For much of the world Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American has remained a lasting indictment of the well-intentioned destructiveness of America's meddling in foreign countries. But a novel offers insight, not history. And the history of The Quiet American is, like that of Viet Nam, a Rubik's Cube that defies simple answers.
With a script approved by nine levels of censorship in Hanoi, Australian director Phillip Noyce's new film challenges the viewer to accept the moral necessity for the murder of the central character, the idealistic and bumbling Alden Pyle, an American diplomat implicated in a terrorist bombing which kills and maims innocent Vietnamese. Fourteen months into the hunt for Al Qaeda, with the prospect of war in Iraq, it is suggested the film offers a timely relevance to the debate on the use of U.S. power abroad.
Noyce hopes the public can accept his assertion the most anti-American novel of the past fifty years has been made into a film that is not anti-American. "It only holds up a mirror to American aspirations at the time." Yet this is a drama performed as live theatre in Cold War Moscow. For the anti-war movement the novel discredited American support to nationalists in Viet Nam of the kind that had prevented communist attempts to take over the Philippines, Greece, and South Korea. Noyce has publicly supported assertions September 11 was an accumulated consequence of decades of American foreign interventions. He showed less subtlety when he served as co-writer for the 1987 Australian mini-series Vietnam in which American soldiers were portrayed as evil incarnate.
The Quiet American dramatized Graham Greene's condescension of an emergent America stepping brashly on a world stage that for long had been the exclusive domain of his native Great Britain, and of France. "He comes blundering in and people have to die for his mistakes." French diplomats in Indochina shared Greene's irritation, openly disparaging the U.S.'s "adolescent anti-colonialism." Ironically, it was Britain who made possible France's tragic return to Indochina in September 1945 after Ho Chi Minh had declared independence.
Although Greene's travels took him into the heart of darkness of France's pointless colonial war in Viet Nam, only the anti-colonial Americans attracted indignation. Pyle's surname is an intentional reference to hemorrhoids; American presence as a literal pain in the a**. He is not accorded a respectable death. Greene rubs America's face in the mud of Viet Nam by having Pyle smothered under a bridge.
For Hanoi, propaganda produced by someone else, particularly a writer of Greene's international stature, is always the best kind. But Greene was not objective. He secretly assisted British intelligence which financed his trips to Viet Nam. In an eerie mirror of his own main character - the quiet American - Greene was at one point under French suspicion for probable involvement in Vietnamese politics with a fellow British spy in northern Viet Nam which led to the death of French soldiers, and possibly Vietnamese civilians. Greene's abhorrence of Pyle's meddling in Vietnamese politics was, therefore, hypocritical. It was also selective. He declared his whole-hearted support for Britain's suppression of Malaysian communist guerrillas which took place during the time he was in Viet Nam.
Greene saw the communist-created Viet Minh as essentially idealistic nationalists whose inevitable victory would not contribute support to the communist bloc. Yet when he interviewed Ho Chi Minh after the novel's publication (following a session with an opium pipe), Hanoi was already a loyal follower of policy set in Moscow. A Mao-inspired land reform campaign killing over 50,000 was in full force. Incredibly, Greene's article described Ho as an Asian "Mr. Chips", a friendly, if strict schoolmaster type. Perhaps it was the opium.
In stark contrast, as early as September, 1945, the U.S. State Department - the fictional Pyle's employer - had accurately assessed Ho Chi Minh as a lifelong communist. By March, 1950, the State Department had concluded, again correctly, France was in a military stalemate that could only be settled politically. U.S. support to France's war against the Viet Minh began only after the North Korean invasion of June, 1950 strengthened the containment doctrine. Five months prior to that, in February, 1950, Stalin and Mao had met with Ho in Moscow and assured him of their support for establishing communist regimes in all three Indochina states.
Greene's lack of understanding of these political dynamics was explainable. He was a writer and itinerant visitor who enjoyed Viet Nam's opium and prostitutes. His insights were gained from his personal experience.
The critical question of the future of post-colonial Viet Nam had preoccupied the Vietnamese well before Greene's first visit in 1951. For Ho Chi Minh, the answer was discovered in 1920 when Lenin's call for the overthrow of imperial powers through communist revolution electrified his idealism. "What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness, and confidence it instilled in me! This is what we need; this is the path to our liberation." Ho, the 'quiet Vietnamese' was 30 years old, about the same age as Greene's Alden Pyle.
Five years later, the scope of Ho's enthusiasm had widened, "After the political and social revolution [in Indochina], there will still remain oppressed peoples. It is then necessary to have a world revolution. After that the peoples of the four corners of the earth will befriend one another. It will be the age of world fraternity." It is an appeal to millenarianism Osama Bin Laden could well appreciate in his calls for America, and the world, to accept Islam.
But there were alternative paths. In 1904, a famous Vietnamese nationalist, Phan Chu Trinh had concluded the old system of dynastic rule royal dynasty and Confucian tradition was beyond rehabilitation. He believed instead in wholesale institutional reform based on the ideals of Western freedom and democracy. In 1921 in Paris, Trinh and others tried to dissuade Ho Chi Minh from his obsession with communism. Ho chose instead to go to Moscow and was always careful to conceal the Communist Party's true identity within the nationalist fronts he created.
Greene had ridiculed Pyle's belief in a "Third Force", neither communist nor colonialist, that could support a "national democracy" against the Viet Minh. But Pyle's strategy clearly echoed Phan Chu Trinh's evolutionary approach. Today, almost three decades after the conflict that brought communist rule to Indochina, the Vietnamese people are aware they have flourished throughout the world with the exception of one country - their own. Ho's attempts to make of them perfect Marxists is increasingly judged against the relative prosperity, freedom and independence of their U.S.-supported neighbors; Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea. An unlikely vindication of the quiet American came from a former Viet Nam war era draft-evader. Prior to his visit to Hanoi in November, 2000 President Bill Clinton declared in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center, "The twentieth century resolved one big question, I believe, conclusively. Humanity's best hope for a future of peace and prosperity lies in free people and free market democracies governed by the rule of law."
Simple answers are easier to ingest, however, and the place of the The Quiet American in history is secure; more so with the release of this film. For Vietnamese trying to encourage political reform the continuing focus on the U.S. as the sole responsible agent for the country's historic problems will be a setback.
Today, the U.S. is assisting another 'Third Force'. Neither fundamentalist nor communist, the elected government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan holds widespread popular support and continues to defy unlikely odds. This time the rest of the world agrees with Washington. Alden Pyle would have been pleased.
A Canadian, Jeff McMurdo has worked in international development in Viet Nam and Afghanistan. He is editing a book on Vietnamese history.