Key idea: The War in Vietnam



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The conflict between Western imperialism and Vietnamese self-determination dominates The Quiet American. Although most of the text is set in Saigon (in South Vietnam), the shadow of the First Indochina War (which was fought primarily in North Vietnam) is never far away. The International Press Corps, of which Fowler is a member, is given the opportunity to fly north at periodic intervals in order to report on what the French deem appropriate for publication. Information is carefully edited and censored. As with all wars, the propaganda element is critical. Fowler describes the conflict to Pyle, newly arrived in the country, in the following terms: ‘A war of jungle and mountain and marsh, paddy fields where you wade shoulder-high and the enemy simply disappear, bury their arms, put on peasant dress’ (p.16). The French, ‘poor devils’ (p.16), are discovering, as the Americans would a decade later, the difficulties of fighting a guerrilla war where the terrain is hostile and the adversary often impossible to identify. While the conflict is dismissed by one correspondent as ‘only a damned colonial war’ (p.28), Captain Trouin argues that it has a wider significance and the French are, in fact, ‘fighting all of your wars’ (p.143). The same confrontation has reverberated across Asia and India as the old order is challenged and former empires lose their stranglehold on the region.

The area known as Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – had been colonised by the French in the 19th century. They had persistently resisted calls for Vietnamese self-governance, but lost control of their colonies to the Japanese during World War II. After Japan’s military defeat in 1945, the Viet Minh – a nationalist liberation movement under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh – established a provisional communist government in North Vietnam. The attempts of the French to regain control of their former colony were met with resistance by the Viet Minh, who continued to wage effective guerrilla warfare against their old enemy. By 1952, when The Quiet American is set, the French were rapidly losing ground to the Viet Minh, though they still nominally held the South. Vietnam’s struggle for independence against their colonial masters was backed by the Soviet Union and their traditional ally, China, both of whom provided aid to the insurgency. Nevertheless, although the French were finally defeated in 1954 at the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam’s unification continued to be undermined by Western interests. Vietnam’s particular tragedy was that this struggle was played out in the political context of the Cold War, which was at its height in the 1950s. This undeclared war of suspicion and espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union spawned bitter conflict on a broad scale. Communism, as an ideology, was despised and feared by the United States. Its response to the situation in Vietnam was, therefore, unsurprising. Unwilling to allow the communist ‘menace’ to proliferate in South-East Asia, the United States invested heavily in support for the South. By the late 1960s, American military engagement in Vietnam had escalated to such a degree that there were more than 500 000 troops in Vietnam, fighting the communist forces. In The Quiet American, Greene suggests that as early as 1952, covert American operatives were actively working undercover to set up a ‘Third Force’, one that would be ‘free from Communism and the taint of colonialism’ (p.115). Throughout the novel, Greene criticises this response to the internal politics of a foreign country as culturally arrogant and morally tainted. Despite the paradox of Alden Pyle’s essential integrity, the American is shown to be indifferent to the human cost of his actions and he is incongruously selective in his rationalisation of its consequences. The bombing in central Saigon is viewed as a necessary strategy in the fight against communism and the deaths of Vietnamese civilians are trivialised as unimportant: ‘In a way you could say they died for democracy’ (p.171). The lessons of The Quiet American continue to resonate – the world has witnessed the United State’s disingenuous desire to ‘do good’ on many occasions since the 1950s.

The text also mounts a compelling argument against war, which is presented, in this case, as a futile and unwinnable conflict. The French soldiers on the ground are resigned and weary rather than committed to the cause. Captain Trouin admits to Fowler that they are simply pawns, ‘fighting till the politicians tell us to stop’ (p.144). The Press Conference with the French colonel is equally revealing. For the benefit of the Press Corps, the colonel weaves his ‘web of evasion’ (p.55), losing his composure only when he is goaded into admitting that this war makes no allowances for the wounded: ‘It is better to be killed outright’ (p.57). On his trip to the North, Fowler describes the devastation to Phat Diem, formerly ‘the most living town in all the country’ – now ‘the most dead’ (p.39).

The novel demonstrates how social and political conflict has tragic consequences for ordinary civilians. Their particular vulnerability is highlighted by the use of napalm, ‘detested’ (p.143) even by the French captain, on defenceless villages. Similarly, the way in which a peaceful street scene can explode into chaos underscores the daily terror with which the victims of war live. They are never entirely able to dispense with the fear that violence may occur at any moment, devastating lives and corroding morale. After a mother and her small child are accidently shot by the French – ‘Mal chance’ (p.45) – Fowler feels personally targeted by the bitter resentment of the soldier responsible. He reflects that, ‘Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility’ (p.45). War dehumanises all those who participate in it, both the soldiers at the frontline and the anonymous strategists who plot its course. Fowler remarks pessimistically on the ‘invisible’ (p.36) nature of peace.

In The Quiet American, Greene suggests that as early as 1952, covert American operatives were actively working undercover to set up a ‘Third Force’, one that would be ‘free from Communism and the taint of colonialism’ (p.115). Throughout the novel, Greene criticises this response to the internal politics of a foreign country as culturally arrogant and morally tainted. Despite the paradox of Alden Pyle’s essential integrity, the American is shown to be indifferent to the human cost of his actions and he is incongruously selective in his rationalisation of its consequences. The bombing in central Saigon is viewed as a necessary strategy in the fight against communism and the deaths of Vietnamese civilians are trivialised as unimportant: ‘In a way you could say they died for democracy’ (p.171). The lessons of The Quiet American continue to resonate – the world has witnessed the United State’s disingenuous desire to ‘do good’ on many occasions since the 1950s.

The text also mounts a compelling argument against war, which is presented, in this case, as a futile and unwinnable conflict. The French soldiers on the ground are resigned and weary rather than committed to the cause. Captain Trouin admits to Fowler that they are simply pawns, ‘fighting till the politicians tell us to stop’ (p.144). The Press Conference with the French colonel is equally revealing. For the benefit of the Press Corps, the colonel weaves his ‘web of evasion’ (p.55), losing his composure only when he is goaded into admitting that this war makes no allowances for the wounded: ‘It is better to be killed outright’ (p.57). On his trip to the North, Fowler describes the devastation to Phat Diem, formerly ‘the most living town in all the country’ – now ‘the most dead’ (p.39).



The novel demonstrates how social and political conflict has tragic consequences for ordinary civilians. Their particular vulnerability is highlighted by the use of napalm, ‘detested’ (p.143) even by the French captain, on defenceless villages. Similarly, the way in which a peaceful street scene can explode into chaos underscores the daily terror with which the victims of war live. They are never entirely able to dispense with the fear that violence may occur at any moment, devastating lives and corroding morale. After a mother and her small child are accidently shot by the French – ‘Mal chance’ (p.45) – Fowler feels personally targeted by the bitter resentment of the soldier responsible. He reflects that, ‘Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility’ (p.45). War dehumanises all those who participate in it, both the soldiers at the frontline and the anonymous strategists who plot its course. Fowler remarks pessimistically on the ‘invisible’ (p.36) nature of peace.


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