In the early 1960s, at the dawn of the Kennedy administration, Edward Lansdale had an enviable reputation as a can-do covert-action specialist. An advertising executive turned air force officer and CIA operative, he had in the early 1950s masterminded the defeat of the Huk Rebellion, a communist uprising in the Philippines, and helped to elect his friend, Defense Minister Ramon Magsaysay, as that country’s president. That earned Lansdale a ticket to Saigon in 1954, where, again on behalf of the CIA, he took under his wing another neophyte leader—Ngo Dinh Diem—and helped him to solidify power against heavy odds.
Lansdale’s growing fame led people to say (wrongly) that he was the model for the protagonist in The Quiet American and (rightly) that he was the inspiration for one of the few positive characters in The Ugly American. Some called him the “T.E. Lawrence of Asia” and the “American James Bond.” John F. Kennedy became an admirer, and turned to him for advice about Vietnam and counterinsurgency in general. As head of special operations for the Department of Defense, Lansdale appeared to be well on his way to becoming a dominant force on Vietnam policy within the U.S. government.
Yet by the beginning of 1963 Lansdale had been all but sidelined from Vietnam policy and was on his way to an early retirement from his powerful Pentagon post. By then the secret agent once seen as a Svengali who was able to cause the rise and fall of governments with a few notes from his famous harmonica was being derided by bureaucratic rivals as a “Madison Avenue … con man” and “lucky amateur.” That caricature would seep into journalistic and eventually historical accounts, coloring perceptions of Lansdale for decades to come.
What happened? How did Lansdale plummet so quickly and so far from the heights of power and prestige? His career—like many other promising elements of the Kennedy administration—foundered on the island of Cuba, with ramifications that would in time be felt on the other side of the world in Vietnam.