David Brooks wrote in The Weekly Standard on 6 April 2002 that much of the European reaction to the American response to September 11 “has been straight out of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American,” and went on to paraphrase European criticism of the U.S.: “They will go marching off as they always do, naively confident of themselves, yet inevitably unaware of the harm they shall do.” The reference is to Greene’s Alden Pyle, an American government secret operative in Vietnam whose support for a political leader who commits a terrorist bombing causes Thomas Fowler, an apolitical British journalist, to conspire in Pyle’s murder by Communists in order to prevent Pyle from innocently causing more harm. And Phillip Noyce’s current movie version, starring Michael Caine as Fowler and Brendan Fraser as Pyle, has been reviewed in this country as prophetic of the inevitable disaster of the American involvement in Vietnam. The novel was criticized in America upon its publication in 1955 for being anti-American, but a little digging into Greene’s biography raises the surprisingly slippery question to what degree and in what way Greene intended this condemnation of American foreign activity.
Part I: Culture
To begin with the most obvious anti-American element: the word “quiet” in the title should be italicized because the point is that the American Pyle isn’t your typical, brash, noisy, moronic American. The son of a professor, Harvard-educated, and intensely idealistic about his undercover work to set up an indigenous Third Force to battle both the fading French colonialists and the Communist Vietminh, he’s nevertheless so inexperienced he’s more dangerous than his stupid, obnoxious countrymen. (Fowler thinks of him: “[Y]ou can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”) Pyle is as good as this country can produce and yet it comes across as a form of redemptive political engagement for Fowler to conspire in his murder.
Fowler’s motive is mixed, to be sure, grounded in Pyle’s forthright, gallant competition for Fowler’s teenaged Vietnamese mistress Phuong. Fowler is married to a Catholic woman who won’t give him a divorce, whereas Pyle wants to do the honorable thing by Phuong. But that doesn’t make the anti-Americanism an inaccurate statement of Greene’s feelings, it just gives its voicing a personal motive in the story. What Fowler says about Americans feels grounded in Old World snobbery, especially against crusading Americans like Henry Luce whose Life magazine sponsored Greene’s first trip to Vietnam. Greene gives Fowler, his alter ego as detached-but-aroused journalist in Indochina, swipes at American culture of the kind that Europeans often take to be devastating: we have air-conditioned lavatories; women’s lunch clubs that play Canasta; grocery stores where the celery comes wrapped in cellophane. Fowler refers to our “sterilised world,” so different from the real world of “rumpled sheets and the sweat of sex,” and wonders if American women take deodorants to bed with them. Even the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French, is blamed on us–it may not be our fault that it’s “ill-designed” but it is we who have rendered it “meaningless.”
Nowadays this level of critique can be summed up in one word–“McDonald’s”–or even the initial “Mc.” And though Greene makes Fowler self-conscious enough to be aware that sexual rivalry with Pyle had made him a “bore” on the subject of America, that just means he’s talking about it more than his auditors care to hear, not that he’s wrong. After all, Greene called his American Pyle for the connotation with hemorrhoids–Americans give Greene a pain in the ass. Hearing about the awfulness of American culture from an English screenwriter of this era is especially odd seeing as so many of the interesting English movies, of all genres–The Stars Look Down, Odd Man Out, Outcast of the Islands, The Man in the White Suit, The Belles of St. Trinians, Room at the Top, I’m All Right, Jack, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The L-Shaped Room–were peeling back the aristo-colonial-high-literary veneer of British movies to expose the full range of their dysfunctional society.
I suppose it’s the price Americans pay for having come from behind, for offering opportunities to a world of immigrants and having developed unprecedented general wealth, not to mention having invented an internationally triumphant popular culture. And it’s not as if there’s no connection between American materialism and what we stand for politically. The protections of property are not merely coincident with American freedom; as Milton Friedman has pointed out, one makes the other possible. The promise of rewards to ingenuity and freedom of thought, speech, and enterprise go hand in hand, and the more that opportunity is evenly distributed the more social value is created overall. Usually social value takes the form that ordinary people, not cultural mavens, want. What can you do? They want it. It’s because all and sundry have been able to come here and prosper under such protections, as they could not in their homelands, that we have our great, big, expanding-but-stable, tacky-comfortable middle class. Why do you never hear of people risking their lives at sea in overcrowded boats to get into Vietnam or Cuba? (Isn’t it also fair to wonder why there are so many Europeans in American graduate school programs?) It isn’t that there aren’t plenty of ludicrous aspects of American culture. What’s irritating is the smug assumption that all Americans are blind to them, and that those aspects are indicative of a bigger American bullying soullessness–we’re not just a bunch of plastic soldiers, but soldiers in the cause of plastic.
The question of snobbery about American culture is especially relevant here because Greene was not only a popular screenwriter but an interesting movie critic, and a certain amount of high-browism can improve anyone’s view of movies. It can discipline readers’ minds to have a critic put pop artists on a continuum with literary and visual artists. At the movies, the lights go down and larger-than-life beauties fill the screen and act with an abandon and a remoteness from consequences that’s utterly seductive. We’re susceptible to this fantasy world in highly erotic, personal ways; almost all sex and violence in movies are inescapably pornographic at some level. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but you want a movie critic who instinctively gets the appeal of pop and yet has a resistant mind. In Greene’s 1939 novel The Confidential Agent, an agent for the Spanish Republican government takes a British industrialist’s daughter to a movie theater to see a musical, which Greene describes in this passage:
They sat for nearly three hours in a kind of palace—gold-winged figures, deep carpets, and an endless supply of refreshments carried round by girls got up to kill: these places had been less luxurious when he was last in London. It was a musical play full of curious sacrifice and suffering: a starving producer and a blonde girl who had made good. She had her name up in neon lights on Piccadilly, but she flung up her part and came back to Broadway to save him. She put up the money—secretly—for a new production and the glamour of her name gave it success. It was a revue all written in no time and the cast was packed with starving talent. Everybody made a lot of money; everybody’s name went up in neon lights—the producer’s too: the girl’s of course, was there from the first. There was a lot of suffering—gelatine tears pouring down the big blonde features—and a lot of happiness. It was curious and pathetic; everybody behaved nobly and made a lot of money. It was as if some code of faith and morality had been lost for centuries, and the world was trying to reconstruct it from the unreliable evidence of folk memories and subconscious desires—and perhaps some hieroglyphics upon stone.
Greene sets down the intelligent critic’s double feeling of awe and disdain for mass entertainment as exquisitely as anyone ever has. (I think he was wrong descriptively in writing that Shirley Temple coqueted with “dimpled depravity” to appeal to “middle-aged men and clergymen,” in an infamous review over which he lost a libel suit–if any star ever pointed up the American audience’s taste for amateurishness, it was Temple–but I still understand his desire to defile what she represents.)
But it’s one thing to let your disdain for mass entertainment push you to write better than average screenplays, and another to write popular fiction, as Greene did, and think that you’re accomplishing more. When G.L. Arnold reviewed The Quiet American in the January 1956 issue of the British periodical Twentieth Century, he wrote that Fowler
exists only by virtue of his descent from a long line of ‘tough’ characters in modern American fiction…. Put [him] down in Hollywood, and you have the ideal part for Humphrey Bogart, down to the cynical wisecracks about women and the verbal fencing with the police. The final joke then is on Mr. Greene, for if the Americanization of the English novel has reached the point where even a Yankee-hating character like Fowler can only be presented in terms of the hard-boiled school of American fiction, the literary war has really been won by the Americans, however much this result may be concealed by Greene-Fowler’s sarcastic comments on their manners, morals and ideals.
To get one central issue out of the way: Greene is almost always referred to as a Catholic novelist, and given credit for depicting minds struggling with evil–not just countering its activities in the outside world but, more importantly, writhing with it internally. Fowler, though not a Catholic, is the tormented character in The Quiet American, sensitive to the evil Pyle represents while still aware of his own unsavory motives in wanting to kill Pyle to keep Phuong, and also in what’s unsavory about keeping her. Some of Fowler’s ruminations are succulently morbid. This also means that Fowler is the only developed novelistic character in the story; Pyle and Phuong are both political-allegorical types. (And anyone who wants to give Greene credit for political insight should read the colonialist-tourist generalizations about the passive Phuong again: “To take an Annamite to bed with you is like taking a bird: they twitter and sing on your pillow.” The movie alters this as much as it can by making her more proactive sexually.)
You want to keep in mind that Greene converted to Catholicism as an adult, in part to get his first wife to marry him. At times, then, it can seem perverse for an adult convert to make a literary reputation out of being a bad Catholic, but then you can also say that conversion was a way of bringing his fascination with evil into recognized, solid confines. As for the literary results, Orwell wrote of Greene’s 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter that Greene “appears to share the idea, which has been floating around ever since Baudelaire, that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class night club, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non-Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts that perish.”
Considering its derivation from pop fiction and movies, Greene’s writing is better than it needed to be. Though it may be due only to the cosmopolitan glamor of a cultivated disillusionment, good Greene is more piquant than mediocre Hemingway. But The Quiet American is not Greene at his best. Fowler’s weirdly passive torment is well done, for what it is, but the story itself is melodrama. It’s ironic melodrama in the sense that the courtly, idealistic American is the villain and the opium-smoking, lying-and-cheating man who kills a friend in part so that he may get his girlfriend back is the unlikely hero, saved from political indifference by his vices, but melodrama nonetheless. (It is also, as Greene biographer Michael Shelden shows, a recycling of Greene’s early novel Rumour at Nightfall, which he had suppressed, and in part a rehash of his screenplay for The Third Man, but even if it were brand-spanking new the irony would be tinny.)
Noyce’s movie is clumsy in a way Greene never would be–for instance, showing Pyle obstructing medical relief for a dying man in order to get a photograph of his agony that he may use as propaganda. (The photographs that appeared in Life that Greene “reproduces” in the text were taken by an independent Vietnamese photographer.) But the movie just points up the basic melodramatic structure. If The Quiet American were not in essence a trashy suspense story then Greene could have focused on Fowler’s awareness of Pyle’s ingenuously composite personality and dispensed with the murder and detection. Think how much Henry James, Greene’s “model of excellence” according to Shelden, got out of the dawning perception of corruption in The Ambassadors simply by having Chad and Madame de Vionnet boat into Lambert Strether’s idyllic landscape.
The question is, then, in light of the fact that the book is conventional entertainment, however high-grade, and putting aside the anti-Americanism that’s attributable to snobbery, how seriously do we take the political implications of the American as terrorist?
Part II: Politics
In his review of the book in the May 1956 issue of Commentary, Philip Rahv seconded Arnold’s perception that the book is essentially detective fiction, and Noyce’s movie makes this even clearer, with a closeup of the telltale dogpaw print in cement, etc. Consequently, Rahv didn’t think it was worthwhile to get worked up about the political posturing in the book. Diana Trilling responded to Rahv’s review in the July 1956 issue by calling the book an example of the kind of neutralism in world affairs that often masked pro-Communism. Rahv answered that it was only a book, and that the opinions of Fowler, the first-person narrator, couldn’t be directly attributed to Greene. But if, like Rahv, you think the book is second-rate as a literary matter, then how are you to understand the political payload, which is delivered all the more cleanly?
Greene’s actions and statements, on the surface, certainly bore Trilling out. It may seem unfair to judge a book by external events, but in 1948 George Orwell characterized Greene as “a mild Left with faint CP leanings,” and went on, “If you look at books like A Gun for Sale, England Made Me, The Confidential Agent and others, you will see that there is the usual left-wing scenery. The bad men are millionaires, armaments manufacturers etc and the good man is sometimes a Communist…. According to Rayner Heppenstall, Greene somewhat reluctantly supported Franco during the Spanish civil war, but The Confidential Agent is written from the other point of view.” (Noyce’s movie certainly invites us to interpret the story in terms of events outside it, by tacking on a series of news stories under Fowler’s byline about America in Vietnam in the ’60s, and movie critics have obligingly hailed Greene for his prescience.) Greene spent the rest of his public career bolstering the view that he was a sincere leftist: by taking a tour conducted by East German guards of the freshly-erected Berlin Wall after which he, as Shelden puts it, “criticised the materialistic people who went over the wall simply for the freedom of being able to buy more consumer goods”; by having a well-publicized private chat with Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez in 1983; by concluding a 1987 speech in Moscow with the sentiment, “I even have a dream, Mr. General Secretary, that perhaps one day before I die, I shall know that there is an Ambassador of the Soviet Union giving good advice at the Vatican”; and perhaps most infamously by announcing in his 4 September 1967 letter to The Times (London), “If I had to choose between life in the Soviet Union and life in the United States I would certainly choose the Soviet Union.” (As a matter of record, he lived in neither the USSR or the US, but preferred Anacapri in Granada, Antibes in Provence, and later Vevey.)
But before getting too worked up, it’s necessary to point out that Shelden, writing after Greene’s death and with the benefit of a 1993 briefing by the British Cabinet Office about Greene’s work for the Secret Intelligence Service (“SIS”), suggests that Greene may well have been a double agent in his capacity as the public radical, using his anti-American works and statements to gain access to Communist countries for intelligence purposes. (His friend Evelyn Waugh wrote in a 5 September 1960 letter, “He is a great one for practical jokes. I think also he is secret agent on our side and all his buttering up of the Russians is ‘cover’.”) Everyone knows that Greene worked for the SIS during World War II; Shelden presents evidence that he worked for it until the 1980s and that his trips to Vietnam were paid for in part by the SIS. (Remember, however, that his turnaround on the question of Spain occurred by 1939, before he went to work for the SIS.)
It gets more confusing. Shelden’s description of Greene’s presence in Prague during the revolution of 1948, which Greene dishonestly claimed came about by chance, makes Greene sound less like Fowler and more like Pyle using his health relief mission for a cover: “He could pretend to be a harmless author, not a spy, and could easily be forgiven for wandering the streets in search of local colour or of some curious literary connection which only he could appreciate. And there were publishers who wanted to see him, writers who wanted to discuss their works with him, admiring Catholics who wanted him to sign books. With so many reasonable excuses available, he could go almost anywhere and talk his way out of a tight spot.” Greene doesn’t come off as much more successful than Pyle, either, and far less idealistic, though he managed not to get himself killed over a girl. The overall assessment of his spying work is that he was “amateurish but useful,” a “dilettante,” and certainly interested in having his expenses paid after being flown all over the world. As another SIS officer stated: “Despite the money he makes out of making the great British public worry about its soul, he is extremely mercenary.”
This raises the possibility that Greene had reason to identify to some degree with both Fowler and Pyle, and yet reception of the book and of Noyce’s movie have not reflected that. For instance, the book was very well reviewed in Pravda, and the website dealmemo.com reports of the making of the movie, “The script has clearly struck the right note with the communist authorities in Vietnam, who gave approval [for location filming] on the grounds that ‘it condemns the manoeuvres of hostile forces and foreign aggressors against the Vietnamese people’.” It seems certain that Greene at the very least enjoyed the mystery and gamesmanship of his life undercover in plain sight.
His usefulness as a spy is another question. How much intelligence could he gather from a chat with a dictator? And could it possibly offset the prestige lent to them and their regimes by his books and public statements? Did he enjoy cloak-and-daggering in the world’s hot spots, with occasional access to kahunas, so much that having his name become associated with shameless political pandering was worth it? Oddly, this can’t have much effect on our interpretation of The Quiet American: if Greene were working as a double agent as its author that would only confirm his intention to make it pro-Communist if it were to work effectively as bait. In any case, the question of his intelligence activities speaks only to his personal motives; the political meaning of the book is something apart.
In the melodrama of The Quiet American Pyle is the villain because he’s complicit in the death of civilian non-combatants, including a child, as a result of a terrorist bombing by the Third Force that he supports. Fowler sneers at the concept of finding a nationalist Third Force, though Jeff McMurdo in the online Front Page Magazine has shown that there was an indigenous ideological basis for it much earlier in the century. One of the things that makes the Americans especially bad in this instance in the book is that they warned other Americans to stay out of the area of the bombing. Greene’s sympathetic, painstaking biographer Norman Sherry has shown that General Thé could easily have perpetrated the bombing without American help, and further that the charge that Americans were forewarned is untrue. (The latter is on a par with the claim that Jews knew not to show up for work in the World Trade Center buildings on September 11.) In the context of his handling of this evidence, it’s interesting to know that when Greene covered a British campaign against Communist rebels in Malaya in 1950, according to Shelden, he made “no attempt to question the savage tactics of the British troops.” Greene’s article in Life includes a photo of a dead rebel being carried over a pole like game.
But is this political choice to rest on the swapping of atrocity photos? On this basis you couldn’t back the American alliance with the Soviet Union during the Second World War, not after the purges, the assassination of Trotsky, the murder in Washington, D.C. of Walter Krivitsky, the abduction from Manhattan of Juliet Stuart Poyntz, the massacre in the Katyn Forest.
And if we’re going to look at The Quiet American with our vision improved by hindsight, how on earth would a terrorist bombing send us into the arms of the Vietnamese Communists? The year the book was published Ho Chi Minh instituted radical land reforms in the north, hauling land owners before “people’s tribunals” and executing or sending thousands to forced labor camps. In Casualties of War, an exposé of the kidnap-rape-murder of a Vietnamese girl by American soldiers and so hardly a patriotic whitewash, New Yorker journalist Daniel Lang wrote that the Vietnamese “constantly reported rapes and kidnappings by the Vietcong; in fact, the Vietcong committed these crimes so indiscriminately that the victims were sometimes their own sympathizers.” And let’s not forget the reeducation camps. At this point you shouldn’t have to say it, but whatever you can tot up against the American involvement in Vietnam, and there’s plenty, we were not on the wrong side of the conflict.
Supposedly in America we don’t believe that the end justifies the means. But ends and means can be evaluated separately. The critique of how America conducts foreign policy is not the objectionable form of anti-Americanism here, as Diana Trilling wrote in 1956: “Europeans, no less than Americans, have the entire right, even the duty, honestly and openly to challenge our country on the many manifest errors in its activities abroad.…” But she properly won’t give in to the “reluctance, not only sharply to distinguish between fair and unfair attack upon America, but also to confront and combat whatever bad political intention may inform the attack.” It isn’t Greene’s intention in writing The Quiet American that is subject to attack–whether that intention was duplicitous, frivolous, or deluded–but the conclusion it seems inevitable to draw from the work itself.
So the melodrama in The Quiet American answers only half the question. If you think it means you can’t support the US involvement that’s one half. But I don’t see how this can push you toward the Communists, who everywhere oppress their own citizens with barbarous police state enforcement. If you put the melodrama Greene concocted around the murky bombing aside, you have the fundamental political choice of the 20th century. The Americans are at worst naive, misguided. Anyone who supports the Communists as the lesser evil in Vietnam, or elsewhere, should be made to acknowledge that they’re signing off on the other half of the question as well.
In his 1987 memoirs Out of Step, Sidney Hook, the greatest American polemicist of the anti-Communist left, nailed the pro-Communist rhetorical maneuver of assessing the Soviet Union in terms of its ideals and the United States in terms of its reality. But the half-argument that has been taken to be the message of The Quiet American goes farther. It reminds me of the statements of Theodore Hall, the youngest of the physicists who gave nuclear weapon secrets to the Soviets. Hall justified himself in this way: “Maybe the course of history, if unchanged, could have led to atomic war in the past 50 years–for example the bomb might have been dropped on China in 1949 or the early 1950s. Well, if I helped to prevent that, I accept the charge.” By all rights, he should at the same time have to accept responsibility for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and China’s domination of East Asia, not to mention the havoc they wrought on their own populations, which Communist nuclear capability made possible. (See Ronald Radosh’s 20 October 1997 Wall Street Journal review of Bombshell, the book in which Hall’s comments appear, for a principled reaction.) People who are opposed to the American involvement in Vietnam should figure out what that means they’re for. If not the Communists, then what? Though the characters in the book The Quiet American are meant to be types, there’s no satisfactory political discussion. In their dialogue in the watch tower Fowler is given all the snappy comebacks, which Pyle can’t answer, though they are answerable. Maybe it doesn’t matter if, like Greene, you see the Vietnamese as eternal peasants who every now and then produce an irresistible erotic pet.
To be fair to the movie’s fans, they have praised it mostly for Michael Caine’s performance. He is a great actor, but the material isn’t very well shaped for him to get at what’s interesting about the character. Fowler is the first-person narrator of the book and so most of his best material is internal monologue. That’s a downside to the book’s resemblance to detective fiction that doesn’t serve the movie very well. The movie can turn only so much of it into voice-over or dialogue; the rest we have to guess at. You can admire the way Caine can change complexion with self-loathing and be amazed how, by the end of the movie, his eyeballs look as if they’ve been hardboiled in a cauldron and then reinserted in the sockets. But the movie feels more like an illustration of the complexly simplistic book than a dramatization. The question is an illustration of what? dramatization of what? Greene was such a murky character and covered his tracks so well we may never know what he intended but we can hear plainly enough what he said. I can’t let it go without objecting.
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