Colonel Edward Geary Lansdale and the Saigon Military Mission: The CIA in Vietnam, 1954-1955









Kevin J. Coy, M.A.

Youngstown State University

Youngstown, Ohio




1954 was a pivotal year in the relationship between Vietnam and America. In that year which saw the French fall at Dien Bien Phu, the signing of the Geneva Peace Accords and the appointment of Ngo Dinh Diem as Premiere of Vietnam, there was also one other crucial event. That event was the introduction of the CIA's Saigon Military Mission  (SMM) into Vietnam.

Early in 1954 it was clear to Washington that things were not going well for the French in Vietnam. The French were under siege by the Communists at Dien Bien Phu, and were taking a beating. Anticipating that the French might lose the war, those in power in Washington considered their options. According to a condensed version of the SMM team report from the Gravel edition of The Pentagon Papers:

The Saigon Military Mission (SMM) was born in a Washington policy meeting early in 1954, when Dien Bien Phu was still holding out against the encircling Vietminh. The SMM was to enter into Vietnam quietly and assist the Vietnamese, rather than the French, in unconventional warfare. The French were to be kept as friendly allies in the process, as far as possible.      


The broad mission for the team was to undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare. Later, after Geneva, the mission was modified to prepare the means for undertaking para-military operations in Communist areas rather than to wage unconventional warfare…[1]

The man chosen to lead the SMM was Colonel Edward Geary Lansdale. The Dulles brothers had decided to send Lansdale to Vietnam as early as January of 1954. They had also decided to give him “great authority and wide latitude.”[2]  The reason Lansdale was chosen to go to Vietnam was because of his recent success in the Philippines. He had become highly respected in Washington for his role in helping to put down the Communist Huk rebellion in the early 1950s.[3] 

  After his work in the Philippines Lansdale became known as the CIA's military expert on countersubversion and guerrilla warfare and had earned a reputation as a man who got things done.[4] 

Lansdale arrived in Saigon on June 1, 1954.[5] His arrival followed close upon the fall of the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Conferences were proceeding with the knowledge that the French were going to withdraw from Vietnam. Lansdale immediately went to work on developing strategies designed to frustrate the forces of Ho Chi Minh in the event that the Geneva Conferences ended badly for the United States and its anti-Communist policies. One of the first actions of the SMM, which consisted of only Lansdale at that time, was to set up a psywar instruction course for the existing Vietnamese army's G-5 division (the propaganda and information section). The course taught programs in rumors, radio, plays, and lectures, as well as many other things.[6] 

On July 1, 1954 Lansdale got the second member of his team in the form of U.S. Army Major Lucien Conein. Like Lansdale, and the rest of the SMM to follow, Conein was assigned to MAAG (Military Advisory Assistance Group) under General “Iron Mike” O'Daniel for cover purposes.[7] Conein was of French ancestry. He had fought with the Maquis against the Germans in World War Two before joining up with the OSS.[8] Conein would be better known later for being instrumental in the coup against Diem in 1963.[9]

Shortly after Conein's arrival in Vietnam the Geneva Accords were signed. The agreements still left the question of who would rule Vietnam up in the air. The agreements called for the establishment of a military demarcation line at the 17th parallel and provided for the regrouping and withdrawal of military forces.[10] The division of the nation was only supposed to last for two years while Ho Chi Minh and Diem prepared for national elections to unite the nation under one government. The Geneva Accords also prohibited the introduction of any new military forces into Vietnam after August of 1954.[11]

The United States considered the decisions made at the Geneva Conference to be disastrous. In this light the SMM began to engage in operations designed to keep the Communists from taking over what would be increasingly referred to as South Vietnam. Due to the provision of the Geneva Accords which forbade the introduction of new military forces after August, the SMM had to hustle in the rest of their team. “MAAG rushed in 10 additional members…Most of them had no psychological warfare experience...”[12] Before the end of August, Lansdale had his team in place. He then divided this team into two units. Lansdale himself ran the team that conducted operations in the South and Conein was given the responsibility of commanding missions that the SMM undertook in the North.[13]

The operations that the Saigon Military Mission carried out in North Vietnam varied in type and effectiveness. The goal of these missions was the same in all cases, however. The goal was to cause chaos and dissention among the Communist forces and their allies as well as to frustrate, or at the very least postpone, Ho Chi Minh's ability to attempt a takeover in the South. Or, as John Foster Dulles put it, the team's mission was to “raise some hell” in Vietnam.[14] For the next two years, the SMM did just that.

Conein's half of the Saigon Military Mission engaged in many operations north of the 17th parallel. He organized a group of Vietnamese soldiers to act as “stay behinds”. They were called “stay behinds” because they were supposed to stay behind and carry out operations in the North after Ho's government took over. These men wore civilian clothes and made every attempt to blend in to the North's society.[15] These groups were inserted into North Vietnam by U.S. Naval vessels. The teams hid weapons and supplies along the Red River area for future use.[16]

The “stay behind” forces engaged in many different types of activities. One activity that the SMM engaged in frequently in the North was sabotage. Of primary interest to the SMM were the North's transportation systems. They attempted to disrupt the Hanoi bus system by contaminating its oil supply. SMM agents poured acid into the oil storage tanks to destroy the engines of Hanoi's buses.[17] The SMM also focused on the North's railway systems as targets of delayed sabotage. In this case SMM agents hid large amounts of explosives in the coal piles of the rail yards. When the coal was shoveled into the engines of the trains, they would explode.[18]

Most of the acts of sabotage that were carried out by the SMM were very limited in their effectiveness. Most of them amounted to little more than nuisances to the Hanoi government. In fact, the SMM's acts of sabotage provided Hanoi an opportunity to decry the United States internationally for violation of the Geneva Accords and for acts of subversion.[19]

Sabotage was not the only type of mission that the SMM engaged in north of the 17th parallel. The SMM was also quite active in producing and distributing propaganda of all varieties. They published anti-Communist articles and reports in newspapers. They distributed flyers that were passed off as being written by the Vietminh telling of the harsh repressions that awaited those who would be living under Communist rule. The SMM also commissioned and distributed an almanac of astrological predictions foretelling of doom for those in the North and of prosperity for those in the South.[20]

Again, most of the activities of the SMM in North Vietnam were limited in their success. The sabotage efforts never caused a significant disruption and most of the propaganda campaigns were ignored. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that many of the SMM's “stay behinds” eventually defected to the Vietminh, taking their American weapons and equipment with them. Many others were simply caught.[21] There was, however, one mission carried out by the northern team, in concert with the southern team that was very successful and would, in fact, have a dramatic effect on the future of the state of South Vietnam as well as that of the United States. This mission would be known as “Operation Exodus” or “Passage to Freedom”.

Besides harassing Ho Chi Minh, creating chaos and “raising hell” in the North, one of the main goals of the Saigon Military Mission was to provide political stability for the new and feeble Diem regime in the South. It was with this goal in mind that the SMM began to prepare for “Operation Exodus.”

“Operation Exodus” was the name given to a program ran by the SMM in September of 1954. The official goal of this program was to assist in the transportation of any people wishing to move from the Communist zone into the non-Communist zone. The legal basis for this population movement was established in Article 14 of the Geneva Accords that stated:

… exchanges of prisoners-of-war and civilians wishing to move from the Communist to the non-Communist side, and vice versa, would be carried out without impediment.[22]

While the official mission was merely to assist those refugees wishing to move, the reality of the SMM's mission was something very different.

Lansdale, in particular, had understood the weakness of the new Diem regime. The new Primier of the new state of South Vietnam was a Catholic leader in a primarily Buddhist and Taoist society. Diem's Catholicism made him extremely unpopular among his own people. Lansdale and his team used Article 14 as an opportunity to help remedy this situation. There was a large group of Catholics living in North Vietnam, mostly around the Red River Delta area, near Haiphong Harbor. Lansdale, among others, realized that these Catholics would make natural allies for Diem. So, with that in mind, the SMM began what Bernard Fall called “…an extremely intensive, well-conducted, and, in terms of its objective, very successful American psychological warfare operation”[23] designed to encourage the exodus of Northern Catholics.

Conein's Northern SMM team began to focus an intensive propaganda campaign on the Catholic population. They distributed leaflets and flyers that told of reprisals from the Vietminh that would befall the Catholics that remained in the North. The leaflets that the SMM circulated were presented as if they had come from Ho Chi Minh's incoming government.[24] Of all the propaganda circulated by the SMM, one piece was particularly effective in motivating the Catholic population into action. The SMM distributed a leaflet that stated that the United States was planning on getting militarily involved in Vietnam, and that when they did, they would be using atomic weapons on the North. The day after this leaflet was distributed refugee registration tripled.[25]

The SMM went a step further in its attempt to scare the Northern Catholics into moving to the South. Lansdale convinced Diem to call on his contacts in the Northern Catholic churches to assist in convincing their parishes to move to the South. A famous slogan that circulated during this time among the Northern churches stated that “The Blessed Virgin has gone south,” and that it was the Catholics' duty to follow.[26] This action was very effective as entire Bishoprics picked up and moved to the South.

While the Northern SMM team was propagandizing and attempting to scare the Catholics into moving, Lansdale's team was also very busy in the South. Lansdale was occupied with the logistical problem of transporting and then settling those refugees that would soon be coming. Lansdale encouraged Diem to create a refugee commission that would be coordinated by MAAG to handle the influx of Northerners.[27] The United States paid for the entire operation that included transportation and re-settlement. The cost of this operation was 93 million dollars.[28]  The U.S. Navy contributed its 7th Fleet Amphibious Task Force to transport refugees by sea from Haiphong Harbor.[29] Lansdale also arranged for a French contract to airlift refugees via Civil Air Transport.[30] Civil Air Transport was a CIA run airline based in Taiwan and commanded by General Claire Chennault. This airline was also used later to smuggle arms and ammunition to SMM guerillas in the North.[31]

Once the refugees began coming, they came in masses. The final number is uncertain but most estimates place the total amount of refugees between 860,000 and 1.1 million. Most of these were Catholics, at least 2/3 but probably more. In fact, between 65% and 85% of the North's Catholics moved to the South in the late summer and early fall of 1954. The refugees that were not Catholic (which made up less than 1/3 of the total) needed no persuasion to leave the North. These refugees were comprised of either former French colonial soldiers from the previous war and their families or else they were political dissenters.[32]

 Refugee villages were constructed on land provided by Diem, mostly in the Cochin China area, near Saigon. The refugees were provided with food, clothing, CARE packages, livestock, money and housing.[33] These gifts were not bestowed on all refugees, however. Government assistance was given only to “recognized refugees.” Upon careful examination of the information provided in the booklet Operation Exodus: the Refugee Movement to Free Vietnam by the Directorate General of Information, Saigon, Vietnam, it can be seen that only the Catholic refugees were “recognized.”[34] This fact is the best indication that Operation Exodus was far from a humanitarian effort. It is clear that Diem and the SMM desired only the Catholic refugees. The rest were simply turned loose in South Vietnam unassisted and unwanted.

The operation was an enormous propaganda victory for Diem who claimed that the refugees had “voted with their feet.”[35] As a result of Operation Exodus Diem's international prestige rose sharply. The fact that the Catholics had been encouraged, manipulated and scared into moving was lost. The Catholic refugees were valuable to Diem as political allies. Diem was a weak Catholic leader in a Buddhist/Taoist society. Diem placed these Catholics into key positions in his government and into strategic villages throughout the country, mostly around Saigon and in the villages near the 17th parallel that were subject to infiltration.[36] The Catholics formed a loyal base of support in a nation where Diem had none. The Catholics were even more loyal given the fact that they were totally dependant on Diem and his generosity for their survival.[37] 

Operation Exodus was not by any means the only mission taken on by the SMM in the South with the goal of providing Diem's new government with stability. Diem faced opposition on many sides and it was Lansdale's job to make sure that his government survived at all costs. Lansdale and the Saigon Military Mission would be constantly busy keeping the wolves away from Diem's door.

One of the first chances Lansdale had to save Diem's regime came early on, in September of 1954. It was learned by Lansdale at that time that Diem's Army Chief of Staff, General Hinh, was planning to stage a coup to overthrow Diem. This was taken as a very serious threat. Lansdale handled this problem by informing Hinh that if anything happened to Diem all American aid would immediately cease. Hinh backed down. To be safe Lansdale took the precaution of hiring additional security for Diem's palace.[38] Hinh, however, was not the only threat to Diem's struggling regime.

Throughout the first two years of his administration Diem faced the opposition of several different sects in South Vietnam. These sects were both religious and secular in nature. There were three principle ones that gave Diem the most trouble. These were the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao and the Binh Xuyen. All of these sects engaged in sporadic fighting with the Diem regime. It was left to Lansdale to find a way to deal with each one.

The Cao Dai was an odd religious sect that venerated such saints as Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, and even Victor Hugo. This sect had fought against the French with both the Japanese and the Vietminh in previous wars.[39] The Hoa Hao was also a religious sect. They were reformed Buddhists that were both anti-French and anti-Communist.[40] The Cao Dai had an army of around 20,000 men and controlled much of the Mekong Delta area, while the Hoa Hao had an army of around 15,000 men.[41] Lansdale used his best asset to deal with these two sects, his blank check from the CIA. Lansdale paid off the key leaders of each sect to ally themselves with Diem for the price of around three million dollars apiece. Lansdale's bribery managed to sway all but the most fanatical of the religious leaders.[42]

The Binh Xuyen, however, would not go away so easily. The Binh Xuyen was by far the most dangerous of the sects. This sect was non-religious in nature. It was, in fact, a Vietnamese mafia-type organization with an army of approximately 25,000 men.[43] This organization controlled gambling, narcotics, Saigon city police and prostitution.[44] They had also fought with the Vietminh against the French in the previous war before switching sides and becoming a pro-French militia that guarded Saigon.[45]  The Binh Xuyen was above bribery. By March of 1955 the Binh Xuyen was openly skirmishing with Diem's army. In April Diem officially ordered them out of Saigon. In response, the Binh Xuyen attacked Diem's forces throughout the city. Lansdale again used his checkbook to solve the problem. Lansdale purchased additional forces for Diem to use against his enemies. The strategy worked and by May of 1955 the Binh Xuyen were defeated and their leader, Bay Vien, went into exile in Paris.[46]

There is another factor to this sect crisis that is also very important. Diem's initial handling of the crisis prompted many, both in Vietnam and in Washington, to begin to call for his removal.[47] Again it was Lansdale and the Saigon Military Mission that would come to Diem's rescue. A telegram to Washington dated April 28, 1955 (in the midst of the sect crisis with the Binh Xuyen) laid out the recommendation of the SMM. The telegram stated that it was their feeling that Diem still:

…represented a better chance for success than any non-Viet Minh government it would be possible to form in South Vietnam. Failure to support Diem would cause great damage to American prestige and would doom any successor government to Diem's to failure.[48]

The SMM's position bought Diem some time. After the military defeat of the Binh Xuyen, a month later, Diem's critics were silenced, at least for the time being.[49]

The SMM also felt (as was also indicated in the telegram mentioned above) that the only way for Diem to have any chance for long-term success was to adopt “an openly anti-French posture.”[50] To this end Lansdale advised Diem that he should hold an election against Bao Dai (Emperor in exile) for the sole leadership of South Vietnam. The reason was that with Bao Dai gone it would remove the French influence from Vietnam and would help to consolidate Diem's power. It is very important to note here that this election was not the one called for by the Geneva Accords. The election mentioned at Geneva was to be between Diem and Ho Chi Minh to unite all of Vietnam, North and South, under one government. Diem, under Lansdale's advisement, would never submit to such an election, an election that he would surely lose.

The election between Bao Dai and Diem was not left to chance. Once the election was announced the SMM went to work along with Diem's own activists to ensure Diem's victory. They began by exerting pressure on the voters. Diem's men went around threatening and harassing everyone out of their homes, making them go to the voting stations. Lansdale himself designed the ballots. Diem's ballot was red, the color of prosperity in Vietnam, while Bao Dai's was green, or the color of misfortune. Diem's agents were also present at the voting locations. The agents also beat and tortured many voters into compliance. Diem's men also counted the ballots…in private. When the election was over Diem claimed to have received 98.2% of the vote. Lansdale had urged Diem to claim a much more plausible 60-70% but Diem would not listen. In fact, in many districts, Diem was found to have received more votes than there were registered voters.[51]

The election was the capstone on the Saigon Military Mission's campaign to remove Diem's adversaries in the South. With Diem firmly in power, at least for the time being, the United States finally had an ally that they could back in the fight against Communism in Southeast Asia. None of this would have been possible without the efforts of Colonel Lansdale and the Saigon Military Mission. While many of the SMM's operations in the North were largely ineffective, it did, however, succeed in its overall goal of helping Diem achieve political stability in the South. 

Operation Exodus provided Diem with much needed political stability as well as with a certain measure of international prestige that came from this supposedly humanitarian effort. It also gave to the international community the impression that the refugees were fleeing life under Communist rule. Lansdale's handling of the sect crisis removed dangerous opposition to the Diem regime and restored international confidence in Diem's ability to deal with internal pressures. The election of 1955 removed the French influence and gave Diem the appearance of having a popular mandate.

The Saigon Military Mission made all of this possible. If not for their actions the Diem regime would never have survived its first days. Even if by some miracle Diem managed to overcome his enemies in the South, he still would have had to face the dismal proposition of the national elections called for in the Geneva Accords. Without the Saigon Military Mission to back him, Diem would not have been able to refuse to hold those elections without immediately being overrun by Ho Chi Minh's forces. Thus, without the efforts of the SMM the United States could not have become involved in Vietnam militarily. There would have been no nation left to either support or save. In closing, Neil Sheehan put it best when he stated that:

America's new hope in Saigon, a Catholic mandarin named Ngo Dinh Diem, had faced more enemies than it seemed possible to vanquish. Arrayed against him were rival politicians, pro-French dissidents in the South Vietnamese Army, and two religious sects and a brotherhood of organized criminals… Lansdale had arranged the defeat of them all.

 He had denied the Vietnamese Communists the chaos that would have permitted them to take over Vietnam south of the 17th parallel without another war. He had convinced the Eisenhower administration that Diem could govern and that South Vietnam could be built into a nation that would stand with America.[52]






[1] Marvin E Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, Editors. Vietnam and America. 2nd Edition. Grove Press. New York. 1995. Pg. 83.

[2] Cecil B.Currey. Edward Lansdale, the Unquiet American. Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1988. Pg. 136.

[3] David Halberstam. The Best and the Brightest. Ballentine Books. New York. 1992. Pgs. 124-126.

[4] Neil Sheehan. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Vintage Books. New York. 1988.

[5] Stanley Karnow. Vietnam: A History. The Viking Press. New York. 1983. Pg. 221.

[6] Major General Edward Geary Lansdale , USAF (Ret.). In the Midst of Wars: An American's Mission to Southeast Asia. Harper&Row, Publishers. New York. 1972. Pgs. 137-138.

[7] Ibid. Pg. 84.

[8] Stanley Karnow.

[9] William Colby, and Peter Forbath,. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA. Simon and Schuster. New York. 1978. Pg. 215.

[10] George McTurnan Kahin, and John W.Lewis. The United States and Vietnam. The Dial Press. New York. 1967.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marvin E Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin. Pg. 85.

[13] Stanley Karnow. Pg. 237.

[14] L. Fletcher Prouty. JFK: The CIA, Vietnam and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy. Citadel Press. New York. 1996.

[15] Stanley Karnow. Pg. 237.

[16] Ibid. Pgs. 221-222.

[17] Ibid. Pg 221.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. Pg. 222.

[20] William Blum. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War Two. Common Courage Press. 1995. Pgs. 125-126.

[21] Stanley Karnow. Pgs. 221-222.

[22] William Lederer. Our Own Worst Enemy. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. New York. 1968. Excerpt from the Geneva Accords.

[23] Bernard Fall. The Two Viet-Nams: A Political and Military Analysis. 2nd Revised Edition. Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers. New York. 1968.

[24] Neil Sheehan.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B.Young, and Marilyn B.Franklin. Pg. 84 From Lansdale Team's Report.

[28] George McTurnan Kahin, and John W. Lewis. Pgs. 74-75.

[29] Neil Sheehan.

[30] Marvin E.Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin. Pg. 84 From Lansdale Team's Report.

[31] Neil Sheehan.

[32] Directorate General of Information, Saigon, Vietnam. Operation Exodus: The Refugee Movement to Free Vietnam. 1955.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Marilyn B. Young. The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990. Harper Perennial. New York. 1991.

[36] Committee of Concerned Asian  Scholars. The Indochina Story: A Fully Documented Account. Pantheon Books. New York. 1970.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Marvin E. Gettleman,, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin. Pgs. 85-86.

[39] Major General Edward Geary Lansdale, USAF (Ret.). Pgs. 152-153.

[40] Ibid.

[41] George C. Herring. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York. 1996. Pgs. 56-57.

[42] Stanley Karnow. Pgs. 237-238.

[43] George C Herring. Pgs. 56-57.

[44] Major General Edward Geary Lansdale, USAF (Ret.). Pgs. 176-177.

[45] Ibid. Pgs. 152-153.

[46] Stanley Karnow. Pgs. 222-223.

[47] George C. Herring. Pgs. 56-57.

[48] Foreign Relations of the United States. 1955-1957. Volume I. Vietnam. United States Government Printing Office. Washington. 1985. Keefer, Edward C. and Mabon, David W. Editors. Pgs. 301-302.

[49] George C. Herring. Pgs. 56-57.

[50] Foreign Relations of the United States. 1955-1957. Volume I. Vietnam. Pg. 302.

[51] Stanley Karnow. Pgs. 223-224.

[52] Neil Sheehan. Pgs. 8-9.

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