Set in Vietnam during the transition from French rule to US support, The Quiet American explores the geopolitics in the 1950s as the Cold War was in full swing. While the novel addresses numerous complex dimensions of the Cold War, author Graham Greene does not focus primarily on the larger issue of capitalism versus communism. He pays more attention to the restructuring of imperial control that accompanied the struggle for independence in Southeast Asia. The covert nature of US involvement in the former French colony is represented by Alden Pyle. The quietness of this American may be considered to stand for his clandestine mode of operation, as he never identifies himself as an intelligence agent.
Greene addresses how the United States replaced France as the dominant power in South Vietnam, even though it was technically an independent country. More broadly, he reveals the ongoing tensions between the United States and its allies in the fight against communism. Through the character of Thomas Fowler, Greene suggests the tenacity of British experience in imperialism, even when glossed as nonpolitical, for Fowler considers himself an objective observer. He similarly suggests British distrust of US motives. Pyle’s assumptions of personal superiority in forging a relationship with Phuong, a Vietnamese woman who lives with Fowler, mirror his arrogance about his country’s superiority; both assumptions are proven wrong. Fowler stays alive and Phuong stays with him, while Pyle ends up dead.