(South Vietnamese Popular Force soldier, 1967. Ed Palm Photo)
Another summer has come and gone, and I was just remembering the reading George Bush claimed to have done over the summer a couple years ago. If were appointed Professor General of the United States, and given the authority to make mandatory reading assignments, I would have all our policy makers and high-ranking military officers read the novel from which I’ve lifted the following excerpt:
“They were only war casualties,” he said. “It was a pity, but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause. . . . In a way you could say they died for democracy,” he said.
These are the cavalier sentiments of Alden Pyle, the title character of The Quiet American (1955), Graham Greene’s classic tale of America’s clandestine involvement in the Vietnam of the early 1950s. The novel is set during the waning days of France’s struggle to hold on to their Indochina empire against the Communist Vietminh, and Pyle is an earnest young CIA agent intent on cultivating a “Third Force”—a nationalist, democratic movement that would be both anti-Communist and anti-colonial. The “war casualties” Pyle dismisses in the passage quoted above were, in essence, the fruits of his labors. The renegade Vietnamese general he had cultivated and supplied with plastic explosives had set off a bomb in a crowded marketplace.
What sets this novel apart from run-of-the-mill spy and adventure stories, however, is the way in which everything Pyle says and does is filtered through a wonderfully engaging first-person narrator who prides himself on being anything but engaged. A cynical middle-aged British journalist whose name, significantly, is Thomas Fowler, this narrator is as worldly-wise and disaffected as Pyle is naïve and committed. Fowler holds himself aloof from the war and the carnage he is paid to witness. He does not take sides. Rather, he stands on the traditional journalistic canons of fairness and objectivity:
The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action—even an opinion is a kind of action.
The Quiet American is very much an exposition on the difficulty of maintaining such a posture of detachment in the face of individual human suffering. As a French Air Force captain has occasion to tell Fowler, human commitment is not always a “matter of reason or justice”: “We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out.” The point is later reiterated by a Vietminh agent who maintains that “sooner or later . . . one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.”
Circumstances and events eventually bring Fowler to that “moment of emotion” and to a momentous decision to try to put a stop to Pyle’s—and, by implication, America’s—involvement in Vietnam’s affairs. But it is a decision tainted by self-interest. Pyle and Fowler, who begin as casual friends, fall out not only over ideology but also over Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress. The outcome is, at first, emotionally satisfying, but it also challenges the reader to stop and think about what has really been gained and by whom.
The Quiet American, in sum, is a wonderful historical romance, in the literal as well as the literary sense. The historical backdrop is real. Greene lived and worked as a reporter in Vietnam in the early fifties, and he saw how America was playing both ends against the middle. Officially, we were encouraging France to stay the course in what we then viewed as the struggle against an international Communist conspiracy. But, behind the scenes, a real-life Alden Pyle by the name of Edward Lansdale was indeed trying to raise that “Third Force” of Vietnamese nationalists who could eventually force out the French. And we wonder why the French don’t like us very much.
But Greene’s novel is finally much more than a thinly veiled and dated polemic about America’s meddling and misdeeds in Vietnam. Its major themes are universal, and the mindset that first took us into Vietnam, and kept us there far too long, is endemic to the American character. The conviction that America has a manifest destiny and a mandate to reshape the world in its image continues to haunt the popular mind and to influence our policy makers. Greene could see how we were destined to make fools of ourselves by acting on this conviction. Would that more Americans had read The Quiet American and that we had heeded Greene’s warning. --EFP
- Edward F. Palm
- Forest, Virginia, United States
- A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)