The Quiet American – Greene and the Cold War Mindset

Set during the throws of the Cold War offensive and the threat of the domino theory in Asia, Graham Greene’s fiction annexes his experiences as a war correspondent in Indochina during the years 1951 – 1954 into his works, impart reasoning and voice into a world filled with conflicting values and dangerous games. His novel The Quiet American (1955) supersedes the growing dehumanisation of the fifties and sixties, wherein the characterisation of Alden Pyle as the ignorant face of democracy presents the conundrum of action versus inaction. Greene thus explores the realms of grey beneath good and evil, and the paradox of conflict.

Presented as a parallel to the young, ignorant soldiers of WWI, Pyle represents humanities search for gratification and purpose (“To do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world”) inevitably concluding in harm to both himself and those around him. This is expressed through “God save us always… from the innocent and the good”, and “We didn’t even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climbed and made for home”. There is a sense of disjunction between the actions taken and the person taking them; a lack of regret or understanding of other human beings, which takes precedence in war; the ‘us versus them’ analogy in order to halt guilt. At its core, Greene professes the ignorance and removed nature of humanity to the harm and injustice it performs, whilst using such theories of good and evil and morals in order to achieve selfish levity over others. In this grey world, the currency is power, and the end game is supremacy and security over others.

This dehumanisation is further signified through the symbolism of the Vietnamese people; as they are caught between the two realms of the French and the Americans, two great colonial powers, so too are they caught between Communism and Capitalism, the innocents impartial to their own fate; the pawns to be shifted and moved for the bigger players (“…control them or eliminate them”), perhaps best expressed via the objectification of Phuong by the men who “love” her. She is a representation of the Japanese in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of the Jews in Germany, and the truly “quiet Americans” waiting for a bomb to drop on their heads at any moment. In effect, the metaphor of the “meat” of our own flesh and the contrast between Saigon and its surrounding areas represents our ability to forsake innocents in a grey game, wherein without god this is all simply a game, and where in conclusion wars are not sustained by a just cause (“legality was not essential in a country at war”), but of superiority and personable hope against pointless death, where good and evil is what will define us; easy, yet dangerous, distractions. “We didn’t want to be reminded of how little we counted, how quickly, simply and anonymously death came”.

As thus, Democracy in this time presents us with a conundrum; to act or not to act in an uncontrollable game. Perhaps in some lights the greatest folly is to act when detriment or ineffectuality is promised; however, the characterisation of protagonist Thomas Fowler as a removed party who “had judged like a journalist in terms of quantity and had betrayed [his] own principles”, proved even “disengaged” we are pulled into the conflicts of others; in-activity in itself is an act in the big game, in Fowler’s case in order to escape from the violence and destruction of his world, as “…nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from the ashes”. However, as a journalist who “thinks in headlines”, the circumstances of the Vietnam War and its inequities cannot be averted by Opium or Phuong’s security; it is a catalyst much like the bomb. Inevitably, as Heng says, we must “choose a side” in order to remain human, and perhaps see things through a lens where righteousness saves us from damnation, a lens that once again saves us from the futility of these games and perhaps existence itself. As thus, through this lens we inevitably “… [return] back [to] the old routine of hurting each other”, “… getting involved in a moment [from which] we cannot get out”, hence illuminating the paradox of conflict and war, wherein conflict creates further conflict, as represented through the circular shape of the work, and action versus in-action imparts the same value; a world where everyone is trapped within the game.

Greene’s The Quiet American presents its audience with a voice clear of the clatter the complexities may incite. While informed by the theme of impartiality, as expressed through the characterisation of Fowler, the dehumanisation of both sides during the Cold War, depicted through the characterisation of Phuong, and the ignorant nature of humanity to do good on a subjective and selfish basis, portrayed by Pyle, the novel as a whole presents the power of the human condition and natural human fear. Such a drive creates grandiose ambitions to the detriment of innocents, and inevitably incites the play of greater games, in which there cannot be a true winner.