|By the Bombs' Early Light; Or, The Quiet American's War on Terror
by H. Bruce Franklin
(Originally published in The Nation, February 3, 2003. Copyright ©
2003 H. Bruce Franklin; all rights reserved.)
In the new film version of _The Quiet American_, a photographer races
into a plaza in downtown Saigon, rather puzzling jaded British
reporter Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine). Moments later, a car bomb
strews shattered bodies and vehicles around the plaza. We hear
another bomb explode nearby. Then we see the supposedly innocent
American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), ordering the photographer to
focus on dead bodies and the most hideously wounded survivors.
Moviegoers familiar with Graham Greene's novel may wonder why
director Philip Noyce is taking such liberties with this crucial
scene. Why insert a photographer? Isn't adding a second bomb a bit of
cinematic overkill? And where's the novel's dazed, confused Alden
Pyle, stumbling with his impenetrable American innocence through the
carnage he didn't really intend to cause?
But this scene, like other twists in the film, actually moves deeper
into what Greene discovered in the early 1950s about the figure he
called the Quiet American--charmingly boyish, impregnably armored in
ignorance, righteousness, and good intentions, dedicated to
replicating America around the world, preaching democracy and spewing
bombs in Vietnam. It also moves _The Quiet American_ into the
twenty-first century, with piercing relevance to the "War on Terror."
"Reds' Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center" blared a headline in _The New
York Times_ of January 10, 1952. Written by Tillman Durdin, a _Times_
reporter in Saigon working in tight collaboration with the CIA, the
story called the bombing "one of the most spectacular and destructive
single incidents in the long history of revolutionary terrorism"
carried out by "agents here of the Vietminh." A blood-chilling photo
of the carnage appeared as "Picture of the Week" in the January 28
_LIFE_ magazine, with a caption that asked people to focus on the
most gruesome results of this terrorism by the "Viet Minh
Communists": "The bomb blew the legs from under the man in the
foreground and left him, bloody and dazed, propped up on the tile
sidewalk." The bombing certainly came at a convenient time for the
warhawks, including _LIFE_, whose previous week's lead editorial,
"Indo-China Is in Danger," was a near panicky call for major U.S.
participation in the Vietnam war (which the French were still
fighting, with U.S. assistance), because "It's all one war, and our
war, whether the front be in Europe, Korea, or Indo-China."
Graham Greene, who was then wintering in Saigon, wondered how _LIFE_
happened to have a photographer on the scene, as he explained in his
1980 memoir, _Ways of Escape_: "The _Life_ photographer at the moment
of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an
astonishing and horrifying photograph which showed the body of a
trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off."
"This photograph was reproduced in an American propaganda magazine
published in Manila over the caption 'The work of Ho Chi Minh,'"
Greene continued, despite the fact that General Trinh Minh Thé, a
warlord masquerading as Vietnam's savior from colonialism and
communism, "had promptly claimed the bomb as his own." "Who," Greene
pondered, "had supplied the material" to this "bandit"?
A few months after this bombing and a series of bicycle bombs set off
later in January by Thé's agents, Greene began writing his answer in
_The Quiet American_. During the Vietnam War and its sequels, the
novel became routinely labeled "prophetic." But what Greene was
trying to tell us half a century now seems to border on sedition, as
our government implements the President's declaration, "Either you
are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Indeed, _The Quiet
American_ has become so subversive that Miramax tried to deep-six its
movie after 9/11 (it was originally set for a 2001 release), until
Michael Caine forced a two-week run in December 2002 and a wider
opening in early 2003. So now Greene's exposé of the U.S.
machinations for imperial war in Southeast Asia in the early 1950s
reappears amid the machinations for imperial war in Southwest Asia
and the Mideast.
When Greene, a veteran of British intelligence, used his contacts in
French security services to investigate the Saigon bombings of
January 1952, he discovered a U.S. campaign to create a "Third
Force," opposed to both Communism and colonialism and designed to
evolve into a U.S.-backed "democracy" in Vietnam. Any resemblance to
recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq is hardly coincidental. The
hotbed of U.S. Third Force activities was the Economic Aid Mission,
headed by someone French commanding General Jean De Lattre called
"the most dangerous man in Indochina." Greene himself had been
ardently sermonized about the wonders of Third Force "democracy" by a
boyish, enthusiastic member of the Economic Aid Mission, a likeable
young man who, according to Greene, was the original model for Alden
By the time _The Quiet American_ was published in 1955, America's
Third Force democracy had actually been institutionalized in Saigon
in the person of the brutal puppet dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, a former
New Jersey resident who claimed to be the legitimate ruler of the
entire country of Vietnam. (No government in either Saigon or Hanoi
ever recognized the U.S. invention of two separate countries called
"South Vietnam" and "North Vietnam.") To prepare for Diem's insertion
into Vietnam, C.I.A. operative Colonel Edward Lansdale arrived on
June 1, 1954, in the midst of the Geneva peace negotiations, to
launch a systematic campaign of sabotage and terror in the north and
to supply a military force for Diem to gain control of Saigon.
Building on the C.I.A. contacts that Greene had earlier discovered,
Lansdale employed terrorist warlord General Trinh Minh Thé to secure
the city, an event prefigured in the movie by a scene of Thé marching
with his troops into Saigon. Like the warlords of the Afghan
"Northern Alliance," Thé was paid by the C.I.A., and, like the
gentlemen Washington is preparing to rule postwar Iraq, was called by
his U.S. patrons a "dissident" and a "nationalist."
Especially since Lansdale's covert activities were revealed in his
Top-Secret reports included in the Pentagon Papers, most commentators
on the novel have assumed that he must have been the model for the
Quiet American, something denied repeatedly by Greene. The debates
about which particular U.S. agent was the primary model for the Quiet
American miss the main point: Greene's Quiet American is just one
avatar of an archetypal American terrorist. For example, in the late
1980s, whenever I asked my "Vietnam and America" class whom they saw
in their mind's eye when they tried to picture Alden Pyle, a virtual
chorus would respond "Oliver North."
The movie incorporates elements of our Lansdales and Norths into its
Alden Pyle. And it assumes that we may know what the novel's
audience--and even its author--could not have known: the results of
their acts. The carnage in the plaza thus becomes a synecdoche for
the millions of victims of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia and the
many other millions slaughtered, crippled, impoverished, and
terrorized by the subsequent U.S. covert and overt wars for
"democracy" in Chile, Cuba, Angola, Grenada, El Salvador, Panama,
Afghanistan, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Iraq, to name a few.
Whether or not Greene wrote Lansdale into his novel, Lansdale wrote
Greene into the next version of _The Quiet American_, the 1958 film
directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Just as the C.I.A. in 1952 had
orchestrated terrorist bombings in Saigon to incite a U.S. war in
Vietnam, the C.I.A. and several of its front organizations used the
1958 film to resurrect those bombings, blame the Communists once
again, build support for Diem's dictatorship, and savage Greene
personally as the archetypal "intellectual" Communist dupe who
menaced the democracy that America had built in Vietnam.
In March 1956, shortly after Mankiewicz bought the film rights to
_The Quiet American_, Lansdale wrote to the director from his Saigon
operations headquarters and, showing his skills as a former
advertising executive, explained how to turn the novel into an
assault on Greene and an advertisement for Diem. Although Lansdale
acknowledged that Trinh Minh Thé had done the bombing and claimed
credit for it in a radio broadcast, he assured Mankiewicz that no
"more than one or two Vietnamese now alive know the real truth of the
matter, and they certainly aren't going to tell it to anyone," so he
should "just go ahead and let it be finally revealed that the
Communists did it after all, even to faking the radio broadcast."
Mankiewicz cast Audie Murphy, the most decorated U.S. soldier of
World War II, as "The American" (he has no other name in the film),
got one of Diem's henchmen to organize the on-location shooting,
dedicated the film to Diem, and arranged for the first screenings to
be benefits for one of Diem's main sponsors, the International Rescue
Committee. "The American" is completely innocent and thoroughly
heroic. In the car-bomb scene, it is not he but Fowler (Michael
Redgrave) who is unmasked. The American arrives with medical
equipment in a "United States Christian Mission" truck (the movie
makes Murphy closely resemble Tom Dooley) to care for the wounded.
When Fowler, who has been duped by the Communists, stands amid the
carnage hysterically accusing him of involvement in the bombing, The
American, fuming with righteous indignation, shouts, "For once in
your life, why don't you just shut up and help somebody?"
Later, The American tries one last time to convince Fowler of the
righteous destiny of the democratic Third Force. "I met a very
prominent Vietnamese living in exile in New Jersey," he earnestly
explains. "If all goes well, if Vietnam becomes an independent
republic, this man will be its leader." This was, of course, the man
actually reigning in Saigon in 1958, five years before another covert
U.S. plot arranged his murder.
The terrorist bombs, according to the 1958 movie, have been set off
by the Communists so that they can trick Fowler into helping them
murder both the American and his vision of Third Force democracy. "It
was the idea that had to be murdered," French police inspector Vigot
tells Fowler. "To help assassinate the idea," Vigot explains, the
Communists needed someone "gifted in the use of words," someone who
would substitute "a work of fiction, an entertainment" for reality.
As Fowler realizes how he has been used by the insidious Communists,
he is reduced to a writhing, loathsome, and self-loathing stand-in
for Graham Greene.
But now the tables are turned once more by the current film, which
transforms that Lansdale-Mankiewicz fiction into a subtext, framing
many scenes with similar composition while exposing the earlier film
as a continuation of the 1952 U.S. terrorist conspiracy. Ironically,
delaying the wide release of _The Quiet American_ has added deeper
layers of meaning, because in 2003 we understand even more about how
terrorism can be used as a pretext for war, and who uses it.