Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, properly characterizes and criticizes a strand of American idealism, particularly in regards to international politics, that was prevalent during the middle to middle-late 20th century. During the 1950s, the United States was becoming an international superpower. World War II had been devastating for numerous countries around the world, but the United States stood to benefit tremendously given that it played a significant role in ending the war and establishing the peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The United States’ military, economic, and cultural successes that were derived from their victory in World War II imbued their government, media, and general citizenry with a reinvigorated sense of national purpose and pride. And because the United States had entered the war later than their allies had, their war resources, troop levels, and overall morale were not as deplenished as England’s or France’s. As a result, the United States took their newfound role of being the leading advocate for liberal democracies (in the economic sense) quite seriously in hopes that these successes would be replicated globally. Expansion of this American idealism was the impetus behind many decisions made at the international, national, and local levels within American society.
Yet not all were as impressed by the United States’s new international presence, English author Graham Greene being one of them. Greene’s criticism of this particular form of American idealism centers around three distinct yet interrelated psychological concepts: ignorance, inconsistency, and, ultimately, ignorance. Individually, each one of these traits carries with it potentially negative consequences. When combined, these negative consequences are compounded and made more complex. Greene’s novel does an excellent job of providing concrete examples to these abstract concepts within the context of historically relevant environments.
Brief Literary and Character Context
Within The Quiet American, each one of these concepts is explored through the existential perspective of American antagonist, Alden Pyle, during the First Indochina War. As the novel begins, Pyle is a rookie arrival to a group of American economic aid workers in Vietnam. At once, Pyle is presented to readers as young, awkward, and unabashedly patriotic. As if these elements by themselves were not enough to mold him into an outcast, Pyle also takes great pains to avoid the most common and cherished conversation topics of choice of his friends and colleagues: drug use, prostitution, and gambling. Due to this content that undoubtedly violates his own puritanical sense of what is morally appropriate conversation, Pyle abstains. In addition, Pyle is also a vocal advocate of the United States’ unique and important place in the world, propagating what he believes about the United States’ superiority. In his own mind, the United States was akin to the police of the world, inherently responsible for establishing and maintaining proper order and structure (i.e. Western liberal democracy). But more so than that, Pyle’s perception of this charge of policing the world and its inhabitants has been heavily saturated with religious sentiments as well, as though this role were some divine extension or modification of manifest destiny.
To provide a better definition of Pyle’s character, as well as how he embodies the ignorance, innocence, and inconsistency that plagues a strand of American idealism, his own actions and thoughts are starkly contrasted against those of the novel’s protagonist, a British journalist by the name of Thomas Fowler. Fowler, in contrast to Pyle, is both older and more mature. His work as an international journalist has afforded him a plurality of opportunities to travel, and live, in a variety of different countries and cultures. Fowler understands firsthand England’s role as a colonial oppressor throughout history, engaging in murder, war, rape, piracy, theft, bribery, blackmail, the enslavement of its enemies and various indigenous peoples, and the exploitation of countless national and international economies for self-gain. Therefore, he is wiser than Pyle (in both the scope and degree of his own subjective life experiences) but also more cynical, especially in regards to claims of cultural or national superiority (whether real or imagined). Moreover, Fowler is far less concerned with ideology than his American counterpart, preferring to stay neutral, with regard to conflict, whenever possible.
The first pillar of Greene’s criticism against this strand of American idealism is that of cultural ignorance. Throughout the novel, Pyle makes repeated reference to the works of a fictional political correspondent, York Harding, whom he believes to be an authority figure on all things related to Western culture. Pyle puts great stock in the writings and opinions of Harding, believing that the latter has discovered and accurately described the key to establishing democracy in Vietnam. When Fowler attempts to enlighten Pyle about the actual division and location of French forces in the north and south regions of Vietnam, by resorting to personal experience no less, Pyle does not listen to what Fowler has to say (16-17). Instead, Pyle references Harding’s writing more fervently, trying to convince Fowler of Harding’s authority status on the matter.
This incident shows that, rather than allowing the shape of his beliefs to form and reform naturally as new information is gathered or discovered, Pyle’s approach to knowledge, both in its acquisition and application, is arrogant and rigid, leading to a state of disdainful ignorance and an unhealthy reliance on authority. Pyle is extremely stubborn in the sense that anything that comes into conflict with his pre-conceived notions of morality or international politics must be explained away as an anomaly (if it is informational) or, if it is a course of action gone awry, the blame for its disastrous consequences must then be transferred to another culpable party. According to Pyle, truth is supposed to be simple, pure, and always given by an authority figure on the matter. But as Fowler’s own experiences readily attest, there are problems with this approach to knowledge because they result in a detrimental state of cultural ignorance.
Another example of Pyle’s ignorance in the novel comes when Fowler and Pyle are returning from a religious procession. Because they run out of gasoline in an area frequently attacked by Viet Minh guerilla fighters, Fowler and Pyle must hide out in a guard tower for the night. As they enter the tower, they encounter two guards who are meagerly armed with a sten gun and a rifle, neither of which will help a great deal in fending off an attack by the Viet Minh. Fowler and Pyle notice that these soldiers are positively terrified, thus organically stimulating a discussion between the four men about the ongoing war and the contemporary culture in Vietnam. As the conversation tensely progresses, Fowler eventually reaches his breaking point with Pyle when he sarcastically asks “Do you think they know they are fighting for Democracy? We ought to have York Harding here to explain it to them” (85). Pyle is dumbfounded and can offer no significant response, defensively stating that everyone has to believe in something.
But this response, or lack of it, betrays Pyle’s ignorance of living conditions outside of the developed world. Whereas Pyle has these grandiose notions that democracy is a universal good, something of which everyone is intimately aware and something for which each and every individual naturally searches, the reality is that it seems to be a particularly recent, Western phenomenon. What Pyle and, by extension the United States, may deem a crisis situation – the absence of democracy in a nation or region of the world – the natives of that country or region may have little to no concern with it. Yet Pyle refuses to accept this as even a logical possibility. He seeks to organize the world into binary categories that are easily recognizable and easily repaired if damaged. That which cannot neatly fit into his worldview causes painful cognitive dissonance to the point of almost psychological paralysis.
Greene also criticizes this strand of American idealism on its absolutist methodological grounds, what one can refer to as ideological inconsistency. For Greene, this ideological inconsistency is also embodied by Pyle, this time within the context of the “Third Force” in Vietnam (160). The “Third Force,” Pyle believes, will be the salvation of the Vietnamese people. Relying once more on Harding’s writings, Pyle tries to convince Fowler that what is needed to combat the Communists and save the Vietnamese people is a new entrant into the war, a force that has no negative historical connection with the Vietnamese people or the Vietnamese government. Pyle prides the United States on being that force, capable of helping to establish democracy over against the attempts of the Communists who wish to cast their growing influence across the Asian continent. Yet Pyle, in wanting the United States to establish themselves as the “Third Force,” demonstrates a gross degree of hypocrisy in what unfolds during the novel.
While Fowler is visiting a local bar, he overhears two American women talking. They are preparing to leave because they have been given an ominous yet vague warning to do so by someone named Warren. The instant they have left, a large explosion occurs; Warren’s warning was about a bomb that was planted there. As Fowler stumbles out into the street, there were “cars burning in the carpark…bits of cars were scattered over the square…and a man without his legs lay twitching at the edge of the ornamental gardens” (152). Chaos and confusion swarmed the victims like the smoke and rubble.
A short time later, Fowler encounters Pyle, struggling to make sense of the gratuitous violence that had taken place. Fowler mentions the warning from Warren that the two American women were given and Pyle’s response stops Fowler cold: “There mustn’t be any American casualties, must there?” (153). Pyle’s first concern is not with the actual destruction of human life, but rather with the possible destruction of American life.
Pyle tries to justify his role in the bombing and absolve himself of guilt by stating that a death in the name of democracy is a noble one. But Pyle’s statement is not easily reconciled with the fact that these two American women were tipped off about what was to take place near the bar, whereas others in the area were not. If death in the name of democracy is a noble one, one can assume, then it should not matter whether the person who dies is American or Vietnamese or French or English or Chinese or Russian. Pyle is incapable of defending this kind of special pleading because if he truly believed what he likely had read from Harding, then he would not feel guilt or regret about the bomb explosion. Greene further emphasizes this ideological disconnect from consistency through Fowler’s private thoughts on the matter in the novel.
The final pillar of Greene’s criticism against American idealism focuses on innocence. The innocence that Pyle exudes is derived, in part, from an overly simplistic worldview, especially concerning human interactions. For Pyle, there is a peculiar mixture of ‘seeing is believing,’ but with a splash of ideological acid that reduces those tricky, complex aspects of reality to something more palatable.
Without a doubt, Pyle has not had the same experiences during war that Granger, Fowler, and numerous other comrades have. Pyle views war as challenging but perhaps without the ever-present lethality of it. For him, war is much more detached, a puzzle to put together or a problem to be solved rather than the loss of life and limb in the name of competing national, political, and economic interests. When the blood of a dead Vietnamese civilian lands on his shoe following an explosion in the city square, Pyle’s absurdly emotionless response is “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister” (154). He cares not that a woman has just lost her newborn child or that the lives of some Vietnamese civilians have been irreparably destroyed. Rather, he cares about being properly dressed for his meeting with an elite authority figure. His aesthetic condition, not the general moral landscape around him, is his focus.
In another instance, Bill Granger, an American journalist in Vietnam, desperately wants to visit a local brothel. Pyle hesitates because he is sexually inexperienced with women and thinks of the activity as malcontent. Eventually, however, Pyle resigns himself to accompanying Fowler and Granger to the brothel. Once they arrive, Granger is positively entranced by the array of beautiful woman who are all-too-eager to satisfy male needs for money, whereas Pyle is deeply horrified. Pyle does not understand the carnal desires that some of his compatriots feel; his own views on sexual morality are, arguably again, tinted by the writings and influence of Harding.
But that is not the only example of innocence in the novel, as Pyle is extremely protective of Phuong, who is initially introduced as Fowler’s girlfriend. After declaring his intentions of dating Phuong to Fowler, Pyle acts as though he is immediately and undeniably the victor. He basks in a sense of relief and pride as he does not see Fowler as a challenge, much less a threat, to his romantic relationship with Phuong. During this time, Pyle makes various remarks to Fowler that are completely condescending and naive. Most often, Fowler’s response is one of incredulity given that Pyle’s confidence is oppressive, something that is a direct result of his youth and innocence. For if Pyle understood the true complexities of the situations in which he finds himself, he most likely would not speak, act, or think in any of the characteristic ways that he does.
Through this novel and their supporting characters, Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American aims to critique a particular strand of American idealism that was the source of immense international resentment during the middle to late-middle 20th century. This strand of American idealism contained within it potentially dangerous elements of ignorance, inconsistency, and innocence that could manifest itself as a boundless arrogance, an excessive obedience and reliance upon authority, an obsession with exceptionalism and the perceived gratitude/recognition of superiority by others, and a frustrating stubbornness.
Tagged: Alden Pyle, American exceptionalism, American foreign relations, American idealism, Cold War, Communism, French Indochina, Graham Greene, guerrilla warfare, ideology, Literary Analysis, Marxism, The Quiet American, Third Force, Thomas Fowler, Viet Minh, Vietnam, World War II