Looking Back: Vietnam and The Quiet American

Vietnam-Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

Graham Green, author of The Quiet American, was a war correspondent stationed in Saigon, Vietnam during the final stages of the Indochina War pitting the French against the revolutionary forces of Ho Chi Minh.

Green lived in Vietnam until the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords ended the war and split Vietnam into Communist North, headed by Ho Chi Minh, and non-Communist South, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem and supported by the US.

After 1954, the French were officially free from their costly war and correspondent Green returned to England where he wrote his brilliant anti-war novel based on his experience in Vietnam. The novel was published in 1955, and it revealed the secret US presence in Indochina during the war and put the spotlight on the American activity in support of South Vietnam.

The portrayal of the unethical and illegal activities by the US was received with disapproval by the FBI, which began to monitor Green as an anti-war activist and possible Communist sympathizer.

Green’s novel is set in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the final years of the French war against the rebels. The narrator, Thomas Fowler, is a cynical middle-aged British journalist living in Saigon. His female housemate and lover is the youthful and beautiful Phuong (Phoenix in English), who is a dancer in an upscale Saigon taxi-dance parlor. Green is careful to remind the reader that Phuong is not a prostitute. The third major character is an unusual American named Pyle, who travels about the country supposedly setting up eye-clinics for the peasants; Pyle believes that there is a way to win the war against the communists.

In the opening scene, Fowler and Phuong are waiting for Pyle in Fowler’s apartment when a messenger from the French Sûreté demands that they go to the commissioner’s office immediately. At the office, Vigot a French officer right out of the movie Casablanca interrogates them. He eventually informs them that Pyle is dead, murdered by unknown persons. The novel then begins as a flashback narrated by Fowler.

Fowler’s life is comfortable; the work is not demanding and he has a beautiful companion to prepare his evening opium pipes. He is actually in love with Phuong, and he would consider marriage, but his wife in England would never grant a divorce. Into this bucolic scene walks the handsome, young Pyle, a naïve American aid worker. Pyle falls in love with Phuong and vows to save her from her from a life of debauchery—he will marry her and send her to the US.

Somehow, Green makes this soap opera plot work and it provides a solid framework for his anti-war rhetoric. Pyle turns out to be an American secret agent who will stoop to terror in pursuit of US interests; Fowler lies and schemes to conceal his eminent departure from Saigon from Phuong; Pyle and Fowler narrowly escape death at the hands of the Viet Cong rebels and, in the rousing climax, Fowler abandons his cynicism to take charge of his and Phuong’s destiny.

However, fiction aside, today’s reader knows that Ho Chi Minh won the war and the country was unified. In 1976, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the wartime leader who died in 1969.

Green’s writing is top notch. His descriptions of the city, the countryside and the terrible effects of the war are moving and believable. He makes a strong case for the impossibility of winning a war against the highly motivated rebels supported by the Chinese. Too bad, the US ignored the warning.

Reading Graham Green’s The Quiet American yields an interesting look-back to the time before the Vietnam War. The 2002 movie adaptation of the novel stars Michael Caine as Fowler, Brendan Fraser as Pyle, and Do Hai Yen as Phuong. The direction is sensitive and acting superb. Ironically, the proposed 2001 release of the movie was delayed due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.

Day 59: The Quiet American, Graham Green (1955).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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