Meet the Mild-Mannered Spy Who Made Himself the ‘American James Bond’

Edward Lansdale’s most successful covert operations may have been crafting his own reputation.

Major General Edward Lansdale, 1963 (U.S. Air Force Photograph)
Major General Edward Lansdale, 1963 (U.S. Air Force Photograph)

The legend of Lawrence of Arabia was concocted single-handedly by the American impresario Lowell Thomas, who in 1919 premiered a lecture and slide show on Col. T.E. Lawrence’s exploits that played to packed houses in New York and London and beyond. The legend of Edward Lansdale — the former ad man-turned-CIA officer who became known as the “American James Bond” and the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia” — had more authors, but perhaps the most important (and inadvertent) was the eminent English writer Graham Greene.

But Lansdale had a hand, too. In fact, one of Lansdale’s stealthiest and most successful covert ops would be to subvert Greene’s intent, turning his anti-American novel into a pro-American movie — and thereby securing his own reputation.

In December 1955, Greene published The Quiet American, a novel featuring a character named Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, who was an American intelligence operative, a supporter of Vietnamese warlord Trinh Minh The’s, the owner of a black dog, and an enthusiast for promoting a “third force” — that is, a democratic alternative to communism and colonialism.

It was an almost exact replica of Col. Lansdale, who since coming to Saigon in the summer of 1954, fresh off his success in masterminding the defeat of a communist insurgency (the Huk Rebellion) in the Philippines, had become the least secretive secret agent in town. He had become well known for championing newly appointed Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem as an alternative to both the French and the communist Vietminh and for working with Trinh Minh The, whom the French reviled as a terrorist for his attacks on French troops and civilians, to bring him over to Diem’s side. Lansdale even had a black poodle named Pierre who accompanied him everywhere, and he took a soft-spoken approach to dealing with Filipinos and Vietnamese — he preferred to listen rather than lecture. In other words, he really was the “quiet American.”

For understandable reasons, the widespread assumption, held not least by Lansdale himself, was that he was the model for the protagonist, who was hardly painted in flattering hues: Greene depicted Pyle as a naive young interloper who supplied Trinh Minh The with explosives that maimed innocent Vietnamese (something that neither Lansdale nor any other CIA officer did in real life). “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,” sighs Thomas Fowler, the world-weary English correspondent who is the novel’s narrator. In retribution, he would arrange for Pyle to be murdered by the Vietminh.

Lansdale first heard of the new book at a diplomatic party early in 1956. As he reported to his wife, Helen, in a previously undisclosed letter:

At the reception, the Embassy staff were teasing me about my love life. Seems that Graham Greene has written a new novel, supposedly based upon me. Called the “Quiet Man” or maybe it’s the “Quiet American.” Anyhow, a naïve American, me, makes friends with a murderous Vietnamese called General The (Trinh Minh The, I suppose) who fools him and leads him astray, but the American finally wakes up and finds he has been sucked in by a very despicable guy. Meanwhile the story says he has had a wild love life, I presume due to General The. Sounds as though the French propagandists are really able to sell a bill of goods to the British, since the French peddled stories that I was very naïve and The sold me a bill.

By mid-February, Lansdale had managed to get his hands on a copy and decided that “the book has about everything wrong politically.” It was also wrong in details such as Greene’s inaccurate description of plastic explosives. “However,” he continued, “I like the way the fellow writes.… Trouble is, it will fill a lot of Americans with quite a false picture of things here, and follows the French propaganda line quite faithfully, despite its being critical of the French.”

Lansdale remembered seeing the English novelist only once, in 1954, when Greene was sitting on the terrace of the colonial-era Continental Hotel, a favorite haunt of expatriates in Saigon, along with a large number of French officers who began to boo Lansdale when they saw him. Lansdale was with two of his friends, the husband and wife New York Times correspondents F. Tillman Durdin and Peggy Durdin. The latter stuck her tongue out at the crowd on the terrace and said, “But we love him,” and turned around and gave Lansdale a “big hug and kiss.” In an anecdote a bit too good to be true, Lansdale recalled saying, “Well, I’m going to get written up someplace as a dirty dog. Thanks a lot!”

In truth, Greene always denied that he modeled Pyle on Lansdale. “Pyle was a younger, more innocent, and more idealistic member of the CIA,” he wrote. “I would never have chosen Colonel Lansdale, as he then was, to represent the danger of innocence.” The novelist claimed that his inspiration was Leo Hochstetter, a young American economic aid official with whom he had shared a room one night while visiting the Vietnamese countryside. According to Greene, Hochstetter, who was assumed by the French to “belong to the CIA,” lectured him on the “long drive back to Saigon on the necessity of finding a ‘third force in Vietnam.’” Greene’s denials are buttressed by the fact that while he worked on The Quiet American between March 1952 and June 1955, he completed a draft before Lansdale arrived in Vietnam for good in June 1954. That makes it unlikely that Lansdale was the model for Pyle, as generations of writers have assumed, but The Quiet American’s success only added to Lansdale’s luster by association.

If The Quiet American, the novel, was anti-American, the movie version, which came out in 1958, was very different. In the movie, Trinh Minh The is not really responsible for the terrorist bombings in Saigon — the Vietminh are. Trinh Minh The, along with the Alden Pyle character (played rather woodenly by war hero Audie Murphy), is framed by the Communists. Thomas Fowler (the veteran English actor Michael Redgrave) sets up Pyle to be killed by the Vietminh not because of his revulsion at Pyle’s complicity in terrorism but because he is a Communist dupe who is intensely jealous of Pyle for stealing his Vietnamese girlfriend, Phuong — played, bizarrely, by the Italian actress Giorgia Moll. The cinematic version ends with Inspector Vigot (Claude Dauphin), the detective investigating Pyle’s murder, telling Fowler that he has been “used” and “childishly manipulated” by the Communists: “If you will pardon my attempt at colloquial English, Mr. Fowler, they have made a bloody fool of you.”

This was a neat inversion of Greene’s plot, one that infuriated the author, who later decried the “treachery” of the film’s writer and director, Joseph Mankiewicz. (The second movie version of The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, would be more faithful to the novel, but Greene would not live to see its release in 2002.) What Greene may not have realized was that Lansdale had taken a considerable hand in altering the movie’s political message to make it pro-American.

Lansdale met Mankiewicz when the filmmaker arrived in Saigon at the end of January 1956 to research the script. The product of a leading Hollywood family (his older brother, Herman, was the screenwriter of Citizen Kane), Mankiewicz had won Oscars as the director and writer of A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). More recently he had directed Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (1953) and Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Richard Burton, who later worked with him on Cleopatra (1963), wrote that Mankiewicz was himself a quiet American — an “Oxford don manqué,” with an “ever-present pipe” and a “way of making considered statements with his twinkling eyes peering through a miasma of tobacco smoke.”

With a talent for witty, ribald tales, Mankiewicz was just the sort of person who would have gotten along well with a CIA operative who had once dreamed of becoming a New Yorker cartoonist. Over dinner at Lansdale’s Rue Duy Tan house, Mankiewicz said he had bought film rights to The Quiet American “to prevent the British or French from making an anti-U.S. movie.” Lansdale helped him craft an alternative storyline. A few weeks later, Lansdale wrote to his wife, “Seems that Mankiewicz liked the plot twist for ‘The Quiet American’ that we discussed.… Quite a change in the French propaganda!” A month later, Lansdale sent Mankiewicz a follow-up letter urging him to “go right ahead and let it be finally revealed that the Communists did it after all.”

A liberal anti-communist, Mankiewicz took Lansdale’s advice and produced a film that Greene did not recognize. He was able to win permission from Diem to film in Vietnam — the first Western moviemaker granted that privilege — thanks to Lansdale’s intervention. In October 1957, when the film was ready for viewing, Lansdale wrote to Diem that “Mr. Mankiewicz’s ‘treatment’ of the story” was “an excellent change from Mr. Greene’s novel of despair” — “I feel that it will help win more friends for you and Vietnam in many places in the world where it is shown.” Lansdale arranged a screening of the film in Washington, inviting representatives from “practically all [U.S. government] departments, agencies, and services concerned with psychological, political, and security affairs.” “They all seemed to enjoy it as much as I did,” Lansdale wrote to his old friend Gen. John “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, a former head of the military assistance group in Saigon who was now retired from the U.S. Army and chairman of a new lobby group, the American Friends of Vietnam, which had been formed to support the Diem regime. On Jan. 22, 1958, the American Friends of Vietnam, whose ranks came to include prominent politicians, academics, and journalists, sponsored a “world premiere” screening of The Quiet American in Washington. Tout le monde of “Washington’s society” turned out “in all its glitter,” wrote the pro-Diem Times of Viet Nam.

Lansdale’s handling of The Quiet American was as deft a propaganda coup as any American operative had ever pulled off. And it was entirely in keeping with Lansdale’s method of operating. Ever since his prewar days in the advertising industry in California, he had a talent for “pay ops,” such as spreading rumors in the Philippines that a vampire, known as an aswang, was targeting Huk rebels — a charade made more convincing after a Philippine army unit left puncture marks in the neck of a dead guerrilla. In Vietnam, he had already orchestrated a virtuoso campaign to convince nearly a million refugees to flee North Vietnam by such steps as hiring a soothsayer to predict good fortune for South Vietnam and bad luck for the North. The difference this time was that he was not just shaping South Vietnam’s reputation but his own. The problem that Lansdale would face in the future is that he would have trouble living up to his own legend — and dealing with all the animosity his growing fame aroused among his bureaucratic rivals.

This excerpt is adapted from Max Boot’s new book The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot

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