For several centuries prior to World War II, the world was subject to colonization by European powers. Lead by the British, the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and others laid claim to foreign countries and exploited their peoples and resources. Following the war, the global landscape began to change. Nationalist movements sprang up and imperial powers began leaving their colonies. In the mid-1950s this was occurring in Indo-Chine, the French controlled Southeast Asian area that included Vietnam. In fact, after the battle at Dien Bien Phu the French basically relinquished hegemony over the area, although their influence was still strongly felt. The world itself was bifurcated into the Communist side, led by the Soviet Union and seen as expansionist, and the democratic/capitalistic/neoliberals, championed by the United States and its Western allies.

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This time period was the setting for the movie (based on Englishman Graham Greene’s novel) The Quiet American. The Vietnamese were not fully in control of their government, although there was a growing Communist movement spearheaded by Ho Chi Minh from the North. Southern Vietnamese, at least on the surface, seemed to resist Communism, which was seen as an opportunity by some Westerners, particularly Americans, to instill Democrat rule there. Unfortunately, as Greene (an outside observer) noted, some Americans failed to recognize that democracy imposed is not the same as democracy embraced, and that puppet governments supported by foreigners may not have the ideological support of a country’s citizens, no matter how pure the intentions.

Early in the movie, Fowler, a rather jaded British journalist who says he “used to care,” and Pyle, an America CIA operative undercover as a medical advisor, discuss the state of democracy in Vietnam. Pyle asked Fowler what he believes liberty is. Fowler replied, “the right to do what one wants.” He then remarked that, if given the chance for democratic elections, the citizenry would vote for Ho Chi Minh, hardly encouraging for democracy or Pyle’s agenda.

Later, Fowler traveled north to Phat Diem upon a tip from his associate to discover a massacre of civilians. The French he was travelling with blame the Communists. In actuality, this slaughter was a CIA-sponsored ruse to turn people against the Communists and in favor of General Thé the leader being positioned to be democracy’s puppet. Indeed, General Thé is the favored son of the CIA and good-intentioned but, in Greene’s view (and ultimately history’s) misguided Westerners seeking to install a “Third Force” government on Vietnam. This government would not be colonial, nor would it be Communist, but would be a blend of traditionalism and democracy supported by the West (mostly America). The infiltration of American agents in the real world coincided with this effort by Pyle and other pro-Western idealists like him.

Greene centered the novel (and hence the movie) around three characters: British writer Fowler, American zealot Pyle and a Vietnamese woman named Phuong (ironically “Phoenix” after the mythological bird that keeps rising from the ashes and can never be killed). Fowler is most likely representative of Greene’s own views, although by the time of the movie the character almost seems resigned to the situation in Vietnam as it is. The French influence is still strong, exploitation still occurring, but Fowler’s major issue appears to be with outsiders who believe it is appropriate to push their ideology through internal manipulation. The latter phrase aptly describes Pyle, who thinks he is doing what is best for Vietnam through deception and funding of a leader who was not chosen by the people but by an outside force. Phuong represents Vietnam—both men love her and want to protect her in their own way. She barely speaks for herself, letting her sister run her life. Phuong has gone from a respected dancer to a beaten-down woman to someone who owes her fortune to the generosity of others, just like Vietnam at the time. Were Fowler French his attitude might be more invested, but as an Englishman in one of the rare countries not a former or present British colony, his motivations seem more self-concerned. Nevertheless, although he as an admitted adulterer he does not have clean hands (although does repent in the sense of finally asking his wife for a divorce), he recoils when the Communists are framed by the CIA and deplores Pyle’s dishonesty, eventually having a hand in his death. Pyle is blinded by patriotism and faith in academic theory of how government should work, ignoring the plight of the people around him as if they were props. Phuong, although appearing to be the most dependent, will prove to be the most resilient in the end, as she is able to discard her true values to follow the prevailing wind.

As an ironic footnote, the actual puppet government established eventually by the United States was led by General Thieu, a name similar to that given by Greene to General Thé. The idea of a “Third Force,” as it was actually established in Vietnam, led to over a decade of bitter fighting, many deaths, and the result that force could not overcome ideology. The Fowlers of the world had pretty much become detached and returned to their armchairs to watch events unfold on the evening news; the Pyles were proven wrong at a great cost; and Phuong rose from the ashes of South Vietnam a citizen of Ho Chi Minh’s united country. The book also inspired the title of Burdick and Lederer’s The Ugly American, which distorted Greene’s message somewhat. Whereas Greene appeared to be advocating letting each country make its own decisions, The Ugly American inspired intervention at the time, but now is associated with the image of rude Americans unable to adapt to or accept host nation mores and values.

  • The Quiet American. (2002). Philip Noyce, dir., Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg, prod. Miramax Films. U.S. Available from: Netflix.