I came to Greene somewhat late in life and began my association with The Quiet American . This work appeared one year after Dien Bien Phu, the siege in which Vietnamese forces drove the colonial French from the peninsula and set the stage for the subsequent internal struggle over Viet Nam that would draw hundreds of thousands of American troops into a bloody Asian quagmire. Neither the author nor the characters in the book can see this far into the future, as the narrative is set in the early 1950’s while the French struggled to hang on, but to the reader of 2021 the tale is rife with foreboding of what lie ahead for the people of Viet Nam and the United States.
My childhood catechetics instilled in me the reality of two ultimate judgments: a personal one at the time of my death and a final universal one at the end of time. After a lifetime of reading and experience it is harder for me to sort out how they overlap in Venn diagram fashion. My theological and psychological experience has taught me that there is no true personal sin, i.e., an immoral act or attitude without social consequences. Even the most secret of evil transgressions is a wound to the Body of Christ. On the other hand, how accountable am I for the sins of my forefathers, or for that matter, of the dishonesties and crimes of current institutions that make up my world, including church, government, business? Greene, very much aware of his personal weaknesses even after his conversion to Catholicism, appears to struggle with such questions.
The Quiet American is a story that screams for judgment but placing it is elusive. Based in Saigon, the narrator is Thomas Fowler, a grizzled British journalist on assignment to cover the last days of French colonial control of the Vietnamese peninsula. He has a wife back home and something of a common law wife, Phuong, in Saigon with whom he drinks, copulates, and smokes opium. He has no discernible friends but several associates who keep him informed—ranging from local Vietnamese to French officers, all of whom keep him informed in the ways that are useful to career journalists. He identifies as a cynic with little or no sympathies, though one of the intrigues of the work is the discovery that his spiritual lethargy is not as moribund as he advertises.
It is more likely that Fowler, having covered the full World War II era, is both fatigued by that experience less than a decade earlier and captivated at some level by what his instincts tell him is an important story unfolding before him. With his seniority he can return to England, but he chooses not. He could join his fellow members of the press in the safe and sanitized overnight field trips to the region of Hanoi for scripted conferences from French military spokesmen, but he elects not. Instead, he puts himself periodically into contested regions of combat where Vietnamese freedom fighters are closing the circle around the main French military bodies, hoping his reports will clear censors for his superiors and readers back home.
Into Fowler’s world drops Alden Pyle, the “quiet American.” In the 2004 edition of this novel by Penguin Books, Robert Stone observes in the forward that the title of the book is steeped in irony; Greene’s coded joke is the only quiet American is a dead American. [p. vii] Pyle drops into the midst of this Vietnamese hell fresh from the Ivy League, naïve, loquacious, idealistic to a fault. He appears to be the consummate state department bureaucrat from Washington, an American observer of all three parties in the struggle on the ground. Later it becomes clearer that Pyle’s roots may be more Langley than Georgetown, as some American readers later suggested that Pyle’s character was inspired by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the early American advisor who befriended the Diem regime in the early days of American involvement. This was not the case; Lansdale did not go to Viet Nam till after 1955.
For all his book knowledge and brave talk, young Pyle is out of his element in a war zone and fastens himself to Fowler, who finds his certitudes more than annoying. Pyle is consistently the butt of the older man’s sarcasm and contempt, but he doggedly preaches an optimistic American worldview. Stone suggests that Pyle is the foil for European—particularly British and French—readers who resented the new American post World War II dominance as European colonialism came undone. He notes that American Catholic readers addressed the book with some consternation.
Fowler tolerates his companion until the latter becomes enamored of Fowler’s partner Phuong; to no one’s surprise, Pyle addresses the matter of his affection for Phuong with Fowler directly, in a candid discussion of which man would be the better partner as Phuong sits in the same room with no say in the deliberations, calculating how to make the best of the ultimate determination. The scene is an apt metaphor for the plight of indigenous populations when world powers extend their reach.
Fowler may be tired, cynical, and no man’s saint—but he has not stopped living, either. He begins to have second thoughts about the wife back home and his plans to divorce her. More to the point, he cannot be totally unmoved by the course of events around him. In a moment of alcoholic candor, a French drinking companion, Captain Trouin, lays out his own existential pain. “You are a journalist. You know better than I that we can’t win. You know the road to Hanoi is cut and mined every night. You know we lose one class of St. Cyr every year. We were nearly beaten in ’50. De Lattre has given us two years of grace—that’s all. 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 some peace we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years…. You would not understand the nonsense, Fowler, you are not one of us.” [p. 144]
Fowler becomes witness to a terrorist attack nearly at his doorstep, an event which seems to cast about his soul looking for loose strands of a moral sanity, and the work closes with a somewhat different man than we meet at the beginning. Agnostics, it seems, experience conversion, too, though in Fowler’s case the change will come in small increments. Certainly, one agent in his change is Pyle, whose idealism and single mindedness prove to be the ingredients of confident evil and his ultimate destruction. Captain Trouin would be proved right about the French in 1954; sadly, very few American Catholics gave pause to Graham Greene’s remarkable prophesy of what Pyle’s ideology might do to the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Any thoughtful reader will take away significant personal wisdom on this tale of moral struggle. Going back to my earlier remarks, I am struck at the interplay of individual and corporate moral responsibility. This is clearest in the life of Alden Pyle. Greene goes to some trouble to describe Pyle’s formative university years—his worn copy of The Role of the West pops up repeatedly in the narrative—to make the case that Pyle is the product of Western culture, more specifically, American Exceptionalism, before the term was invented. Pyle’s individual sins prove to be deadly but executed in the cause of those who had formed him.
Fowler, of course, is the child of England, of whom it was said that the flag never set upon the empire. But again, Greene goes to considerable length to describe Fowler as a solitary man who understood that the French war he was covering was a repeat of similar colonial conflicts waged by his own country. What Trouin had said about his French Army was equally true of Fowler’s own countrymen. And yet, in the epilogue of the novel, Fowler finds an empathy that transcends ideology and isolationism. Only a Catholic could end a novel with the lament, “how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say I’m sorry.” [p. 180]