive, Lansdale counted on “psychological warfare” techniques that resembled ad¬vertising gipimicks. He also exuded a brand of artless goodwill that overlooked the deeper dynamics of revolutionary upheavals, and he seemed to be oblivious to the social and cultural complexities of Asia. William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the authors of The Ugly American, glorified him as Colonel Edwin Hillendale, who captured “hearts and minds” with his harmonica. Graham Greene depicted him in The Quiet American as Alden Pyle, the naive U.S. official who believed that Vietnamese peasants instilled with the precepts of town hall democracy would resist Communism. Lansdale made it all sound simple, as he did in a “counterinsurgency” training course for Amer-icans years later: “Just remember this, ” he advised. “Communist guer¬rillas hide among the people. If you win the people over to your side, the Communist guerrillas have no place to hide. With no place to hide, you can find them. Then, as military men, fix them . . . finish them!”
Lansdale had landed in Vietnam in June 1954, nearly a month before Diem’s return as prime minister. He set up the Saigon Military Mis¬sion, a covert American group of a dozen soldiers and intelligence agents who were specialists in “dirty tricks.” To sow dissension be¬tween the Vietminh and China, for instance, they spread rumors that Chinese Communist troops had pillaged Vietnamese villages in the north. They counterfeited Vietminh documents to frighten peasants, and they recruited soothsayers to create fake forecasts of doom under Communism. The Central Intelligence Agency furnished Lansdale with funds to bring in Philippine auxiliaries, and it also subsidized his clandestine operations in Hanoi, which had not yet come under full Vietminh control as prescribed under the Geneva agreement timetable. Heading the northern team was Major Lucien Conein, a rough-and- tumble officer of French birth who had fought against the Germans with the French resistance during World War II, and had worked with the OSS in Vietnam a decade earlier. He was to be a decisive figure in the coup d’etat against Diem in 1963.
Instructed to sabotage the transportation network in the north in anticipation of the Vietminh takeover, Conein and his colleagues laced the oil destined for Hanoi’s trams with acid, and they concealed ex¬plosives in the piles of coal that fueled railway locomotives. Conein proposed blowing up the Standard Oil and Shell storage tanks located at Haiphong, but his idea was rejected on the grounds that “we’ll need them when we go back. ”
In violation of the Geneva accords, Conein and his team also formed secret squads of Vietnamese composed of anti-Communist political activists. These so-called stay-behind squads, comprising about two hundred men split into two groups, code-named the Hoa and the Binh, were intended to harass the Vietminh. They were trained at Clark Air Field, an American base in the Philippines, and infiltrated back to Vietnam aboard U.S. navy vessels. The Conein team hid their arms and ammunition along the banks of the Red River as well as in Hanoi cemeteries by organizing phony funerals and burying the equip¬ment in tightly sealed coffins. The undercover squads were not ex-pected to stage major uprisings but merely foment unrest that could be exploited for psychological purposes. Their other function was to gather information, again to be employed for propaganda. They ac¬complished little. Most of them were eventually rounded up and tried, thus giving the regime in Hanoi a chance to denounce the United States and its Saigon clients for subversion. Other such squads would be deployed in North Vietnam in later years, but the early effort failed, Conein recalled to me, because “we did it all too quickly.”
Lansdale also played a part in the massive movement of refugees from north to south—though, again, his role has been inflated in some accounts. Nearly a million Vietnamese made the journey—a forerun¬ner of the tremendous flight of “boat people” from Vietnam after the Communists gained control of the entire country in 1975. The ma¬jority were Catholics, whole communities of whom fled, their priests in the lead; others included various factions that had opposed the Vietminh. The United States and France provided ships and aircraft for their voyage. The refugees from the north were to furrtish Diem with a fiercely anti-Communist constituency in the south, and thus their exodus was politically important. Lansdale encouraged the Cath¬olics by broadcasting slogans like “the Virgin Mary is going south,” but he put his own contribution in perspective, as he later explained to me: “People just don’t pull up their roots and transplant themselves because of slogans. They honestly feared what might happen to them, and the emotion was strong enough to overcome their attachment to their land, their homes, and their ancestral graves. So the initiative was very much theirs—and we mainly made the transportation possible.”

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