The Road Not Taken

Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam

In chronicling the adventurous life of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, The Road Not Taken definitively reframes our understanding of the Vietnam War.

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In this epic biography of Edward Lansdale (1908–87), the man said to be the fictional model for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, bestselling historian Max Boot demonstrates how Lansdale pioneered a “hearts and mind” diplomacy, first in the Philippines, then in Vietnam. It was a visionary policy that, as Boot reveals, was ultimately crushed by America’s giant military bureaucracy, steered by elitist generals and blue-blood diplomats who favored troop buildups and napalm bombs over winning the trust of the people. Through dozens of interviews and access to never-before-seen documents—including long-hidden love letters—Boot recasts this cautionary American story, tracing the bold rise and the crashing fall of the roguish “T. E. Lawrence of Asia” from the battle of Dien Bien Phu to the humiliating American evacuation in 1975. Bringing a tragic complexity to this “Ugly American,” Boot rescues Lansdale from historical ignominy and suggests that Vietnam could have been different had we only listened. With reverberations that continue to resonate in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Road Not Taken is a biography of profound historical consequence.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book



Reviews and Endorsements

A brilliant biography of the life—and a riveting description of the times—of Edward Lansdale, one of the most significant figures in post-WWII Philippines and then Vietnam. Just as Neil Sheehan did in A Bright Shining Lie and David Halberstam did in The Best and the Brightest, Max Boot uses superb storytelling skills to cast new light on America’s agonizing involvement in Vietnam. The Road Not Taken not only tells Edward Lansdale’s story with novelistic verve but also situates it wonderfully in the context of his tumultuous experiences—and offers important lessons for the present day.

General David Petraeus (U.S. Army, Ret.), former director of the CIA and commander of the surge in Iraq

There are several outstanding books combined into one here. . . . This is a superb history of the Vietnam conflict and includes fascinating military detail and a firm grasp of both American and Vietnamese politics. . . . Boot’s expertise in counterinsurgency makes his arguments compelling, and his rich portrait of Lansdale as a creative if unpredictable maverick adds a new level of understanding not only to Lansdale himself, but also to the entire Vietnam era. This important book—substantially enhanced by excerpts from Lansdale’s own writing and augmented by outstanding maps—deserves to be read alongside Neil Sheehan’s award-winning A Bright Shining Lie (1988).

Booklist (starred review)

A probing, timely study of wrong turns in the American conduct of the Vietnam War. A historian of America's 'small wars' with a keen eye for the nuances of counterinsurgency, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Boot (Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, 2013, etc.) finds a perfect personification of America's Vietnam in Edward Lansdale. . . . Essential reading for students of military policy and the Vietnam conflict.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

I couldn’t stop reading this engrossing biography of Edward Lansdale, a man who loved his country’s ideals and who secretly fought for them in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Washington, DC. Lansdale’s story is relevant today because he was a key figure in the debate over how and how not to use military force to achieve American foreign policy aims. Through Lansdale’s efforts we got it right in the Philippines, but no one listened to him in Vietnam. He was forgotten by the time we moved into Afghanistan and Iraq. I fervently hope our policymakers read this book.

Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Max Boot, one of the premier military historians writing today, has created a fascinating portrait of Edward Lansdale, a maverick in the mold of T. E. Lawrence. But The Road Not Taken is much more than a biography, begging comparison with monumental narratives like Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. With superb clarity, Boot gives us a compelling look back on the Vietnam tragedy, showing that it was by no means the inevitable result of forces beyond the control of our political and military leaders. Reading this book, I was reminded of Edward Gibbons’s comment that history is little more than “the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind,” emphasis on follies.

Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War

A remarkable piece of work, superbly researched and documented. In an ideal world, it would be required reading for all senior American diplomats being posted to underdeveloped nations. Having worked with Lansdale during an important period in his career, I particularly noted how Max Boot skillfully dissected his modus operandi.

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Samuel V. Wilson, former director, Defense Intelligence Agency

As one of the last few links to Lansdale, who was also one of his closest on-the-ground collaborators, I can attest that this biography of him is the best, most accurate, revealing and complete portrait yet produced. Even with all I knew, I learned a great deal more that was new, which broadened my understanding of this extraordinary man. The very human way he helped the Filipino and Vietnamese people defend their inalienable rights is a shining model to be followed by current and future generations of Americans assigned abroad to assist fragile nations.

Rufus Phillips, author of Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned

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