By the Bombs' Early Light; Or,
Quiet American's War on Terror
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
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 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 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.
E-mail to H. Bruce Franklin
H. Bruce Franklin is the author or editor of nineteen books on history
and culture. He is presently the John
Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University,