From 1951-54, Graham Greene was a foreign correspondent in French Indochina. Contrary to the belief of some, Edward Lansdale (a pioneer of American intelligence operations) was not the inspiration for the character of Pyle (the titular Quiet American). Greene instead based the character on a man named Leo Hochstetter, with whom he shared a room and traveled to Saigon from Ben Tre. Hochstetter lectured Greene on finding a “third force” in Vietnam: a democratic alternative to colonialism and communism.
The Quiet American takes place in 1952, and is centered around the characters of English journalist Fowler, American economic aid Pyle, and the young Vietnamese woman Phuong trapped between them.
Fowler has been in Vietnam for two years. Married to a Catholic woman he’s abandoned in England, he stands for nothing and has no beliefs. He’s a journalist, interested only in the facts. He has been involved been involved in a purely physical relationship with Phuong, a dancer whose sister is trying to marry her to a preferably wealthy man. In walks Pyle, a naive young American who falls in love with Phuong. Pyle works for the CIA in some fashion, and is propping up South Vietnamese General The to push CIA interests in the region.
Pyle and Fowler become “friends” and rivals for Phuong’s affection. But, really, Pyle and Fowler become stand-ins for colonialism and imperialism, respectively, with Phuong representing Vietnam itself. Pyle, much like America, doesn’t really know what he’s getting into, and doesn’t have much consideration for Phuong as an individual. Conversely, Fowler cares nothing for Phuong’s needs (much like the colonial powers didn’t care for the interests of their colonies) and is only interested in what she offers him sexually. Both are inherently exploitative, and Phuong is just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I may have made this all seem pretty heavy-handed, but it’s really not. Greene was a master of his craft, and he handles the whole thing with a deft, subtle hand.
This book presages full American engagement in Vietnam, but presciently sums up the situation before it has a chance to fully develop. And much of the criticism, I think, applies to future American foreign policy – in the Middle East, for instance.