Our Man in Saigon

Our Man in Saigon

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).


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 Phillip 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 devastation 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 war hawks, including Life, whose previous week’s lead editorial, “Indo-China Is in Danger,” was a near panicky call for major US participation in the Vietnam War (which the French were still fighting, with US assistance), because “it’s all one war, and our war, whether the front be in Europe, Korea, or Indo-China.”

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 Gen. Trinh Minh Thé, a warlord masquerading as Vietnam’s savior from colonialism and Communism, “had promptly and proudly 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 ago 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 (originally it was set for a 2001 release), until Michael Caine essentially forced this past December’s two-week run in New York and Los Angeles, and its impending wider opening. So now Greene’s exposé in the early 1950s of the US machinations for imperial war in Southeast Asia reappears today amid the machinations for imperial war in Southwest Asia and the Middle East.

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 US campaign to create a “Third Force,” opposed to both Communism and colonialism and designed to evolve into a US-backed “democracy” in Vietnam. Any resemblance to recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq is hardly coincidental. The hotbed of US Third Force activities was the Economic Aid Mission, headed by someone whom the French commanding officer, Gen. 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 likable young man who, according to Greene, was the original model for Alden Pyle.

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 US invention of two separate countries called “South Vietnam” and “North Vietnam.”) To prepare for Diem’s insertion into Vietnam, CIA operative Col. 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 CIA contacts that Greene had earlier discovered, Lansdale employed terrorist warlord Gen. 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 CIA and, like the gentlemen Washington is preparing to rule postwar Iraq, was called by his US 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 US 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 US war in Southeast Asia and the many other millions slaughtered, crippled, impoverished and terrorized by the subsequent US 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 CIA in 1952 had orchestrated terrorist bombings in Saigon to incite a US war in Vietnam, the CIA 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 right 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 US 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 the first screenings as 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 Dr. Tom Dooley) to care for the wounded. When Fowler, who has been duped by the Communists, stands amid the victims 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 man was, of course, actually reigning in Saigon in 1958, five years before another covert US plot arranged his murder.

The terrorist bombs, according to the 1958 movie, had been set off by the Communists so that they could trick Fowler into helping them murder The American and, more important, 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 US terrorist conspiracy and its hideous sequels. 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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy