Retrospective: President Bush & The Quiet American

Why did president Bush quote Graham Greene, an author who was labelled a “communist sympathizer” by the US government and kept under surveillance for decades?

The 22 of August 2007, president George W. Bush enters the podium in a convention center in Kansas City. He faced the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a weathered crowd of old soldiers. «I stand before you as a wartime President» he declares before he begins talking about the Vietnam War. «In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’»

Bush’s reference caused much confusion around the United States because the author, Graham Greene, had been kept under surveillance by the CIA because of the publication of the novel. Conservatives in the 1950s disapproved of his analysis of the situation in Vietnam. The protagonist is the British journalist Thomas Fowler who is drawn into a triangular love story battling for the favors of a young Vietnamese girl. His competition is Alden Pyle, a young man with visions for the future of Vietnam, who later turns out to be an intelligence agent directly implicated in a horrible bombing massacre.

According to The New York Times, The Quiet American became a bible for journalists covering the Vietnam war because it predicted and exposed American policies in the country several years before they became generally known. But the Republican right loathed the fact that the hero was an aging British upper class reporter and the villain a young manipulative and naive American.

The villain becomes good
Oddly enough, only a few years passed before the controversial novel was filmed by Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz was himself a part of the right wing, dubiously connected to the McCarthy movement, which at this period in history was engaged in their communist witch-hunts. During the work with the manuscripts Mankiewicz contacted none other than Edward Lansdale, a CIA operative who now was in charge of American operations in Vietnam. Soon the perception spread that Lansdale was the real life model for the villain in The Quiet American.

In the 1958 movie, the Alden character was thus fittingly played by America’s proudest son, Audie Murhpy, the most decorated soldier in American history at this time. Murphy had made a career in Hollywood. In this heavily altered adaptation, the villain becomes good, a victim of a communist conspiracy. Alden Pyle is in fact no intelligence agent at all in Mankiewicz’s version, but a toy manufacturer who happens to be in Vietnam for humanitarian reasons.

Assaulting the author
When Graham Greene discovered what was about to happen to his novel, he was dumbfounded, but he was unable to stop the project for contractual reasons. “One could almost believe.” Greene stated, “that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and the author.” Later it has become obvious to everyone that the US was present in Vietnam at this time, and that Graham Greene was correct in his portrayal of the situation.

Norman Sherry, who has written an extensive biography on Greene, points out that Greene had left Vietnam before Lansdale arrived in the country. Consequently he cannot be the real life model for the Pyle character. Many years would pass before Hollywood again focused on The Quiet American. The war in Vietnam ended, and slowly but surely the wounds of a bitter period started to heal. A new acceptance of the sufferings of Vietnam veterans was on display in movies such as The Deer Hunter, Rambo and Platoon.

A more truthful adaptation
The Australian Philip Noyce therefore decided to make a new adaptation of the controversial novel. He felt that the time now was ripe for a more accurate adaptation of Greene’s old classic. He cast the veteran actor Michael Caine as the British protagonist, a role for which Caine would become Oscar nominated. The new movie was produced Miramax and was completed in 2001.

Then, in 2001, it happened: the United States experiences a horrible terror attack in New York costing 1000s of lives. Again patriotism was rife, and yet again the desire to defeat your enemies on foreign soil became public policy. Americans now had to form a united front. Miramax panicked. They feared that the film would resurrect the memories of the Vietnam era. “The film can never be released”, Harvey Weinstein, a Miramax executive declared. “My staff says it is unpatriotic.” Michael Caine and Phillip Noyce feverishly lobbied for the release of the movie, but told the press that the film was “as good as dead”. After much persuasion, The Quiet American was released even so, perhaps as a result to the attention that Michael Caine’s excellent performance attracted. Oddly enough the film proved a financial success in the US. This ill-timed success showed that American attitudes towards the Vietnam war have changed, and that it was possible to release a considered reflection of foreign policy issues in the wake of 9/11.

In his speech to the veterans of foreign wars in 2007, Bush demonstrated a newly found detachment from the Vietnam era, and he probably attempted to bring an old matter to rest. He may also have tried to undermine that comparison between Vietnam and Iraq that some claim is obvious. But Bush’s reference to Graham Greene still has a false ring to it because most of all the story of The Quiet American, is a story about misuse of art for propaganda purposes and denial of foreign policy objectives.

Michael Wynn (blog editor)

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