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George Bush Meets Graham Greene
24 Aug 2007
In any case, here’s the Bush statement today: “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. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’...Maybe someone should tell him that Pyle, in the novel, helps arrange and then defends a terror bombing that kills and maims civilians. Or perhaps Bush only saw the misbegotten 1950s movie based on the book, which obscured Pyle's guilt.
By Greg Mitchell
Published: August 22, 2007 10:40 PM ET
Now that’s going too far. George W. Bush cited my favorite 20th century novel and its author – Graham Greene’s prescient "The Quiet American" – in his speech on Wednesday that drew several dubious links between the catastrophic Vietnam and Iraq conflicts. Perhaps because it’s unlikely he’s ever read the book it was difficult to figure out exactly what the president meant.
Bush could have used a fact-checker as well. He describes Alden Pyle, the U.S. operative, as the “main character” in the book, when it’s actually the narrator of the story, Thomas Fowler, the Saigon-based British newspaper correspondent (played by Michael Caine in the fine recent film). And, of course, “many” back in the 1970s did not say there would be “no” consequences for the Vietnamese after our pullout, as Bush alleged. Finally, I would love to know the name of the purported “anti-war senator” and find out if the views ascribed to him are accurate.
In any case, here’s the Bush statement today: “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. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’
“After America entered the Vietnam War, Graham Greene -- the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: ‘What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?'"
Now, what does Bush mean by all this?
My initial reaction was that Bush was equating the novelist with critics of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars who found “naïve” the views of those promoting a war who had only “noble” ideals (e.g. Bush) and would succeed if the Greenes of the world just got out of the way. If this is true, Bush was trying to identify with Pyle.
Maybe someone should tell him that Pyle, in the novel, helps arrange and then defends a terror bombing that kills and maims civilians. Or perhaps Bush only saw the misbegotten 1950s movie based on the book, which obscured Pyle's guilt.
But others have suggested that Bush meant that Greene and his ilk are the naïve ones. Here’s Frank James of the Chicago Tribune at the paper’s blog The Swamp: “Bush seemed to be seizing on Greene's idea of U.S. naivete on entering the war and trying to turn it around and apply it to those now calling for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
“But Greene wrote his book about the way American bumbled into Vietnam, not how it left it. By reminding people of Greene's book, Bush was inviting listeners to recall the mistakes his administration made in entering and prosecuting the Iraq War. Did he really want to do that?”
Then there was Joe Klein at Time magazine's Swampland blog calling "The Quiet American" a novel "whose hero is the young William Kristol...actually, no, the hero is an idealistic American intelligence officer named Alden Pyle, who causes great disasters in the name of a higher good. In other words, he's a premature neoconservative. I would hope that the President will re-read, or perhaps just read the book, as soon as possible because it is as good a description as there is about the futility of trying to forcibly impose western ways on an ancient culture."
Well, you be the judge. I suppose we shouldn't joke about Graham Illusion or Graham Theft.
Greene’s novel, in any case, pits the cynical, apolitical newspaperman (who has a Vietnamese girlfriend and an opium habit) against the Pyle character, who seems to be a U.S. aid official linked to the CIA (and purportedly based on the legendary Edward Lansdale). Pyle is attempting to find a “third force, ” a democratic alternative to the French-backed puppet government and the Communist insurgents. With brilliant writing, biting humor and keen insight on local politics and customs (based on Greene’s research there), the novel perfectly anticipates the massive U.S. urge to intervene deeply and then escalate.
Fowler, the typical newspaperman, has no use for “isms" and "ocracies,” and just wants the “facts.” He tells Pyle “you and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.” What do they want? “They want enough rice. They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”
Pyle replies: “If Indo-china goes….”
“I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean?"
Pyle ultimately assists an urban bombing to be blamed on Viet Minh insurgents, and many civilians die. Greene observes that "a woman sat on the ground with what was left of her baby in her lap; with a kind of modesty she had covered it with her straw peasant hat." Fowler asks Pyle how many such deaths he would accept in “building a national democratic front.” Pyle responds: “Anyway, they died in the right cause. … They died for democracy."
Bush would never say something like that but plenty of Greene’s comments about Pyle would apply to him. (Philip Noyce, director of the recent film based on the book, has said "Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle.") Greene's description of the character even sounds like the young Bush, with a crew cut and a "wide campus gaze." If only he was merely "reading the Sunday supplements at home and following the baseball" instead of mucking around in foreign lands.
Pyle, he writes, was “impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance....Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity."
Long before that, Greene had opened his novel with a few lines from Byron:
"This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls
All propagated with the best intentions."
Or as Greene himself wrote of a character in "The Heart of the Matter," another novel: "He entered the territory of lies without a passport for return."
UPDATE: Here's a response from a reader.
I thought you might be interested to read the following bit from William Fulbright's "The Crippled Giant," the "anti-war Senator" quoted by Bush in his Vietnam speech. I've provided a more fulsome quotation than the one quoted by Bush--who, unsurprisingly, took it out of context.
The passage in question follows a detailed discussion of the geopolitical consequences of a communist or non-communist government in South Vietnam. Fulbright concludes that, in the nuclear era, it makes no strategic difference to the United States what government is in power, so long as it's stable, kind to its citizens, and, at the very least, not overtly anti-American.
These two paragraphs, quoted in full, are from pages 92-93 of the first edition of "The Crippled Giant," 1972:
"Nor does it matter all that terribly to the inhabitants. At the risk of being accused of every sin from racism to communism, I stress the irrelevance of ideology to poor, peasant populations. Someday, perhaps, it will matter, in what one hopes will be a constructive and utilitarian way. But in the meantime, what earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers, in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they have never seen and may never even have heard of?
"At their current stage of undevelopment these populations have more basic requirements. They need governments which will provide medical services, education, birth control programs, fertilizer, high-yield seeds and instruction in how to use them. They need governments which are honest enough to refrain from robbing and exploiting them, purposeful enough to want to modernize their societies, and efficient enough to have some ideas about how to do it. Whether such governments are capitalist or socialist can be of little interest to the people involved, or to anyone except their incumbent rulers, whose perquisites are at stake, and their great-power mentors, fretting in their distant capitals about ideology and "spheres of interest."
This work is in the public domain