Vietnam was a good choice for a setting by Graham Greene in his indictment of American foreign policy, The Quiet American. Britain has colonized its share of Southeast Asia, mainly Malaya and Singapore, but neither of those countries (in the case of Singapore, a city-state) provided an adequate platform for an attack on American actions in what was called “the Third World.” Vietnam was perfect. It was a French colony in which the United States supplanted France, at least in the southern half of the country, as the reigning power. If American intentions in Southeast Asia were anti-communist and part of a broader strategy to prevent Soviet expansionism, in contrast to French colonialism that was more commercial and imperial in nature, it was to many Vietnamese a distinction without a difference. Foreigners were foreigners, and the Vietnamese didn’t want any of them occupying their country. The collapse of the French presence in Indochina and the emergence of the United States as the region’s “protector” against communist aggression provided a fine setting from which an impartial British journalist could sit back and observe the proceedings.
Graham Greene was both a former journalist and a former intelligence operative for his native Britain. When he wrote The Quiet American, which was published in 1955, the French colonial presence in Southeast Asia was in its death throes, and the United States, concerned that the French departure would leave a vacuum in the region into which communist influences would flow, moved to fill the void. During one of the discussions/arguments regarding the threat of communism, Alden Pyle, the naïve if well-intentioned “quiet American,” is arguing, as was the leadership of the United States during that period, that if Vietnam fell to communism, so would its neighbors in Southeast Asia – the so-called “domino theory”:
Pyle: “If Indo-China goes . . .”
Fowler: “I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I'd bet my future harp against your golden crown that in 500 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 market on long poles, wearing their pointed hats.''
Greene isn’t focused on Great Britain, the country of his birth and which he served as an intelligence agent. Great Britain, of course, dominated one of the greatest empires in history, and the borders it and France arbitrarily drew throughout the Middle East following the First World War continue to be the source of friction and instability. But, no mind. He, and his colleague in British intelligence and in the writing of fiction highly critical of U.S. foreign policy, David Cornwell (a.k.a, John le Carre) were both dismissive of America’s growing role in global affairs, and were both critical of what they viewed as a hopeless and destructive naivete on the part of American policymakers. The Quiet American isn’t an indictment of British colonialism, or even of French colonialism. Its target is the United States and, in depicting a bumbling, misplaced American foreign policy, he is omitting his own country’s considerable role in misshaping the world.
In his preface to The Quiet American, Greene thanks and acknowledges two of his friends from when he was stationed in Saigon as a reporter. One of those friends was a Vietnamese woman named Phuong, a name he borrows for one of the novel’s central characters. Explaining his appropriation of his friend’s name and the liberty he took with historical facts, Greene writes:
“Even the historical events have been rearranged. . .I have no scruples about such small changes. This is a story and not a piece of history . . .”
Greene pretty much skirts any notion of British responsibility for the events that transpire in this novel. Tellingly, after a protracted period of ambivalence regarding the outcome of the region’s events, Fowler arrives at a state of moral clarity. The novel opens, of course, with the disclosure that Pyle is dead. What will become apparent as the story progresses is this noble Englishman’s role in ensuring precisely his outcome. Pyle is the embodiment of American naivete as it manifested itself in benign interventionism that would prove inevitably and massively destructive. Fowler loathes the principle, if not the man, but, as the two are inextricably linked, he determines that Pyle must die:
“He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”
And, in Greene’s final declaration of moral clarity, he has Fowler climb down off of the metaphorical fence and declare: “Sooner or later...one has to take sides – if one is to remain human.” That the side Fowler has chosen is that of the Viet Minh guerrillas constituted an interesting evasion of the reality he and his British compatriots helped to bring about.