There is a telling passage in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American that could be considered an unintentional indictment of both British and American paternalism in their respective approaches to what used to be called “the Third World,” the less developed nations of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America that were the targets of centuries of Western imperialism. Greene was no admirer of the United States. On the contrary, his was a virulently anti-U.S. stance born both of an enduring bitterness stemming from Britain’s replacement in global affairs by the upstart United States and by what Greene and others among the British upper classes who were ‘raised to rule an empire’ considered American amateurism in its conduct of foreign affairs. During this passage, Thomas Fowler, the burned-out British journalist observing the death of French colonialism in Southeast Asia and the birth of post-World War II American interventionism, and Alden Pyle, the young American intelligence operative sent to Vietnam, where the novel takes place, to manipulate processes so that the communists couldn’t take power, debate the merits of Western intervention, each pretending to speak for the people whose country outside powers were intent to control. In arguing over what is best for the economically destitute Vietnamese, the idealistic and arrogant American exclaims that “they [the Vietnamese] don’t want communism,” to which the older, wiser Fowler responds:
“They want enough rice . . . They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”
Pyle, representing the young idealistic nation from which he sprang, and Fowler, representing the rapidly collapsing empire that once gave Great Britain its identity, have both adopted the paternalistic attitude that gave imperialism much of its moral imperative. They both claim to know what the Vietnamese want. If Fowler and Pyle represent the arrogant perspectives of the great powers, Phuong, Fowler’s Vietnamese girlfriend and target of Pyle’s affections, represents the entirety of the Vietnamese people. She is caught in a tug-of-war between the two Western men just as her country was caught between those larger, more powerful powers. As what the Vietnamese call “the American War” gained momentum, the Vietnamese viewed themselves as pawns in the Great Power Cold War politics of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China. Fowler/England’s perception of both Pyle and Phuong was interestingly expressed during a scene in which the couple are waiting on the delinquent American who was expected for dinner. Fowler is fully aware of Pyle/America’s designs on Phuong/Southeast Asia, and his thoughts once again reveal the arrogance towards both the United States and the less-developed Vietnamese:
“I wondered what they talked about together. Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his — he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world. Phuong on the other hand was wonderfully ignorant; if Hitler had come into the conversation she would have interrupted to ask who he was.”
This arrogance regarding the indigenous population continues when Fowler is summoned to the police department to answer questions about the still-unaccounted-for Pyle. The following exchange between Fowler and Vigot, the French police inspector, regarding the tactics of the native police in summoning the Englishman, Vigot apologizes for his Vietnamese subordinates’ manner:
He said in English, 'I'm so sorry I had to ask you to come.'
'I wasn't asked. I was ordered.'
'Oh, these native police — they don't understand.'
And, as the conversation turns towards Phuong, by now Pyle’s girlfriend, the same paternalistic arrogance is present, as Fowler explains to the French inspector that Phuong is no longer his, but Pyle’s:
"'I am a friend,' I said. 'Why not? I shall be going home one day, won't I? I can't take her with me. She'll be all right with him. It's a reasonable arrangement."
Phuong is treated like property, a commodity to be passed among Western protectors. Class and racial distinctions are a constant theme in The Quiet American. Given Greene’s proclivity for condescending perspectives towards non-European nations, it is possible that even he wasn’t aware of just how degrading was this perspective regarding the less-developed world.