Small Wars Journal

Book Review: How  America’s Consular Service Gets Smart! A Review of the Quiet, the Good, and the Ugly Americans

Thu, 06/30/2022 - 12:33pm

How  America’s Consular Service Gets Smart!

A Review of the Quiet, the Good, and the Ugly Americans


By Tony Waters



I. From Satire to Tragedy: Four Books Explain American Spy Habits

a.  Satirizing America’s Exceptional Post World War II Diplomacy

b.  Dick Cheney’s Heroes: The Quiet, Good, and Ugly Americans

II. Chiangmai’s New American Consulate Building

            a.  Consulates Are Not Just About Visas and Passports

            b. The Good Americans in northern Thailand, 1945 to now


III. The Quiet, the Good, and Ugly American: Four Spies and a Humanitarian


IV. The Good Quiet Americans: The ephemeral victories of Edward Landsdale, Alden Pyle, and Colonel Hillandale


V. The Ephemeral Triumph of Greene’s Satirical Quiet American Genre

a.  Is Afghanistan Moving to Chiang Mai: Balancing Tragedy and Satir

b. The Confused American: from tragedy to satire

c. The US Consulate in Chiangmai: from hubris to farce


VI.  When Tragedy Trumps Satire




Review Essay


How America’s Consular Service Gets Smart!

A Review of the Quiet, the Good, and the Ugly Americans


By Tony Waters


Anderson, Scott (2020). The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three parts. New York: Doubleday.


Burdick, Eugene and William Lederer (1958/2019).  The Ugly American.  New York: W.W. Norton


Greene, Graham (1955/2002).  The Quiet American. New York: Penguin Books.


Kaplan, Robert (2020) The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian. New York: Random House




I. From Satire to Tragedy: Four Books Explain American Spy Habits

            I started this essay as a review about two recent books, Robert Kaplan’s (2021), The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian, and Scott Anderson (2020), The Quiet Americans: Four CIA spies at the dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three parts.  When I first picked the books up, I expected irony, and perhaps satire, just like two novels published in the 1950s which had roughly the same titles: The Quiet American by Graham Greene, and The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer.  Both of these earlier books anticipated the catastrophes emerging from America’s diplomatic-military complex, first in first Vietnam (1975), and later in Afghanistan (2021). Both 1950s novels are savage satires of American naivete.  The basic critique of both older books is that the flawed assumptions of American exceptionalism is doomed to fail wherever it is tried.

The two new books are different.  They do not find satire, but instead find tragedy at the heart of America’s foreign policy misadventures.  The tragedy being that the five wise protagonists, four from the CIA, and one from the State Department, were ignored by official Washington.  The protagonists feature in the two books are not creatures of Washington, but from the field, and they are presented as the best that an exceptional America offer. If only the political bosses in Washington had listened to the politically savvy CIA agents Anderson describes in The Quiet Americans, men like Michael Burke, Frank Winser, Peter Sichel, Maxwell Smart, and the best-known spy, Edward Lansdale, policies from Vietnam to Afghanistan would have turned out better.  In other words, the mistakes were not in American attempts to dominate countries like the Philippines, South Vietnam, Thailand, and Afghanistan, but that the “on the ground” spies were ignored. 

Robert Kaplan’s The Good American is written with the same tragic assumptions. The book describes the roles that Robert Gersony played in developing USAID policy in supporting US adventures abroad particularly after the 1980s.  Gersony’s story begins with is experience as a soldier in Vietnam, and then continues to Pax Americana’s humanitarian hotspots for the next 40 years.  A big problem the book asserts, was that Gersony operated always in the context of an omni-present Department of Defense which often had hostile relationship with USAID and the State Department. The problem was not how the problem was framed, but how it was implemented.

What all of the American agencies share is a faith in the special exceptional place that America sees for itself in the world.  Kaplan even presciently cites Greene’s book, but only pointing to the tragedy of the situation, and missing the satire, just like Anderson did.  Kaplan wrote,

…Bob Gersony … was immersed in the local complexities of every situation he came across around the globe, even if he had no eye for the local landscape. He was intense and committed, but … not in the way that Greene decried. He hated grand schemes and formulas … He understood the tragedy and irony of good intentions. Graham Greene certainly would have approved. p. 443.


Or maybe Greene would not have approved? After all, “no eye for the local landscape,” can hardly be reconciled with “immersed in the local complexities.” Satire and tragedy are in fact different literary genre.  Satire points to farce which does not necessarily carry a plausible solution.  But tragedy carries with it an assumption that if only a particular road were taken, things would have turned out better. With tragedy, humans are still in control of their destiny, if only they can find the right road.  Satire points to farce.


a) Satirizing America’s Exceptional Post World War II Diplomacy


The United States since World War II has pretended that American doctrine is the solution to any problem—that the basic formula of American exceptionalism with its emphases on democracy, human rights, free markets, and overwhelming military power, is the natural political order. The Americans viewed themselves as saviors, the ones who could bring exceptional American civilization wherever it was lacking. This indeed was the assumption embedded in the two new books.  But it is not the assumption of the two older books which with such similar titles.

Shortly after World War II, the United States embarked on an expansionary diplomacy.  At the heart of it was the hubris of The Good American, the American who won World War II in the name of democracy and freedom against fascism and tyranny. Left out were the compromises that this Good American made with their allies.  They compromised with the colonial powers Britain and France who were democratic only at home, and the dictators of China and the Soviet Union.  But anyway, the reasoning went, compromises were necessary when faced with, Nazi Germany, Fascist Japan, and hapless Italy. Expedience sometimes trumps The Good, another assumption embedded in American Exceptionalism.

The end of World War II led to a collapse of the Alliance.  Communist Soviet Union took over eastern Europe, and facilitated the collapse of the American-allied dictator in Nationalist China. China would morph into Mao Zedong’s Red China which then became an enemy of the United States.  The United States still sought The Good, and turned to its remaining Allies, Great Britain, and France, to re-establish the club to protect democracy.  But there was that hitch—both countries were “colonial powers,” and colonialism is the opposite of democratic and free. So again expedience trumped The Good as it established post-war foreign policy doctrine.  America remained on a war footing—just a new quieter version—with a Cold War run out of shadowy corridors of CIA headquarters in Langley, the National Security Administration in suburban Maryland, and the State Department.  Using secrecy and skullduggery to defend “democracy” is of course ironic since after all democracy is by its very nature transparent, open, non-coercive, and free! The point was to make them more American, even when it required, as Dick Cheney ominously said in 2001, we have to get smart too, “We do have to work on the dark side if you will.  We’re going to spend the time in the shadows, in the intelligence world.  A lot of what needs to be done without any [transparency or democratic] discussion….” 

But back to 1946. The immediate problem was, how would the Good American turn all those soon-to-be-former European colonies into neo-Americas?  And how could the former Allies in the Soviet Union and China be blocked from sending out the Bad-Soviet, and the Bad-Chinese to poison the project?  And thus, the collateral damage of the Cold War would be shooting wars in places like The Philippines, Vietnam, Angola, Ethiopia, Central America, the Middle East, etc., etc.  The secret guys, those smart guys working in the US embassies and military bases assured us collateral damage was ok.  They had secret information—information better than the rest of us had.  And besides American business prospered, even if the lands saved were bombed back to being deserts.

And this was the rationale used to create what is thought of today as the victory of The Good America over tyranny. When the Cold War ended in 1989-1991.  The Good Americans freed not only the colonies of Asia, Latin America, and Africa, but also all of Eastern Europe.  Sure, the existence of Secret Squirrel three-letter agencies like CIA, FBI, NSA, DEA, DOD, DOS etc. still dominated foreign policy from the shadows, ominously justifying secret budgets, and bigger embassy buildings with secure connections to Washington.  But America still viewed itself as the world’s last great hope.  Enemies may shift, but the exceptional means remained.


b.  Dick Cheney’s Heroes: The Quiet, Good, and Ugly Americans

Which brings me back to the four books being reviewed here.  The strangeness of the whole enterprise was already evident to Graham Greene who wrote a biting satire, The Quiet American in, 1953 about hapless Americans working between a decaying French Empire while The Reds under nationalist Ho Chi Minh lurked in the forests.  The satire Greene created involved young, ambitious, and smart Americans who applied the best of American reason, that of Harvard no less! And all was to be controlled from the secret basement rooms under the US Embassy.

The new tools the CIA used started with the soft ones of psychology that would reach out to the hearts and minds of poor Vietnamese peasants who secretly admired America, so how could America lose? And when that didn’t work, there was the expanding military arsenal controlled from the same embassies—also the most sophisticated in the world!

So what tripped the American up?  Greene points to the simple wiles of a beautiful teenage bargirl in The Quiet American.  The nerdy horny brilliance of a young American idealist, negotiating at the highest levels with Vietnamese government officials and warlords, while

… absorbed … in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; [Alden Pyle] was determined—I learnt that very soon—to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world (p. 7).


But the brilliant Alden Pyle of Harvard, was still outsmarted by that uneducated bargirl he shared with a grumpy British journalist. No psy-ops or military arsenal could defend Pyle from that, and indeed in the novel Alden Pyle ends up face down in a Saigon canal, betrayed by a Vietnam he sought to save.  So what Graham Greene’s satire showed in 1953 was that the means of the Cold War made the whole endeavor a fool’s errand; Vietnamese hearts and minds are not necessarily convincible with Harvard degrees and Langley’s guns. 

To drive home Greene’s point, three years later, Burdick and Lederer published The Ugly America) in the fictional land of Sarkhan, a stand-in for the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, etc. American naivete and hubris again ran into the realities of local nationalism and longing for freedom from colonial domination. The longing bumps up against an American bureaucratic apparatus that assumes that the only way to a nationalist heart and mind is the American flag, bribes to government officials, importing equipment (all made in the USA), and when that didn’t work, Dick Cheney’s shadowy arts of assassination, and secret wars.  All done in the name of freedom, transparency, democracy, and profit, all coordinated from the American embassy in Sarakhan by an ambassador who was a political hack with little overseas experience.

Unfortunately, America’s modern foreign services (and Washington-based three letter agencies) missed the joke told by Greene’s The Quiet American and followed up with Burdick and Lederer’s The Ugly American. Which is why that structure familiar around the world, the American Embassy compound continues to be built as command centers.   It is in the bowels of such American compounds that McNamara’s whiz kids created the catastrophe in Vietnam, and the Green Zone where Cheney’s whizzier kids did the same for Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Which is where the five heroes of the two newer books reviewed here, were based after World War II.  They used American embassies, consulates, and military bases as “safe houses” from where they organized networks of informants, i.e., local people ready to serve America’s global interests. Between 1945 and about 1970, the four master spies described by Scott Anderson in The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts, did their thing, as the sub-title says, at the Dawn of the Cold War. The best known of these spies was Edward Lansdale who between the 1940s and 1960s developed the “psyops” of CIA-sponsored coups, election interference, and counter-insurgency first in the Philippines, and later in South Vietnam.  From the end of the Vietnam War, until after the turn of the twenty-first century, Robert Gersony, described in Robert Kaplan’s The Good American, had similar access, but with a humanitarian twist.  He dispensed aid to troubled spots, but only in the fashion his handlers in the Department of State, and Department of Defense approved.

But where the earlier books about the Good and Ugly Americans are satire, the latter two are as Anderson’s subtitle says, tragedy, albeit in three acts. How did satire give way to tragedy, and what does the shift mean?


II. Chiangmai’s new United States Consulate Building

The square footage available to overseas Secret Squirrel America shrunk a great deal in 2021 following the collapse of Afghanistan, Official USA lost control of the US Embassy in Kabul, and of course the two square miles of facilities at the secret CIA facility described in the New York Times.  But not to worry.  Displaced official Americans from Afghanistan, who managed stealth wars in Eastern Europe (1945-1989), Southeast Asian Wars (1953-1975), Central America (1980 and after), Mexican drug wars (2006 and after) and most vigorously the Global War on Terror (2001 and after) are getting at least one secure new home in Thailand. Thus, the US “Consulate” in Chiangmai, and a new “Annex” to the US Embassy in Bangkok are being built at a cost of $800,000,000 according to publicly available figures.  In Bangkok, there will be space for about 1,000 employees; in Chiangmai, at full occupancy there will be only 172, including US Marines.


a) Consulates Are Not Just About Visas and Passports

The Chiangmai consulate traditionally has two official functions, or so I was told in 2019 at a meeting called for US residents of Chiangmai, by US Consul General Sean O’Neill.  For Thai, they process visa applications to visit the United States.  For Americans like me who lived in northern Thailand, they process passports, birth certificates, and death certificates.  Which of course raises the question, why does the consulate need a new building with 114,000 square feet, and three main buildings (three stories each), room for 172 employees, all on a six acre plot of land? 

But this consulate in fact has little to do with helping Americans like me or issuing visas to Thai visiting Disney World.  Thailand is a “strategic ally” of the ruling Thai military, facing off against Chinese intelligence services also in Chiangmai, which means perhaps Americans from outside the formal “consular” duties will work at the new facility, too.  In fact, these activities are well-known, done quietly and in the shadows, but were unacknowledged by the Consul General O’Neill, the who presumable was supervising the construction project.


b) The Good Americans in northern Thailand, 1945 to now

Since at least the 1950s, the CIA and friends, operated from northern Thailand and into northern Burma, and southern China.  The approach is an old one tracing its roots back to Embassies in places like Manila, West Berlin, Saigon, Kabul, and Sarakhan.  In a secured corner of a city, an American facility is erected.  The official Americans with the shadowy identities satirized by Graham Greene, then go in and out of the facility. They come from different agencies for which the “CIA” is only a short-hand term.  In Chiangmai, the first ones were probably from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). There were also Air America planes stationed here during the Vietnam War, and in 2018 or so, I even met an American Air Force guy who worked at an American earthquake monitoring facility outside Chiangmai.  But the biggest presence in recent years is probably the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has fought America’s “War on Drugs” in Southeast Asia since the 1970s.

From all such secret agencies in Chiangmai and elsewhere, Information is beamed back to Washington. Solicitations are collected for foreign aid, development projects, military assistance, local political campaign subsidies, police assistance, and other tools designed to create that American-style democracy designed by experts like Alden Pyle.  And when these means do not get the desired American result, embassies in places like Baghdad, Afghanistan, and now even perhaps Chiangmai, they coordinate the guns, missiles, planes, and armor in America’s vast overseas arsenals.  Lansdale, Gersony and others in this process are the cat’s paws for the Washington-based people who hired them.  They are tools of Washington, and not their own creation, no matter how wise they seem to the more hagiographic biographers like Anderson and Kaplan.

In Lansdale’s day, communication was by secret courier, teletype, message drops, shoe phones, and other secret means dramatized by the James Bond film franchise, and the 1960s TV program “Get Smart.”  Today communication is elaborate encrypted internet connections presumably beyond the capacity of Chinese or Thai to tap.  And in that way the conversations Dick Cheney took to the dark side in his War on Terror, began with people like Landsdale in the shadows of Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Central America described in The Quiet Americans. The new facilities in Chiangmai and Bangkok are built with these older glory days in mind.


III. The Good, The Quiet and the Ugly Americans: Four Spies and a Humanitarian

American exceptionalism being what it is, official America see themselves as Good Guys, an image cultivated in popular culture, even when they use not-so-good means.  The American secret services justify their dirty tricks, by pointing to the flaws in their opponents, be they Chinese, Middle Eastern Terrorists, Soviet spies, Southeast Asian Communists, French colonialists, Burmese drug lords, or German Nazi Fascists.  Acting Ambassador to Thailand Michael Heath illustrated this type of thinking when in 2022 he explained to the Thai press that a massive consulate in Chiangmai was needed because, well, the Chinese had four consular offices in Thailand.

Heath’s reasoning follows a tradition inherited from the Cold War.  The means still justify the ends for American’s Good agents.  This was how the four protagonists in Anderson’s book apparently saw themselves.  The story arc is always similar to that used since the World War II alliances were established with Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and Nationalist China.  There are bad guys out there, which justify almost-as-bad behavior by the most virtuous, the Americans.  And in the end of course the whiz kids from McNamara’s Pentagon, and Cheney’s National Security Agency must win.  Or to put the new Chiangmai consulate into popular culture terms, Rambo and Indiana Jones are again pulled out of retirement, and a new actor is identified to play the ageless James Bond.


Indiana Jones, John Rambo, and James Bond are fictional figures. But like Lansdale, Gersony, and the others, they are tragic figures, the field operators who knew best, but are ignored by Washington’s swampish bureaucrats. Scott Anderson’s The Quiet Americans is about the real thing. Four CIA spies carrying the torch of America’s opposition to post-World War II Communism.  They are Michael Burke, Frank Winser, Peter Sichel, and the best-known, Edward Landale.  Burke, Wisner, and Sichel established CIA operations in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia after World War II, attempting to run agents behind the Iron Curtain in a dangerous game with the Soviet NKVD and KGB.  The four spies themselves were given covers as businessmen, teachers, and NGO workers while maintaining privileged access to military bases, embassy compounds, and other American underground “command centers,” all in the name of America’s exceptional form of democracy.

From these facilities emerged operations to recruit locals to collect information, rig elections, and sponsor the occasional coup or assassination.  But they often failed dismally in attempts to actually create American-style democracies. Agents parachuted into Eastern Europe on James Bond-esque Mission Impossibles, as Anderson describes, resulted in the capture of every single one agent.  The betrayal of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was the hardest for Peter Wisner, whose agents disappeared into the Soviet system of prisons; Wisner himself committed suicide on the anniversary of the defeat in Hungary in 1965.

But from a bureaucratic perspective the new Cold War for democracy worked well because agency budgets increased, and the number of staff hired expanded. And so by the early 1960s the Americans adopted the same model, of using agents with “cover” to “run” spies from Hong Kong into Red China (The “Secret War” in Laos was coordinated in part from Chiangmai’s consulate until at least 1975).  These operations ultimately failed in achieving the larger goals of spreading democracy, and the super-spies like Wisner knew this.  As described by Anderson, super-spy Peter Sichel resigned his privileged access to the American Cold War apparatus out of disgust with the inability of “Washington” apparatus to adjust policy to on-the-ground conditions.

But Lt. Col. Edward Lansdale is really at the heart of what went wrong with post-war American spycraft. Lansdale is credited by Anderson with inventing the “hearts and minds” rhetoric of “Psy-Ops” which permeated not only his own work in the Philippines and South Vietnam, but also that of the humanitarian Bob Gersony later in the twentieth century, and on into the twenty-first. The policies and approaches Lansdale created in the Philippines in the 1940s and 1950s were designed to defeat the Hukbalanap guerillas, and then install a government sympathetic to American business and political interests.  Aid money through the State Department, USAID, and even the Peace Corps was to be the carrot. 

As presented by Lansdale and his fans in official Washington, this approach is as simple as taking a jeep into the villages, passing out cigarettes, eating local food, and drinking late into the evening with local politicians.  The simplistic view of “hearts and minds” fit well with American self-regard.  Lansdale invented Psy-Ops to ensure that American-sponsored candidates like his friend and on-base house-guest Ramon Magsaysay would win the Philippine presidency, and then dispense American funds as instructed.  American assets turned a blind eye when military operations conducted raids and assassinations; and used cash, and women to get desired results. Lansdale himself in his own auto-biography proudly recalled how cruel this could be. This account of “summary execution by phlebotomy” is presented uncritically by both Lansdale and his biographer Anderson.

 A combat psywar squad was brought in. It planted stories among town residents of an asuang [spirit] living on the hill where the Huks were based. Two nights later, after giving the stories time to make their way up to the hill camp, the psywar squad set up an ambush along the trail used by the Huks. When a Huk patrol came along the trail, the ambushers silently snatched the last man of the patrol, their move unseen in the dark night. They punctured his neck with two holes, vampire-fashion, held the body up by the heels, drained it of blood, and put the corpse back on the trail. When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the asuang had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on that hill. When daylight came, the whole Huk squadron moved out of the vicinity.”

From the American perspective, Lansdale was so successful that he transferred to South Vietnam (then French Indochina) in 1953, where he succeeded in replacing the departing French secret services with a militarized presence that would result in the American War in Vietnam.  Lansdale helped pick Ngo Dinh Diem to be the American-sponsored President of South Vietnam in 1955, and even protected him from assassination in 1958.  Only after Lansdale’s departure was Ngo finally assassinated in an American-coordinated coup, on November 2, 1963, three weeks before the American President Kennedy was assassinated.

It is clear from Anderson’s description of all four spies, that they operated with frequent rotations between the field and Washington, where they had access to the highest levels of the State Department, Defense Department, FBI, and the White House.  In this respect, they set the modus operandi for what I am watching in Chiang Mai’s consulate today.  The United States is establishing new versions of Clark Air Force Base, and the Saigon Embassy; it is an underground Green Zone, in anticipation of a new Cold War with China in Chiangmai.

How it will work though is better reflected in Kaplan’s book, The Good American. The Good American brings the story of American spycraft up to date, at least from the perspective of the State Department. The State Department’s unofficial fixer, Bob Gersony, a consultant managed to be on the cusp of most American humanitarian efforts after the 1970s, including in Central America, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and the Middle East.  As with the CIA agents, he was easily in and out of US Embassies, and readily admitted to the highest levels of official Washington between the 1970s and early 2000s.  As Kaplan describes, Gersony had a unique capacity for dropping into a trouble spot, collecting on-the-ground information which he could package into readily digestible policy imperatives for his Washington employers. 

But Gersony too was often blindsided, most obviously when he called to the attention of his sponsors mass killings orchestrated by the post-genocide Rwandan government supported by the Americans. The still-secret Gersony UNHCR report of 1995, detailing massacres by the new post-genocide Rwandan government is perhaps what Gersony is best known for.  In this report, Gersony highlighted the retributive massacres conducted by the American-allied Rwandan government, and apparently recommended against further support.  The report itself has never been released, though details leaked.  For his presumed frankness, Gersony is well-regarded in humanitarian circles.  But his discretion while working on Cheney’s “dark side” was also rewarded; after all the whole report never leaked.  And he continued for some years after to work for the US government in the world’s hot spots.

As is documented in the two new books, all five fixers eased into a range of different retirements which variously included alcoholism, suicide, a winery, and grandkids.  And all evinced doubts about the direction that their work in the shadows set them off on, claiming that “if only Washington had listened….”  This capacity to separate themselves from their own acts and the decisions of a distant Washington that hired them, is what their biographers Anderson and Kaplan dismiss as “tragedy.”  But as was once written by Karl Marx, only the first time this happens is it tragedy; the next time it becomes farce.  Which is perhaps why the characters in Greene’s The Quiet American, and Burdick and Lederar’s The Ugly American are still so effective in shaping thoughts about the new American consulate in Chiangmai. Because after all, farce makes a sharper point.


IV. The Good Quiet Americans: The ephemeral victories of Edward Landsdale, Alden Pyle, and Colonel Hillandale

In Edward Lansdale’s obituary in the New York Times, he is credited as being the inspiration for the naïve Ivy Leaguer Alden Pyle seeking a “third way” between Communism and French colonialism, via a Vietnamese mistress. In Graham Greene’s book. In The Ugly American.  Lansdale’s obituary opines he was putatively the inspiration for a less erudite Colonel Hillandale, a swashbuckling army officer who charms “locals” by wandering into villages where he drinks with the locals, eats their food, and through American charm convinces villagers of the righteousness of an American exceptionalism. Implicitly such charm also justifies the summary execution by phlebotomy of a prisoner of war.

 Both classic novels are satirical farces poking fun at official America’s simplistic narratives. Both anticipated what went wrong when the United States took over France’s role in Vietnam, and for that matter Russia’s in Afghanistan decades later.  The satirical nature of the older two books points to the farce American exceptionalism, as used in Saigon (Greene) and the fictional Sarkhan (Burdick and Lederer). The tragedy in the newer two books is that the Washington bureaucracy is erected as a straw man against which the heroic wisdom field operatives like Landsale is compared. This satirical sense is missing from the recent books.  As the fictional spy Maxwell Smart once said, the two new books miss this point by just a little, “by that much.”

In this respect, the two newer books are really not that different from other critiques of American involvement in its foreign wars, like Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, and such popular films as “Apocalypse Now,” “The Deer Hunter,” “The Hurt Locker,” and of course the Rambo franchise.  All blame Washington elites and assume a betrayal of the courageous and exceptional Americans in the field.  The protagonists are perhaps not as street savvy as the men featured in the two new biographies, but the hubris is still there.  America and American values are still assumed to be good and exceptional, corrupted only by the ignoble desk jockeys in Washington. 


a)  Is Afghanistan Moving to Chiang Mai? Balancing Tragedy and Satire

            None of four books here dealt with Thailand directly, though in many respects Thailand is the quintessential case study for all four. Indeed, a future Prime Minister of Thailand, Kukrit Pramoj, played the Prime Minister of Sarakhan opposite Marlon Brando in the 1963 film “The Ugly American.”  Thailand too is deeply embedded as a Cold War ally of the United States.  The first Director of the OSS, General “Wild Bill” Donovan was American Ambassador in Thailand in 1953-1954.  And from the Embassy in Bangkok, and the Consulate in Chiangmai, the CIA coordinated “secret” wars in southern China, Burma, and Laos from the 1950s to the 1970s.  At its peak about 1969, there were 40,000 US troops in Thailand, with thousands more flown in for “Rest and Recreation” at beach resorts where soldiers could find “rent-a-wife” arrangements, or just plain prostitution. In 1976, the bases were abruptly shut down as the Vietnam War ended. But even then the Drug Enforcement Agency ramped up a presence in Chiangmai from which the “War on Drugs” is fought, mainly in Burma and Laos. “Cobra Gold” naval maneuvers are still annually conducted by the Thai and American navies began in 1982. And in 2002, the CIA was bringing high value “assets,” including 9/11 mastermind Abu Zubaydah, to Thailand for torture in facilities outside Bangkok. There future CIA Chief Gina Haskell was the officer in-charge.  

Judging from the massive construction plans in Chiangmai, and what was so recently abandoned in Afghanistan, the hubris remains the same.  The consulate in Chiangmai, and the massive new structure in Bangkok reflect the shadowy habits of American foreign policy for that Dick Cheney, Edward O. Lansdale, and others championed.  Massive amounts of data will be collected about China to feed the machine in Washington, irrespective of the fact that similar techniques preceded disaster from Vietnam to Afghanistan.  Local agents will be recruited and paid.  The end result is fairly predictable.  There will be a “tragic” end to American ambitions in one of the neighboring countries, perhaps Burma, Laos, Cambodia, or somewhere else. Criticism that a twenty-first century Lansdale of Gersony was not listen to will be leaked via the New York Times, The Atlantic, or perhaps another biography heroizing a CIA field agent like Amaryllis Fox.


b) The Confused Americans: The US Consulate in Chiangmai: from hubris to farce

            Greene’s genre combined with the two new books by Anderson and Kaplan might be called that of “Confused” Americans. Liberal values like freedom, democracy, equality, and entrepreneurship justify a righteousness legitimating literally draining blood from a helpless prisoner. Anderson and Kaplan’s books are about such people—five men who represented the United States always quietly, often surreptitiously, and sometimes violently.  Robert Kaplan brings the genre up to date by highlighting Bob Gersony who bestrode the divide between civilian and military power, ostensibly just a modest private contractor, but one had privileged access to the upper levels of the post-Vietnam foreign policy apparatus, with its outstanding capacity for violence.

            Which brings me back to the US Consulate in Chiang Mai, with office space for 172 exceptional employees.  I peered between the fence the other day, and the only structure emerging after all these months are from an underground bunker where undoubtedly a future Edward Lansdale, Bob Gersony, Alden Pyle, John Rambo, Sean O’Neill, and Maxwell Smart will meet in “cones of silence” to confer about the world above ground.  Rumors reported in around town are that four stories down there. 

In that bunker Lansdale’s psy-ops doctrines about “hearts and minds” will be highlighted. Notes from alcohol-soaked conversations, secrets whispered by mistresses, and compliant modernizing “locals” will be compiled, and forced into the pre-existing narrative needed by Washington.  The new theorist from Harvard, references to the latest in Foreign Affairs, Washington-centric career paths, large budgets, worldly power, money, and sex will be entwined while the American dream of a more perfect world. 

The bureaucracy will grind on, acknowledging once again the farce that is Great Game of politics, in which the Good American seeks redemption through the use of guns, bombs and dollars aimed at others.  Missing again will be the views of those people being analyzed, whether they are in Thailand, or any of the other countries subject to the next American war in Asia.  Novelist Terry Harkin wrote satirically about these people in northeastern Thailand in the early 1970s penned an extraordinary picture of the farce that was the Vietnam War, conducted from the US Air Force bases in Northeast Thailand, The Great Buddha Bicycle Race.

            …We came as their saviors and we’ve defiled them.  Couldn’t tame the heathens with Bibles in China so will use bullets this time. Except if McNamara, the great statistician, had done the math, he might have figured out that bags of rice are cheaper than body bags and bullets.  It would have been cheaper to drop “Volkswagens” instead of 500-pound bombs...  Instead we turned Vietnam and Laos into a desert and turned Thailand into a big brothel.  (Terry Harkin pp 292-293).


This new Consulate in Chiangmai is really not about protecting Americans abroad, or issuing visas.  Rather it is for a larger contingent of “consular” employees whose duties are secret, though undoubtedly Good.  The Good Americans heirs of the US State Department, CIA, FBI, DEA, and other “three letter agencies” from Kabul, Baghdad, and elsewhere will be stationed in Chiangmai in coming decades.  The Good and Quiet Americans need a place to continue managing American interests in Asia following the closure of bases in the Philippines, and evacuation of embassies in places from Saigon, to Kabul.  In the end, the “tragedy” of the four Good and Quiet Americans, trumped the satire of Alden Pyle, Colonel Hillandale, and Maxwell Smart.



About the Author(s)

Tony Waters is a Professor of Sociology.  Between 2016 anad 2022, he was Professor of Sociology at Payap University’s Peace Studies Department, Chiangmai, Thailand.  He recently moved to Leuphana University in Germany.  Previously he was Professor of Sociology at California State University Chico for 25 years..  He is the author of eight books, and many articles in academic and popular venues.  He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand from 1980-1982.


Gordon Ward

Tue, 07/26/2022 - 8:59am

Good afternoon. If you allow, I will rely a little on your article in writing my assignment. To be honest, I hardly graduate from the Faculty of History. I did some articles and research papers myself, and some I had to buy an essay online. If only I had the same talent as you. I would love to write myself.