The Indochina War of The Quiet American—the Vietnam War before It Was the Vietnam War

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The Indochina War of The Quiet American—the Vietnam War before It Was the Vietnam War
The Quiet American is a story of love, lust, jealousy, adultery, etc.—the same things that have been going on for thousands of years—superimposed on a war story that takes place in Vietnam in a roughly six-month period ending in early 1952. But to understand what is going on in the film, it is necessary to understand a little of what was going on in Vietnam at the time. Before there was the Vietnam War that Americans grew to hate, there was a war—of even longer duration—already going on. What we know as the Vietnam War was really only the second (but not final) act of what was called the Indochina War. The first Indochina War is what is depicted in The Quiet American.

The area we call Vietnam was not always a cohesive, unified nation-state (if indeed it is yet today). The present day Vietnam was, until the 20th century, three kingdoms: Tonkin (or, Tonking, or Tonkin China) in the north (the Hanoi, Haiphong area), Annam in the center (around Hué), and Cochin (or Cochin China) in the south (around Saigon). These three were not totally distinct, as there was strong ethnic commonality. (All three were united by a fear of the Chinese; even today, the most popular street names in Vietnam are taken from heroes in battles against the Chinese, to the north.) In the 19th century, these three, plus the present-day Laos and Cambodia, came under French colonial rule, under the general title of French Indochina. This is how it was known at the time period in which The Quiet American is set.

French colonial rule was not popular with the Vietnamese. At the 1919 Versailles Conference, at the close of World war I, a delegation of Vietnamese attempted to secure independence from France on the basis of President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points,” but the Vietnamese delegation was rebuffed; after all, France was one of the winners in World War I, and in war it is the losers who give up things.

The period after World War I was complicated by the fact that the major group seeking independence from France, the Viet Minh (led by Ho Chi Minh) had two contradicting allegiances: First, they were nationalists, dedicated to an independent Vietnamese nation-state. But second, the Viet Minh was a part of the international Communist movement, owing loyalty to that movement (called the Comintern) which was ostensibly led by the Soviet Union. (The Viet Minh was the most independent of the Comintern’s members, generally paying only lip service to the international movement; indeed, Vietnam feared the Chinese no less after 1949, when China became Communist, than before.)

The Viet Minh had begun active armed resistance to French rule in 1940, and simply transferred their opposition to the Japanese when the Japanese assumed hegemony in French Indochina in 1941. Here things start to get a little complicated. The United States, also fighting the Japanese, began actively aiding the Viet Minh. And on September 2, 1945, when Japan surrendered, the surrender of Japanese forces in Indochina was accepted by the Viet Minh. US military officers were present, there was a fly-over of American planes, the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played, and the Declaration of Independence was read. Ho Chi Minh thought he had, in the US, an ally to keep the French from returning to power.

But it didn’t work out. The Americans were very interested in achieving both stability and security (from the Russians) in Europe, and France declared it wouldn’t cooperate in Europe unless America would underwrite its return to power in its (temporarily) lost colonies. Ho was out, and the French were back in.

But the French didn’t enjoy unchallenged power in Indochina, as the film demonstrates. The Viet Minh, by 1950, were waging a fierce war to oust the French. (This is depicted in several events in the film.) The French, attempting to hold power, established Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as “free states” within the French Union; Bao Đai, the former Emperor of Annam, was made the head of Vietnam. The US recognized this arrangement and began aid in 1950. (This is represented by the character “Alden Pyle,” a CIA agent.)

But the concept of the nation-state is alien to Southeast Asia, and other forces were also at work—and are depicted (confusingly so) in TQA. First, in the city of Phat Diem, southeast of Hanoi (and often called “the Catholic city”), the Roman Catholic bishop maintained what was essentially a principality of his own with his own army of several thousand. Second, farther south, the Hoa Hao (a sort-of-Buddhist sect) had a million adherents and a private army of 25,000. The Cao Đai (a synthesis of world religions) had 2 million adherents and a private army of 20,000. And the Binh Xuyen (think of it as Saigon’s Al Capone) had an army of 25,000. A character in the film who is not well explained is a “General Thé.” This is the former Colonel Trinh Minh Thé, who had been chief of staff of the Cao Đai army, but who split off with a couple of thousand men to fight both the French and the Viet Minh.

The French and Vietnamese fought until the summer of 1954, when, after a stunning defeat at Đien Bien Phu, the French agreed to leave, and Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel, the French left (militarily), and the US began providing the “aid and advice” that led to what we know as the Vietnam War of the 1960s. (The film depicts this development through newspaper headlines at the end.)

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