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|Hearts and Minds, Folk Songs, and Psyops|
|1 November 2001|
My number one coping mechanism for taking the edge off a highly stressful life is to draw a (very) hot bath, infuse it with medicinal and soothing herbs, and crawl under the headphones to commune with some old-time comfort music. Being a long-time wannabe musicologist (see Sweet Sweet Music: An American Reflection on Filipino Music or columns that use a musical hook such as Leaving on a Jet Plane or Left by the Boat), I have a couple thousand or so disks reflecting my catholic (small c) tastes, spanning an array of seemingly unrelated genres. Depending on mood and stress level, the soundtrack might consist of delta blues (Bukka White and Robert Pete Williams), hillbilly heaven (nothin' like Hank Williams to make you count your blessings), rockabilly (whole lotta shakin' goin' on), the Abbott Flash (Willie Nelson to non-Texans), standard generational fare (Mick's an old fart now, but he was something in his prime), or primeval gospel (has to do with my upbringing).|
However, on certain occasions - say after an intense week of D & D craziness (deadlines and deliverables, the bane of the consultant's life) - I turn to a particular disk that inevitably flashes me back to certain young adult experiences in Southeast Asia. That disk is In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War1, a labor of love of Professor Lydia M. Fish of SUNY/Buffalo. In the lingo of the folklorist, the songs fall under the category of "occupational folksongs." From my perspective, they fall under the category of existential memories, evoking in middle age a certain warm nostalgia for what once was, what might have been, and what is no more.
Informal songs have always played a key role in the survival mechanisms of the men and women in uniform, particularly in times of war. American soldiers sang their own songs in the trenches of World War I, on desolate South Pacific islands during World War II, in the frozen battlefields of Korea, and in the deltas, jungles, and mountains of Vietnam. Typical themes include praise of heroic feats and lost comrades, sarcastic put downs of other units or services, criticism of know-nothing officers thrust into field command positions, tales of marathon drinking bouts and trysts with exotic women, and parodic complaints about rear echelon commanders.
In the case of Vietnam, remember the time frame and the context of the folk song revival of the early 1960s. A lot of soldiers, and especially young officers who had been on campus, had hung around and jammed in the coffee shops that ringed campuses in those days. They had learned to pick chords and simple melodies on the acoustic guitar and knew Peter, Paul, and Mary and Chad Mitchell songs by heart. Many of the groups that performed in military clubs were Kingston Trio clones, putting new words (often sarcastic) to old tunes. Seemingly incongruous songs like "Where Have all the Flowers Gone?" and "Blowin' in the Wind" were also widely performed.
Most of the folk songs from earlier wars have been lost in the trashbin of history. The soldiers themselves were young and stopped playing the songs when they returned home. Few of the songs were transcribed or recorded. Thus, it seems somewhat of a miracle that so many songs of Vietnam troops were so well preserved.
But not really. Although Lydia Fish recorded the tracks on In Country as part of the Vietnam Veterans Oral History and Folklore Project - at a studio in Evanston Illinois 15 years after we pulled out of Saigon - the origins can be traced to a world-class archive of Vietnam songs donated to the Library of Congress in the 1970s by Edward G. Lansdale. The collection was far more than tapes of random songs; it was a rich and well-documented scholar's dream, with field notes on the singers, detailed descriptions of the settings in which the songs were recorded, and intelligent interpretations of the meaning and context. Professor Fish refers to Lansdale as "a superb accidental folklorist."
Others, however, have used other terms to refer to Major General Edward G. Lansdale. For example, ex-CIA director Bill Colby called him one of the greatest spies of all time, Stanley Karnow called him "pie-a-la-mode American", and Jon Elliston referred to him a "pioneering psywarrior." Per Colby: "His battles were over ideas and his weapons were the tools to convince, not kill. His influence with Asians came from his preference to listen to them more than from a compulsion to tell themů He was more interested in their songs and stories than their armaments and believed the people's rich traditions and history were more important than their military's stockpiles in the long run."
Which brings us, in a convoluted way, to linking this so-far random Pearl back to the Philippines. For it was here that Lansdale first used his in-depth knowledge of psychology and culture to influence people and bring about desired outcomes...
Lansdale spent his young adult years working as an adman in San Francisco. He was a serious student of human behavior and earnest practitioner of the ad trade, which means he was already skilled at manipulating people well before his military career. After Pearl Harbor he joined Bill Donovan's OSS and spent the war writing reports on esoteric subjects. He was fascinated by cultural variation and minutiae - at one point he located a world-famous ichthyologist at Stanford, interviewed him, and wrote a report about handling poisonous fishes in the Pacific. It became a virtual handbook for GIs battling their way through the islands.
Soon after the war ended, Lansdale came to the Philippines as a military intelligence officer. He was fascinated by the country and, unlike most Americans, went to the trouble of exploring the bundoks and really getting to know the people. While most spooks were more interested in espionage or sabotage, Lansdale focused on the psychological dimensions that shape human behavior. He knew that he had to understand what made Filipinos tick in order to be able to have an impact in the country.
About the time Lansdale returned to the states (1946), major changes were underway in the American intelligence community. Truman abolished the OSS and the National Security Act created the CIA (1947); in its initial formulation covert operations were not allowed.
1947 was also the year that George Kennan wrote his influential article in Foreign Affairs under the byline "X." That article could well be the most influential piece of academic theory ever written. It laid out the fundamental tenets of American foreign policy for the next four decades and provided the basis for the theory of containment and justification for such major initiatives as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Berlin Airlift. It also led to the domino theory that later served as the flawed rationale for the Vietnam debacle in which Lansdale was to enthusiastically participate.
The Kennan article also motivated the creation of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) (1948), a spooky organization designed specifically for covert activities (it was eventually merged back into the CIA in 1952). The National Security Council (NSC 10/2, June 1948) defined covert action as actions that are "planned and executed so that any US Government responsibility is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the US Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility." (Shades of Mission Impossible! "Good morning Mr. Phelps . . . As always, if you or your IMF force should be caught or killed the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-distruct in five seconds. Good luck.") Lansdale joined OPC in November 1949. Although ostensibly an Air Force officer, he was from Day 1 a key operative and free agent in Uncle Sam's evolving cold war, soon becoming by default the intelligence community's expert on the Philippines. Before you could say "anti-communism," he was avidly training visiting Filipino officers in intelligence techniques and looking for ways to help move the Republic of the Philippines along the desired path of development (that being, of course, to emulate the American way).
By 1949, the Philippines was, not to put too fine a point on it, in a mess. President Quirino had proven ineffective, corruption was extensive and threatening to destroy the fledgling democracy, and the Huk rebellion was looking like a major threat to the Free World. The Hukbalahap (a Tagalog acronym for Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon, literally "People's Anti-Japanese Army") were a communist-led peasant uprising in central Luzon. And they were dangerously close to victory. Not surprisingly, the Washington establishment, including the spooks and Lansdale as resident Philippines expert, were concerned about the growing commie threat in the former American colony.
Salvation came in the form of an earnest young Philippine legislator who visited DC to lobby for funding for Philippine war vets - Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale happened to meet him and, impressed by his apparent savvy and politically correct anti-communist philosophies, promptly identified him as a potential solution. At Lansdale's instigation, Magsaysay became a favorite of the administration and - quick as a whistle - the State Department was lobbying the Quirino government to make Magsaysay Secretary of Defense. And lobbying with clout. Millions of dollars in economic and military aid were made contingent on the move. Without even understanding why, Quirino gave in and Magsaysay became the Defense Secretary, with the primary mission of defeating the Huks.
Not by coincidence, Lansdale was posted to Manila in 1950 on a hush-hush basis, his mission so secret that the Embassy and CIA were told to give him whatever help he needed but not to ask questions. Lansdale's homey, down-to-earth manner and can-do Yankee philosophy disguised a master manipulator and world-class hustler. His chutzpah is reflected in the fact that he had finagled the appointment to Manila, but was only initially given a three-month temporary duty assignment (his handlers were, probably rightly, a bit reluctant about giving him carte blanche halfway around the world). But he made all the right moves and managed to parlay the situation into a freewheeling posting that lasted four years.
Lansdale became Mutt to Magsaysay's Jeff. They were inseparable, often talking late into the night. Actually, Lansdale did most of the talking and Magsaysay most of the listening. Lansdale was in his advertising mode, selling a product (truth, justice, and the American way) with zeal and gusto. Magsaysay bought wholeheartedly.
Lansdale was above all else a hands-on operator. One of his first priorities was to learn everything he possibly could about the Huks. Not surprisingly, he discovered that accurate information was hard to come across in Manila. His solution? He asked around and identified the trails the Huks traveled on and headed for the hills with a bodyguard and translator. They camped out until some Huks happened by, then engaged in impromptu focus groups to talk about, among other things, music, traditions, and folktales. Lansdale, in his memoirs, talks of finding particular gratification from learning about "the mournful singing of men and women known as nangangaluluwa as they walked from house to house on All Saints' night telling of lost and hungry tales".
One story, which sounds a bit apocryphal, concerns a certain group of Huks who were entrenched in a strategic location (a mountain). Lansdale figured it was time to put some psyops (psychological operations) into practice. He used local intelligence agents to plant stories in the local community about asuang (vampires) living in the hills. These were not nice creatures, given their propensity to suck the blood out of their victims. One local fortuneteller/psychic picked up some nice income (courtesy of the adman turned spook) by telling the locals that the asuang would only prey on those with evil in their hearts. Then he gave the story time to circulate.
After a few days, he had his men set up an ambush along a trail the Huks used regularly. When a patrol came by, necessarily in single file along a narrow mountainside, they stayed hidden and let them pass. All but one. They grabbed the poor sucker at the tail end of the line. After killing him, they punctured two neat little holes in his neck, then hung him upside down and let all the blood drain from his body. Then the body went back on the trail for the Huks to find when they came back looking for their comrade.
The Huk unit that had previously been so difficult to displace vanished into thin air the next day, leaving the mountain to the government troops.
In addition to leading psyops against the Huks, Lansdale applied his adman skills to grooming Magsaysay for the Presidency. In 1952, Lansdale accompanied Magsaysay on a dog and pony show to the states, culminating in an honorary doctorate from Fordham, the bestowal of coveted US Army medals, and Time magazine naming him "Eisenhower of the Pacific." The United States Information Service (USIS) published pro-Magsaysay pieces freely and various CIA fronts were active in getting out the good word. Everybody in the Philippines knew that Magsaysay was an "Amboy," but unlike in other countries where it would have doomed his political career, it was a badge of honor in the Republic of the Philippines. The Presidential campaign, conducted almost solely in English, featured the Lansdale-crafted slogan "Magsaysay Is My Guy" and a jazzy theme song (the Magsaysay Mambo). Magsaysay won going away, leading to Lansdale being nicknamed "Colonel Landslide."
While Lansdale's psyops no doubt contributed to the defeat of the Huks, their downfall was in large part the result of a crucial defeat when government agents raided the Huk's supposedly secret headquarters in Manila (proving, I suppose, that nothing is secret in Manila). The entire Huk leadership was arrested in one fell swoop. About the same time, Uncle Sam started sending huge shipments of military supplies to the Philippines. Using a variety of tactics that foreshadowed Vietnam, including bombing and strafing the civilian population and employing free fire zones, it wasn't long until the American way prevailed. Magsaysay got all the credit.
The triumph with Magsaysay in the Philippines represented the peak of Lansdale's success. With the Huks defeated and "the Filipino Eisenhower" firmly in control, he headed for Vietnam, where he tried to do the same thing with Ngo Dinh Diem as he had done with Magsaysay. He failed. (For details on these parts of his career, refer to the references cited at the end of this piece).
Later in his career, Lansdale was involved in a variety of stranger and stranger psyops. During the early 1960s, he was the instigator of Operation Mongoose, a bizarre plan to overthrow Castro by convincing the heavily Catholic Cuban population that Castro was the anti-Christ. After having thoroughly indoctrinated the Cubanos with that message, the spooks would spark an uprising by staging nothing less than Jesus' return from the heavens. All they'd have to do would be to fire barrage after barrage of phosphorous shells into the night skies over Havana. His colleagues called it "elimination by illumination." (It never got off the drawing board.)
To return to my opening reflections on the folk songs of Americans in Vietnam. As early as 1955, Lansdale was recoding the Vietnamese singer Pham Duy. During his later tour, beginning 1965, he began his recording in earnest. He held many parties at his ville at 194 Cong Ly in Saigon. Largely marginalized from the war effort, he concentrated his efforts on documenting the music of the time. After returning to the states in 1968, he spent the next decade continuing to collect the songs of Americans in Nam. Friends and acquaintances sent him tapes, and he had numerous parties at which old associates gathered to sing songs at his Virginia home that were missing from his collection.
The resulting archive is incredible. In addition to the two major donations to the US Library of Congress, Lansdale's unedited field tapes reside with the Hoover Institution Archives in Palo Also. These include 68 tapes recorded in Saigon and Virginia from 1968 to 1975, an additional nine tapes of GIs singing their own songs, 18 tapes of Vietnamese music, a tape of Viet Cong songs, and ten tapes of music from the Philippines.
In closing, a quick disclaimer that this Pearl germinated from a recent under-the-phones communing with this music, and that little forethought went into telling a coherent tale. Just a random reflection on the strange ways that people pursue their dreams and the intricate tap dance of Americans with Filipinos over the years. I suppose I also have a certain affinity for Lansdale given the similarities in terms of (a) seeking to understand Filipino culture at a deep level, and (b) a love of music. However, I do not in general practice psyops unless I have to.
Note: Thanks to Dr. Lydia Fish of Buffalo State University for her tremendous work in putting together In Country. In Country is available through Amazon or other online sources, or from Flying Fish records; I strongly recommend it to any Vietnam vets who happen to read these words.
Lydia M. Fish, "General Edward G. Lansdale and the Folksongs of Americans in the Vietnam War" Journal of the American Folklore Society, Volume 102, October-December, 1989
Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America's Empire in the Philippines New York: Ballantine Books, 1989
Cecil B. Currey, Edward Lansdale: The Unquiet American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989
Zalin Grant, Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam New York: W.W. Norton, 1991
Chandler, Robert W., War of Ideas: The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam (Westview Press, 1981)
Lansdale, Edward G., "Practical Jokes" in Ronald De McLaurin, et. al., The Art and Science of Psychological Operations: Case Studies of Military Application, Vol. II, Department of the Army, Pamphlet No. 525-7-2, 1976, pp. 767-770
"Lansdale Team's Report on Covert Saigon Mission in '54 and '55," in Neil Sheehan, et. al., The Pentagon Papers (Bantam, 1971), pp. 54-66
Watson, Peter, War on the Mind: The Military Uses and Abuses of Psychology (Basic Books, 1978)
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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