Graham Greene and ‘The Quiet American’

When I first made a TV film about Vietnam, in 1969, the director asked me to quote from Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American; I did, and later one of the TV critics wrote that I saw the country with a second-hand imagination. Certainly I had read the book when it first came out in 1955, and on reading it once more in Saigon in 1990, perhaps for the sixth or seventh time, I found I admired it more than ever. Just for that reason I ask myself whether the TV critic had not been right, and I see Vietnam through Greene-tinted spectacles.

The question is hard to answer, since the principal character in the book is an English reporter, Thomas Fowler, whose working life in the 1950s is much like mine was to be in the following two decades. He is entranced by the country and to some extent by its people. He takes neither side in the war and detests ideology. He watches with fascination the different ways that France and the United States confront the advance of communism. And although Greene was writing about the early Fifties, when France alone was fighting the war, The Quiet American came to be seen as a prophecy of the US involvement. Indeed by the time of his death this month at the age of eighty-six, Greene had become a kind of Grand Old Man of the left, and The Quiet American stood as his anti-imperialist masterpiece.

The character of the title, Alden Pyle, is said to be based on the CIA agent Colonel Edward Lansdale, who wanted to save democracy with the “psychological warfare” methods that he had studied during his peacetime career as an advertising executive. He had helped to subdue a revolt in the Philippines, afterward going to South Vietnam to assist the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Two American authors, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, glorified Lansdale in another Fifties novel, The Ugly American, where he appears as Colonel Edwin Hillandale, who wins hearts and minds by playing the mouth organ.

The Quiet American, Alden Pyle, arrives in Vietnam full of the theories of an absurd pundit, York Harding, author of The Advance of Red China. The Englishman Fowler teases Pyle and derides his hope of building a third force between communism and French colonialism. Then Pyle falls in love with Fowler’s girl, Phuong, and wins her away with the promise of marriage and life in the United States. Fowler is told by the Communists that Pyle is a secret agent engaged in importing plastic for bombs to use in a terror campaign on behalf of a “third force” general, which culminates in a vast explosion in front of the Continental Hotel. The incident is based on an actual bombing outrage which killed dozens of people. Fowler agrees to set up Pyle to be killed by the Communists. The French policeman, Inspector Vigot, thinks but cannot prove that Fowler ordered the killing from sexual jealousy.

The plot of The Quiet American could have unfolded in any country in Asia or Latin America, where the United States was fighting the spread of communism. However, in this as in so many other of Greene’s best books, the place figures as large as the people. When I see or hear the name of the book, I think at once not of Fowler or Pyle or even Phuong, but of Saigon, this garish, wicked, but ever-enchanting city, which Greene had obviously come to love during the four or five winters he spent here.

Saigon has remained unspoiled by war and the still greater menace of property redevelopment, so that not only the atmosphere but the very buildings remain as Greene described them forty years ago. Much of the action occurs along the street that the French called Catinat, the South Vietnamese called Tu Do, the Communists called Dong Khoi, and the Saigonese now call by the second or even the first of these titles. In the dedication of the novel to two of his Saigon friends, Greene says he has “quite shamelessly borrowed the location of your flat to house one of my characters.” Fowler’s flat is still there and, by appearances, occupied.

Fowler first introduces Pyle to Phuong at the Continental Hotel, one evening “in the momentary cool…when the sun had just gone down, and the candles were lit on the stalls in the side streets.” The Continental’s terrace cafe, where I last had a drink in 1980, is now glassed over as part of the flashy refurbishment which has made the hotel both more expensive and dull. The cigarette girls and shoeshine boys who used to pester one on the open terrace have taken their trade to Givral’s café across the street. This is the milk bar or ice cream parlor where every morning Phuong went for a chocolate shake. On the day of the bomb explosion, Pyle had warned her to stay away, thus confirming Fowler’s suspicion about his involvement. The Givral still offers good ice cream and patisseries, an appropriate fare in the city of Ho Chi Minh, who once was assistant pastry cook in the Carlton Hotel in London.

Fowler, the disillusioned journalist, does not believe in God, but Greene, we assume, attended the red brick cathedral which stands at the top of Rue Catinat. He knew the Majestic Hotel, which stands at the bottom. It was here that Fowler was first able to talk to Phuong away from the scrutiny of her older sister. On the night that Pyle is murdered, while on his way to a restaurant by the Dakao Bridge, Fowler provides an alibi at the Majestic bar, and stays to watch the unloading of US planes from a ship in the Saigon River.

Perhaps that restaurant by the Dakao Bridge was the one still popular in the 1960s, when the manageress was a tough Alsatian lady, and some of the clientele were Senegalese who had earlier settled this quarter as soldiers for France. I went there once with an English journalist, almost a caricature of Fowler, who aired his outrageous views in a braying, upper-class accent. As we entered the crowded restaurant, the journalist said to the manageress in his awful French: “Pouvez-vous nous mettre à une table très loin des Américains, surtout des nègres?” Fortunately, he was not overheard or understood.

Unlike almost every other foreigner who has written about Vietnam, Greene actually loved the country and its people, or to be more precise, its women. As Fowler lies beside Phuong, he thinks that “If I smelt her skin it would have the faintest fragrance of opium, and her colour was that of the small flame. I had seen the flowers on her dress beside the canals in the north; she was indigenous, and I never wanted to go home.”

Because so many of Greene’s novels are set in tropical, nasty places—the Congo, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and southern Mexico—some people imagine that Vietnam, too, was part of his hellish geography. On the contrary, it was a place of sensuous beauty and peopled by French and Vietnamese, two races Greene admired.

The Quiet American can be read as a very affecting story of love and murder in an exotic setting, with echoes of Conrad’s Victory, except that the hero, Fowler, fights for and wins his woman. It is at the same time a very political book, though not of course an ideological tract.

It is Pyle, not Fowler, whose head is bursting with liberal-leftist passion. In fact Fowler, like Greene at the time, was inclined to side with the French. Taxed by Pyle with his indulgence toward the colonialists, Fowler replies:

Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife.”

Fowler goes on to describe a French priest, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, who works fifteen hours a day in a cholera epidemic, saying his Mass with a wooden platter. Would Pyle call that priest part of colonialism? Pyle quotes his mentor, York Harding, to the effect that good individuals make it hard to get rid of a bad system. To this Fowler replies with a memorable outburst, which may be the key to much of Greene’s thinking on politics:

Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I’d rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it.”

From Greene’s newspaper reports on Vietnam in the recent collection of reports and reviews, Reflections,1 it is clear that his own views were more pro-French and anti-Communist than those he attributes to Fowler. Writing for Paris Match in 1952, he is passionate on the need to stop the Viet Minh:

In the beginning the war may very well have been a colonial war (even if the Viet Minh fired the first shots), but the young men who, with stubborn and ferocious determination, are doing the actual fighting in a hard climate against a savage and fanatical enemy, care little for the rubber plantations of Cochin China and Cambodia. They are fighting because France itself is at war and firmly determined not to let its allies down as long as humanly possible.

In The Quiet American, Fowler makes fun of Pyle for advancing the Domino Theory that if Vietnam falls, so will the rest of Southeast Asia. He advanced the theory himself in 1952.

Today at Lang Son, Ho Chi Minh rules over nothing but ruins, and 160,000 men of the French army (including Moroccans, Senegalese and Legionaires) plus a Vietnamese army of 200,000 stand between him and the Hanoi-Haiphong delta, the essential bastion in the defense of Siam and Malaya.

Nearly two years later, early in 1954, Greene went into Dien Bien Phu which was just about to fall to the Communists. In a bitter article for the London Sunday Times, Greene blamed the debacle on the United States, which had failed to help the French in 1945 and indeed had tried to prevent them getting back their Indo-China colonies.

A visit to Mexico in 1938 had given Greene his lifelong distaste for American liberalism. It was the liberal American President Woodrow Wilson who said, on invading Mexico, that it was “our duty to teach these people to elect good governments.” It was liberal Americans like Pyle who did so much damage in Vietnam. They got into the war, like Pyle, to build a third force between the Communists and colonialists. They got out of the war because the deaths and wounds offended their sensitive conscience, leaving the South Vietnamese to massacre or re-education camps. Pyle, planting his bomb in front of the Continental Hotel, was a forerunner of those who rained millions of bombs on North Vietnam, still with the best intentions.

Whatever his later commitments, Greene in the 1950s was not a man of the left in politics. Unlike so many other writers of his age, he had not become mixed up in the Spanish Civil War, going instead to Mexico to report in the persecution of Christians by a leftwing government. He had spent much time in sub-Saharan Africa without becoming enthusiastic for black majority rule. Although he lived in France, Greene did not show any public concern over the problems of Algeria, or the return to power of Charles de Gaulle. The Quiet American, when it came out, was seen as a defense of European colonialism against the United States.

Greene understood the brutality of the Vietnam war but he showed more sympathy to the Frenchmen who fought it than other, later writers showed to the Americans. When Fowler goes out on patrol and sees the French accidentally shoot a woman and child:

The lieutenant said, “Have you seen enough?” speaking savagely, almost as though I had been responsible for their deaths. Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay envelope and escapes responsibility.

That is a just perception, but it was seldom applied to American troops, who also felt ashamed and disgusted when they had killed women and children.

Fowler goes with the French on a dive-bombing, machine-gunning mission, at the end of which they destroy a sampan, “adding our little quota to the world’s dead.” Afterward the pilot, Captain Trouin, makes a detour to show Fowler the sunset over the limestone cliffs. Later still, at an opium den, Captain Trouin remarks that the war is lost:

But we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop. Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years.

Many American pilots probably felt that way and were proved right, but no great novelist put their thoughts in writing.

Inspector Vigot, who questions Fowler about the death of Pyle, has a copy of Pascal’s Pensées on his desk. Although the sympathetic policeman is one of the stock Greene characters, I nevertheless find Vigot unbelievable. The French police in Indochina systematically locked up, tortured, and even killed political suspects. Many were brutes who would not have read a Simenon story, let alone Pascal. French Indochina had been from the start a commercial racket, exploiting virtually forced labor to work in the paddy fields, mines, and rubber plantations. The colonial government raised a third of its revenue through its monopoly of opium, which was systematically pushed to the native community, as well as the Chinese and French.

The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer wrote of Saigon in the 1930s: Alongside all this solid respectability goes a violence which equals if it does not surpass the old port of Marseilles, or Cairo, or Suez. Every rickshaw boy, and there must be thousands of them, is a pimp: “Madame français, missou? Madame métisse? Madame annamite? Boy français? Boy métisse? Boy annamite? Fumer? Moi connais bon.”…The whole place and most of the inhabitants have the sweet and acrid smell of opium hanging over them. As far as I could see there was nothing genuine, nothing spontaneous, nothing that was not wholly commercial in the whole town. I personally prefer a nice marshy swamp.2

Yet Greene, through Fowler, says he prefers the “honest exploiters” of French Indochina to the liberal Englishmen who had given India its freedom. Certainly it can be argued that Britain left India in far too much of a hurry, and might have avoided partition with its attendant massacres. Nevertheless the former British possessions in Asia have so far worked better than those of the French or the Dutch, who also ruled on commercial principles. American like Pyle may have been innocents but they were surely right to condemn the sheer brutality of the French in Vietnam, as indeed in Algeria.

Greene loved Vietnam but his attitude to its inhabitants verged on the condescending. Fowler’s girlfriend Phuong is a birdbrain who reads nothing but magazine articles on the British royal family. If you had mentioned Hitler, she would have asked who he was. Fowler sneers at the Cao Dai religious sect, whose saints include Christ, Buddha, and Victor Hugo, but he neglects to explain that the Cao Dai have a following only among the poor and ignorant of a part of the Mekong Delta region. They are comparable with a Holy Roller sect in the southern United States.

During their talk in a watchtower, coming back from the Cao Dai Cathedral, Fowler tells Pyle that the Vietnamese peasants are only concerned with getting their rice, to which Pyle says they want to think for themselves. “Thought’s a luxury,” Fowler replies. “Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?” Having apparently lost this point, Pyle argues that not all the country are peasants. What about the educated? Would they be happy under a communist system? “Oh no,” says Fowler, “we’ve brought them up in our ideas.”

In this debate, I find myself whole-heartedly on the side of Pyle. It is wrong and arrogant to suppose that because a man lives in a mud hut, he cannot think about God or indeed democracy. Although I once spent three weeks making a film in a Delta village, the film in which I was made to quote Greene’s comment about the peasants, I would not set myself up as an expert on their thinking. However, I found those I met interested in the outside world, and, like most Vietnamese peasants then and now, they were avid listeners to the BBC’s broadcasts.

Throughout the French time, the Mekong Delta was always a center of discontent, and it was there, not in Saigon, that rebellion broke out in 1930. As well as the Communists, there were Greene’s fellow Catholics and three major Buddhist sects, all very active up to the point of militancy. As Pyle rightly predicted, the peasants greatly resent Communist government, partly perhaps because they want to think for themselves.

Fowler says that the educated would not be happy under the Communists because “we have brought them up in our ideas.” It is true that the French tried to force their language and education upon the Vietnamese, obliging the children to chant in school: “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois habitaient jadis la Gaul.” However, this French education was not a success. When the French arrived in the country, some 80 percent of the people knew the Chinese ideographs for writing Vietnamese. The French prohibited Chinese characters and forced people to use the Latin transliteration devised by a missionary in the seventeenth century. The young Vietnamese protested by simply refusing to go to school: at the end of the 1930s, 80 percent of boys of school age were not attending classes. The old-fashioned Mandarins and the new generation of left-wing rebels joined in rejecting what Fowler calls “our ideas.” From reading The Quiet American one would not guess that the Vietnamese had a civilization, literature, and national pride when “our ancestors the Gauls” were still savages dressed in skins.

If Graham Greene sentimentalizes the French and patronizes the Vietnamese; his attitude to the Americans sometimes verges on snobbery. Dislike of American liberalism sounds very often like simple dislike of Americans. Fowler says that Pyle belongs to the dude ranch, the skyscraper and the express elevator, the ice cream, the martini, and milk at lunch with a chicken sandwich. Pyle had taken a good degree in—“Well, one of those subjects Americans can take degrees in: perhaps public relations or theatrecraft, perhaps even Far Eastern studies (he had read a lot of books).”

Greene’s anti-Americanism had little to do, in those days, with left-wing sentiment. It belonged to an older, often Tory, tradition. The anti-American founding father was Samuel Johnson, scourge of the “patriots,” by which he meant those who believed in Rousseau’s “patrie,” the all-powerful state or government. As a champion of the African race, Dr. Johnson asked with reference to the American: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Charles Dickens labored the same point in Martin Chuzzlewit, which also makes sport of windy American orators and journalists such as Cyrus Choak, Jefferson Brick, and Lafayette Kettle. Greene’s friend Evelyn Waugh indulged in anti-American feeling that joined Dickens’s mockery to Johnson’s Toryism.

In the 1930s, when Greene and Waugh were getting into their writing stride, the United States was more popular with the left than the right in Britain. Liberals and socialists (and also the fascists) admired Roosevelt’s New Deal as intervention by the state (la patrie) to help the poor and unemployed. The Conservatives, with the exception of Winston Churchill, looked down upon Americans as vulgar parvenus.

Soon after the publication of The Quiet American, Hollywood turned the story into a film, with Michael Redgrave as Fowler and Audie Murphy as Pyle. To the fury of Greene and most of the critics, the script writers and the director turned the story inside out, making Pyle innocent of the bombing, and Fowler a Communist dupe. Having read the reviews, I did not see the film at the time it came out; and for thirty years I accepted the general opinion that it was worthless. Quite recently, I saw the film on latenight TV and I had to change my mind. The film is not only well directed and acted but sticks as far as possible to the plot and dialogue of the novel. But whereas Pyle appears as a good-natured idealist, Fowler appears as a bitter and rather arrogant English snob, moved largely by sexual jealousy. Greene’s anti-American jibes, spoken in Redgrave’s petulant whine, serve to condemn Fowler.

It was perhaps unfortunate for Greene that the film of The Quiet American came out shortly after the two British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had defected to Russia. They too were upper-class, snobbish, and virulently anti-American. The third of these Communist spies, Kim Philby, was also a close friend of Greene. Of course the film perverted the book of The Quiet American, but it did so cleverly, in a way that almost improved the plot. Seeing the film, I began to ask myself, “Did Fowler really have proof that Pyle was behind the bombing?” The book says so, but then the narrator is Fowler himself. Perhaps the narrator should have been Inspector Vigot.

About seven or eight years after its publication, The Quiet American came to be seen as both a prophetic and leftwing book. In the meantime, Greene had gone to live for a time in Cuba and written Our Man in Havana about an amateur spy who pretends that diagrams of the vacuum cleaners he sells are plans of Soviet nuclear rockets. When the Cuba crisis followed, Greene started to gain his reputation for having political second sight. By that year, 1962, the American presence was growing in Vietnam, and hundreds of real-life Pyles were building a third force, and trying to win the hearts and minds of the people. In November 1963, the CIA mounted a coup d’état against South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem, who was later shot. President Kennedy, like Pyle, was playing at God with the lives of the Vietnamese. Three weeks after the death of Diem, President Kennedy too was killed, like Pyle. As the war progressed, The Quiet American entered the antiwar scriptures.

Meanwhile Greene had become politically militant, taking the side of anti–United States rebels in Haiti, Argentina, Panama, and eventually Nicaragua. In December 1985, I spent a few days in the small Nicaraguan town of Rivas, during the Feast of the Purification, when everyone lets off thunderflashes, locally known as bombas. One of these was a real bomb which went off on the church steps during Mass, wounding fourteen people. On the way back to Managua next day, I thought of that much bigger bomb that went off in front of the Continental.

That evening, in the bar of the main hotel in Managua, I saw Graham Greene with one of the Sandinista leaders, and later I introduced myself. He was very friendly, talking of people we knew in London, but would not move on to Nicaraguan politics, on which we disagreed. I told him about the bomb at Rivas, hoping to lure him into revealing what he now thinks of the bomb in The Quiet American. Was Pyle really guilty? Alas, Mr. Greene would not be drawn.

Still, reading The Quiet American once again in 1990, in my bedroom in the Majestic, or over a beer at Givral’s café, I got the impression of having been frozen in time. Saigon is immutable. It is the outside world that changes. At one point in the story Phuong asks Fowler, “Are there skyscrapers in London?” and Fowler, who knows she is thinking of Pyle, says gently that no, the skyscrapers are in New York. Reading that passage today, when London is studded with skyscrapers, I realize just what an age has passed since Greene was in Saigon writing this novel. Since then, the French have left and after them the Americans, and now even the northern Communists have stopped trying to impose their will on what is to them too an alien city. Through all these changes, Saigon and its people have stayed as vital, curious, and alluring as they appear in Greene’s great, timeless book.

  1. 1

    Reinhardt Books/Viking, 1990.

  2. 2

    Bali and Angkor: Or Looking at Life and Death (Little, Brown, 1936), p. 150.