The battle over „The Quiet American” (part one)

This essay is based on notes for a seminar I conducted at the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung (University of Arts and Design) in Karlsruhe, Germany, in July 2016, at the invitation of Professor Andrei Ujică.

Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was published in late 1955 in the U.K. and in early 1956 in the U.S. It was set in Vietnam in 1952. It was based on the British author’s first-hand journalistic knowledge of the place. And it dramatized the mounting American involvement – economic, military, diplomatic – in what was still in the early 50s a French colonial war. It was widely perceived – in the U.S., but also in the Soviet bloc – as anti-American and (somewhat) pro-Communist. Fêted in Pravda, adapted for the stage in Moscow, translated all over the Eastern bloc, it made Greene welcome there and put him on his late-career orbit as a politically progressive globe-trotting celebrity-writer. It was also made into a 1958 Hollywood film, by leading writer-director (and Hollywood intellectual) Joseph L. Mankiewicz, an adaptation which was and remains unusual in being a critique of its source novel (and ultimately an all-out attack on its author). Mankiewicz’s film remains firmly locked in its era, a fascinating Cold War artifact, while Greene’s novel, of course, kept its relevance for the next two decades – when it was recognized as an Ur-text of Vietnam War studies, hostilely giving mythical and prescient form to American interventionism – and way beyond them. The whole Quiet American story makes for a revealing bit of Cold War history, one that bears retelling.

The novel

What were Greene’s politics at the time when he arrived in Vietnam? He was certainly not yet anti-colonial or ready to sympathize with the Vietminh – the Communist side of the conflict. By birth (1904) he belonged to the Edwardian era and to the administrative class of the British Empire. Writing about the Greene of the 1930s, film scholar James Naremore has described him as a “radical leftist” in political terms, “outraged by social injustice”, and at the same time a “radical conservative” in cultural and religious terms (he had converted to Catholicism in the 1920s). The “radical leftist” part may be a bit overstated. In any case, writing in 1949 about the leftist elements in Greene’s fiction, George Orwell had described them in terms which implied that they were somewhat generic: “If you look at his books like A Gun for Sale [1936], England Made Me [1935], The Confidential Agent [1939] and others, you will see that there is the usual left-wing scenery. The bad men are millionaires, armaments manufacturers, etc., and the good man is sometimes a Communist.” As for Greene’s conservatism, which Naremore traces to the influence of T. S. Eliot, one of its manifestations is distaste, vividly expressed, for secular modernity, a modernity whose 1930s faces included for Greene both the U. S. and the anticlerical Marxist regime in Mexico. A man of contradictions, this hater of secular modernity was also, during the 1920s and 1930s, a dedicated lover of cinema – between 1935 and 1939 he had a remarkable stint as a film reviewer. As a matter of fact, it is a film review from 1937 (for James Whale’s film No Way Back) that contains his first memorable rant about “the eternal adolescence of the American mind, to which literature means the poetry of Longfellow and morality means keeping Mother’s Day and looking after the kid sister’s purity”. And the rant concludes: “What use in pretending that with these allies it was ever possible to fight [in World War I] for civilization? For Mother’s Day, yes, and anti-vivisection and humanitarianism, the pet dog and the home fire, for the co-ed college and the campus. Civilization would shock them: eyes on the guide-book for safety, they pass it quickly as if it were a nude in a national collection.”

Be that as it may, the early postwar years saw Greene taste American success – Hollywood success as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for The Fallen Idol) and Time-cover success as a best-selling novelist (the Time cover-story on him hailed him as “the new Dostoevsky”).

quiet american greene time magazine

He actually came to Vietnam (in November 1951) on assignment from another mass-market American magazine, Life, after having covered for them, in satisfactorily anti-Communist terms, an anti-colonial insurgency in British Malaya. However, this state of affairs was soon to change.

In 1952, Graham Greene was temporarily denied a U.S. visa (he was travelling there from Vietnam). The reason? His having been a member of the British Communist Party, for a very short time, in the 1920s. (Greene himself had told Time Magazine about that episode.) Around the same time, Life rejected his Vietnam piece, ostensibly for expressing some admiration for the Vietminh and some doubt that they could be stopped. This despite the fact that, in other aspects, Greene’s article (eventually published in Paris Match) took a conventional Cold War line – for example, it accepted the “domino theory” according to which a Communist takeover of Vietnam would lead to a Communist takeover of the entire region. And the occasional sympathy for the Vietminh was more than balanced by the sustained sympathy shown to the French military and to French colonialism in general. Greene would later repudiate all sympathy for colonialism, but in his 1955 novel (which he began writing in 1952) it still makes itself felt, albeit in a fairly muted way compared to the Paris Match article.

The Quiet American is a tale of three empires. There are the French, who are on their way out of Vietnam. There are the Americans, preparing to take over. And there are the British, who, as represented by the novel’s journalist-narrator, act as if they’re above it all – ruefully wise, with nothing at stake in this conflict, without any imperial ambitions left for themselves. This middle-aged Englishman, named Fowler, initially prides himself on his political neutrality and presents himself as someone without illusions. As a war correspondent he’s competent, but devoid of ambition – he just wants to stay in Saigon with his very young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (with whom he’s been living for two years), and his opium pipe. (In the course of the several consecutive winters spent in Vietnam, beginning with the one of 1951-52, Greene had also developed a taste for opium.) He dreads being recalled to London even if that would mean a promotion. One evening in Hanoi, playing quatre-vingt-et-un (a dice game) with a French officer in the colonial police, he reflects: “It seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the Rue Gambetta [in Hanoi] and the Rue Catinat [in Saigon], the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon.” A colonial parasite in his own right, feeding off Vietnam, he combines a weary hedonism with an indifference to his own life that borders on death-wish.

greene in vietnam 1

                                                                               Graham Greene in Vietnam

Into Fowler’s life comes a young American called Alden Pyle. As Fowler recognizes, he is another type of American abroad than the big, boisterous, boorish type. (The latter type, for which the phrase “ugly American” had not yet been coined at the time, is represented in the novel by an American journalist called Granger.) An employee of the U.S. Economic Aid Mission (which means he’s working for the CIA), Pyle is Harvard-educated, virginally earnest, possessed of a crusader’s zeal. An idealistic cold warrior, he’s in thrall to the works of a (fictional) political theorist called York Harding – works with titles like The Role of the West, The Challenge to Democracy and The Advance of Red China. Inspired by Harding, he raves about the American duty to bring democracy to Vietnam by building up a local “Third Force”, both anti-Communist and anti-French: a convincingly nationalistic Vietnamese leader/army/party which/who could be relied upon to serve as a bulwark against Communism after the inevitable departure of the French, while, of course, remaining favorably disposed towards U.S. interests. Not inclined to lose time, Pyle quickly finds a candidate for this role: General Trinh Minh Thé (a character with a real historical existence), an ex-leader of the twenty-five thousand men private army employed by the Caodai religious sect, who at the time when the novel is set had recently taken to the hills with two thousand soldiers, declaring his intention of fighting both the French and the Vietminh. When General Thé detonates in a Saigon square some explosives provided by Pyle, killing innocent civilians (the attack is blamed on the Vietminh), the cynical Englishman, shocked out of his jadedness, confronts the sincere American. Pyle defends himself by invoking the inevitability of collateral damage. Fowler eventually lends a helping hand to the Vietminh in the elimination of the young CIA agent. His progress from neutrality to commitment is approved by the Vietminh organizer, Mr. Heng, in these terms: “Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.” On the other hand, when turning Pyle over to the Vietminh agents, Fowler acts as if in a daze and he is obviously in a very muddled state of mind: besides always treating him like a friend, Pyle had recently saved his life and simultaneously wooed Phuong away from him.

A self-confessed disciple of Henry James, Graham Greene was, at one level, working out new spins on a Jamesian theme: the contest between Old World experience and New World innocence. He continuously contrasts Fowler’s knowingness, deviousness, and depravity, always connoted as “European”, with Pyle’s boy-scout simplicities (for example, he undertakes a dangerous journey in order to solemnly inform Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong: chivalrous in a childish way, he doesn’t want to woo her behind Fowler’s back), construed as “American”. (Fowler’s narration is not all sneering, though: it’s artfully sprinkled with spots of envy and at times it locates a certain dignity in Pyle.) An irony much seized upon in 1956 by hostile American reviewers of the novel is that Fowler’s hardboiled-journalist narrative manner is itself belonging to an American literary (and cinematic) tradition – not that of Henry James, but that of Hemingway (and Humphrey Bogart).

At another level, Greene, who was celebrated at the time as an unconventionally religious writer, was engaged in a bit of subversion of the concept of “innocence”. In his usage of the term, being “innocent” obviously doesn’t mean being good. It means being capable of committing monstrous acts with a good conscience. It means being – dangerously – ignorant of evil. Greene gives this ignorance a national dimension. The French are also shown as committing war crimes – terrible deeds – but they are also shown to be aware of it, aware of their evil. It is part of the superiority that their “mature” colonialism seems to carry in this novel. (Another part of it has to do with the fact that the French characters seem to know that they are losing the war; they act gallantly doomed. As one of them says, “we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop.”) Whereas the Americans, as represented by Pyle, are guilty not only of crimes, but of being drunk on words like “democratization” and “modernization”; they are guilty of facile optimism (one of Pyle’s few books, beside the works of York Harding, is something called The Triumph of Life), of vulgar meliorism, of not recognizing this world as a fallen one. In the course of the novel, Fowler indulges in a fair amount of ranting against their “sterilized world”. Some of his contempt, directed as it is against things like refrigerators and air-conditioned lavatories, looks quaint nowadays, redolent of the snobbery of a certain class of Englishmen from another era. True, there are suggestions that this discourse wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. Writes Fowler: “[When Phuong left me for Pyle] I began – almost subconsciously – to run down everything that was American. […] I became a bore on the subject of America, even with my French friends who were ready to share my antipathies.” But there are not nearly enough passages built to accommodate this kind of critical distance, to problematize the narrator’s anti-Americanism.

Fowler’s and Pyle’s views clash in a famous scene in which they find themselves trapped together for a night in a watchtower that could be attacked any minute by the Vietminh. As Frederick Logevall has remarked in his history of the Indochina wars, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (in which he writes at length about Greene’s novel), “generations of college students have debated [this scene]”. When Pyle starts parroting the mantra of the “domino theory” (if Vietnam falls to the Communists, the rest of the region will soon fall, too), which Greene had also parroted in his early Life/ Paris Match article about the war, Fowler interrupts him abruptly. To the American’s paranoid vision of Communist contamination he opposes a – no less clichéd – pastoral of the unchanging East: “[I]n five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to the market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The boys will be sitting on the buffaloes.” Pointing out the condescension in Fowler’s assumption that the whole country is peasant, Pyle urges the Englishman to think about the educated Vietnamese and about the threat that Communism poses to their individuality. “They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.” And again: “Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould?” It is this kind of talk that plainly arouses Fowler’s contemptuous suspicion. “Why have we only just discovered it [the importance of the individual]?” he asks. “Forty years ago no one talked that way.” Distinguishing between the generic French rubber planter who beats his Vietnamese laborer and a French colonial priest he had seen, “so poor he hasn’t a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic”, Fowler states a preference for old-school European colonialism over the new type of Western meddling promoted by Pyle in the name of democracy, individuality, freedom of thought and other such abstractions. But he also says several times that basically neither the French, nor the Americans, nor the English have any business there, and even that “we deserve to have [our throats] cut”. When Pyle asserts that the Vietnamese don’t want Communism, his – circular – answer is that they “don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want”. As for the Communist threat to individuality, Fowler remarks that, for the moment, in Vietnam, it is the Communist political commissar who’s closer to standing for the individual: it is he who is more likely to enter the hut of the paddy field laborer and “ask his name and listen to his complaints [and] give up an hour a day to teach him – it doesn’t matter what, he’s being treated like a man, like someone of value”.

Although Fowler here is clearly working his way towards an anti-colonial position, Pyle is not wrong in noting the element of condescension in his talk of the Vietnamese. In a later scene, Fowler will reproach Pyle for being on the point of using the word “childlike” to describe the Vietnamese, but this is how he sees them – or seems to see them – himself sometimes. There are failures of racial sensitivity in Fowler’s narration (for instance, his generalization about “yellow voices”, which sing instead of speaking), and, since Greene doesn’t provide the reader in these passages with any signal of authorial distancing, it is fair to assume that he shares some of his narrator’s blind spots. With the exception of Phuong, the Vietnamese are background figures, extras in the tragedy ravaging their country. The Communists with whom Fowler eventually conspires to have Pyle stopped are phantom-like presences, stealthy, distant, out of focus. Phuong herself is only a stereotype of submissive femininity – a placid surface hiding a hard core of survivor’s instincts. Both Fowler and Greene (who in this case clearly shares his narrator’s failure) are unable to burrow beneath the stereotype – all they can do is signal their awareness. “One always spoke of [Phuong] like that in the third person, as though she were not there”, Fowler informs us, before desperately advising Pyle, when he loses her to him, not to treat her as if she were an ornament, because she’s not. It’s a pity that the novel lacks any other terms in which to describe her.

The bomb attacks which in the novel are organized by General Thé with Pyle’s help took place on January 9, 1952 (when Greene, though still in Vietnam, was absent from Saigon). Although they were claimed by Thé (which didn’t stop their being officially blamed on the Communists), there is no evidence of American involvement. This seems to be just a speculation of Graham Greene’s (shared at the time by French and British officials in Vietnam).


Life Magazine, January 28, 1952

But the truth is that, even if the Americans weren’t yet supporting Thé at the precise moment when the novel is set (or at the moment when Greene began writing it), they were soon to support him. As shown in both Logevall’s Embers of War and Jonathan Nashel’s 2005 Edward Lansdale’s Cold War, CIA counter-guerrilla expert Edward Lansdale seriously considered Thé’s potential as the leader of a Third Force – nationalistic, anti-Communist, pro-American –, exactly as Greene’s fictional Alden Pyle had envisaged it. As a matter of fact, it is widely and persistently believed that Greene modeled his “quiet American” on Lansdale, although it seems that, at least at the time when be began composing his novel, if not by the time he had finished writing it, Greene hadn’t yet met Lansdale and didn’t know of him. (According to him, he had first heard of the “Third Force” scenario from a certain Leo Hochstetter – a Public Affairs director for the American Economic Aid Mission, with whom he had shared a room for one night. According to Frederick Logevall, he “almost certainly heard this line of argument [from other U.S. officials as well]”; by 1952, the need for a “Third Force” in Vietnam had even been advertised in American magazines like The New Republic.) Still, Lansdale was to be definitely connected – as an advisor – with the 1958 Hollywood adaptation – or refutation – of The Quiet American. And he is definitely portrayed (under another name) in another novel, which was also conceived as an American refutation of Greene’s criticism (it also appeared in 1958): Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s The Ugly American. Given the fact that the phrase “ugly American” came to define the type of American abroad who behaves like a lout, who’s totally insensitive to the foreign culture and the foreign society he’s exposed to (like the American journalist Granger in Greene’s novel), it is important to note that in Burdick’s and Lederer’s book it meant something else – something positive. As Jonathan Nashel notes, the novel is “set in dualities between «ugly» Americans – that is, good citizens who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and work with peasants – and «beautiful» Americans: the State Department officials who know little of the countries in which they work and alternately fear and despise those who are different from them. The Lansdale-like character in this case is the «ugly» Edwin Hillandale, an American military officer who is unique among the other American bureaucrats in that he works with, listens to, and – most important – respects the nationalistic sentiments of Asians. In turn, the people of Sarkhan, the mythical Southeast Asian country where the novel takes place, deeply admire the ideals of the United States and intuitively fear and hate Communism.”

Jonathan Nashel also notes that, unlike Greene’s The Quiet American, Burdick’s and Lederer’s The Ugly American was widely accepted in the U.S. at the time of its publication as “responsible criticism” (it didn’t matter that, unlike Greene’s novel, it was “poorly written”, “filled with stock characters”, and with “no real plot other than anti-Communist sensationalism”). While, at a time when the murderous dimension of the American advisory effort in Vietnam (and, more generally, abroad) was not yet clearly evident at home, a lot of American reviewers felt free, as Frederick Logevall puts it, “to be dismissive of the characterizations [in Graham Greene’s novel] and to recognize nothing of themselves in Alden Pyle”.

Since Greene had started writing his novel, a number of things had happened. In 1953, the American war in Korea – which had initially made the French war in Vietnam look like an old-fashioned colonial conflict of secondary Cold War importance – had ended. 1954 saw the withdrawal of the French troops and the establishment of North Vietnam as a Communist state (Greene was to – admiringly – profile Communist leader Ho Chi Minh for the London Sunday Times in 1955.) In 1955, General Thé was assassinated; it is still not clear whether the orders came from the French, from the Communists, or from the new South Vietnamese regime of Ngo Dinh Diem – “a staunch anti-Communist and committed nationalist” who, according to Frederick Logevall, “had lived in America and had several influential American backers”, thus making a better “Third Force” leader than Thé. (CIA’s Edward Lansdale worked closely with him.)

quiet american diem lansdale

Edward Lansdale (chief of the CIA’s Saigon Military Mission) and Ngo Dinh Diem

A Prime Minister in 1954-55, Diem became president of the Republic of (South) Vietnam towards the end of 1955, just as Greene’s The Quiet American was being published in Britain. A brutal dictator, Diem was to be murdered in 1963, after a U.S.-approved coup d’état by dissident generals. But before that, for a while at least, his regime served U.S. interests in a manner that was deemed satisfactory enough. It was under him that Joseph. L. Mankiewicz was to shoot his 1958 adaptation of – and attack on – Greene’s The Quiet American, with Lansdale as a consultant. The film even ends with a dedication to Ngo Dinh Diem.

                                                                                                           (to be continued)