The popular conception of the Vietnam War is of a military conflict that occurred between American-supported forces in South Vietnam and the communist-supported North Vietnamese, lasting from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. In fact, this conflict stretched back much further, to 1945, when the French military occupied and fought to maintain colonial possessions in Vietnam and surrounding nations. Unable to defend it militarily, the French would surrender and concede the territory in 1954. At the Geneva Conference that year, the nation would be split in two, with the communist north led by Ho Chi Minh. Ultimately, the North would begin an insurgency against the South that escalated into the better-known Vietnam War.
American forces began moving into South Vietnam in 1955, shortly after the French concessions. The American government feared the spread of communism from North Vietnam, which was supported by China and the Soviet Union, and intended to help defend the southern Republic of Vietnam against northern aggressors. The mobilization of American forces continued through the early 1960s and, in 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident gave the American government justification to engage in all-out war against the North. Hostilities would continue for nearly ten years, until the American military was forced to admit defeat and abandon the region. Shortly thereafter, the North would overrun the South and unify the country.
In the 2002 film The Quiet American, based on the 1955 Graham Greene novel of the same name, we see the origins of some of these historical events dramatized. Set in 1952, it features Thomas Fowler is a correspondent for the London Times living in Saigon. He is addicted to opium and in love with a young Vietnamese girl, Phuong, whom he would like to marry and return to England with; but his wife back in London will not give him a divorce. When pressured to leave the Saigon post by his paper, Fowler seeks out a story to justify his continued presence. At the same time, a young American, Alden Pyle, arrives in town and strikes up a friendship with Fowler. Soon, he too falls in love with Phuong, and has a falling out with Fowler over both the girl and their conflicting political views. Pyle claims to be working for American Economic Mission providing medical assistance. This turns out to be a front.
Pyle is, in fact, working for the CIA, helping to prop up a new militant regime in the south led by General Thé. After meeting with the General and seeing evidence of American intervention, Fowler begins to suspect Pyle’s involvement. The American’s provide General Thé’s forces with materials to make bombs and Fowler witnesses first-hand the death and destruction that these bombs create among Saigon civilians. He is outraged at the General and his American supporters. His assistant, Hihn, who has connections with the communists and other factions, suggests a way that Fowler can help them eliminate Pyle. Hihn says “Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to remain human.” Fowler speaks with Pyle one last time, arguing about how to help the country move forward, and finds that, with the failure of the French, Pyle is insistent on America underwriting a “Third Way” by manufacturing a militant South Vietnamese regime. Fowler makes his decision to help Hihn and Pyle is assassinated.
The film concludes with a series of newspaper headlines chronicling the increasingly volatile atmosphere in the region. In this way, it effectively shows – in the form of Pyle and his colleagues – how America’s intent from the beginning was to install a puppet regime and manipulate the south as a buffer against the spread of communism. From the French defeat and official division of the nation in 1954, to North Vietnam aggression and increasing American involvement through the late 1950s, to the massive buildup of American troops in the early 1960s, these headlines plot the inevitable escalation towards a wider war. Clearly, Fowler’s small act to help eliminate foreign involvement in the developing nation did little to change the course of events.