Too Smart to Learn

He "unceremoniously dumped his cargo of dirty weapons caked with mud and blood on the secretary's immaculate desk." Imagine that moment when the controversial, larger-than-life intelligence operative Ed Lansdale tried to make a point by depositing that mess on then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's desk in the early 1960s?

Max Boot's new book, The Road not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam conveys this and other stories of Lansdale's efforts to persuade U.S. policymakers that their heavy-handed, top-down approach to the war in Vietnam was fatally flawed. Lansdale is not well known to most Americans. The man Boot refers to as "the American T.E. Lawrence" nonetheless made a mark on 20th Century U.S. foreign policy - for better and worse. 

This colorful anecdote underscores just how difficult it can be to teach smart people. Better put, trying to persuade a genius (self-proclaimed or otherwise) that their course of action is wrong can be a painful, no-win battle. After all, McNamara was one of the brainy "whiz kids," a Harvard MBA who became president of Ford Motor Company. He was a man of science and business. He saw the world in logical, mathematical formulations. This meant he was certain that victory in Vietnam would result from the most effective and efficient deployment of technologically sophisticated weaponry. 

Lansdale was a psychological operations specialist. He understood human nature, especially its stubbornness and seeming irrationality. He knew that no amount of hardware - bombs raining down from on high - and the indiscriminate killing it levied would conquer a people on their home turf engaged in a civil war and employing asymmetrical military tactics. McNamara's world view - everything that had made him such a stunning success at so early an age - did not allow him to see beyond what he already knew so well. He was too smart for his own good, certain of the correctness of the American approach to the war, to allow human factors to enter into his thinking. His brilliance blinded him to common sense and the rest, as they say, is history - a very tragic, painful history, too.

Photo of Edward Lansdale courtesy of Vietnam Veterans News