"The Graham Greene Argument": A Vietnam Parallel that Escaped George W. Bush.

Author:Buckley, Kevin
Position:REFLECTIONS - Report

In a speech this August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President George W. Bush boasted of success in Iraq and invoked memories of Vietnam to attack his critics and justify his decisions. He recalled that the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina led fatefully to the horrors of the re-education camps, the fleeing boat people, and the Cambodian genocide. But most curious was his reference to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which seemed to miss the point of the 1955 novel and what it uncannily foretold.

The reference resonated with me not only because I wrote about Vietnam for Newsweek, but also because I virtually relived some of the episodes that Greene described and encountered the inheritors of the characters he conjured. Mr. Bush, one may venture, spoke more truly than he or his writers might have suspected.

But first, I suggest reading carefully the "Graham Greene Argument" as put forward in the official White House transcript:

Finally, there's Vietnam. This is a complex and painful subject for many Americans. The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech. So I'm going to limit myself to one argument that has particular significance today. Then as now, people argued the real problem was America's presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end. The argument that America's presence in Indochina was dangerous had a long pedigree. 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 na'ivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." After American entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene Argument gathered some steam. As a matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. For the record, the United States entered the war in Vietnam before 1955, and not afterward, as Bush asserted. Indeed, by the early 1950s, the time in which The Quiet American is set, the United States was already underwriting close to 80 percent of the French cost of the war. The New York Times correspondent Neil Sheehan described the enormity of that often forgotten conflict in A Bright and Shining Lie (1988): "A quarter of a million to a million Indochinese civilians perished during {France's} nine years; 200,000 to 300,000 Viet Minh died in the fighting, taking 95,000 French colonial troops--Vietnamese, French, Algerians, Moroccans, Senegalese, Germans, and other Foreign Legionaries from sundry Eastern European lands, Cambodians and Laotians--with them.... American statesmen did not recognize their responsibility. Their ability to blame whatever went wrong on the French left them unfeeling of the moral burden they carried."

In The Quiet American, just as it was in the non-fiction world of the time, it was clear that the French were losing the war to maintain colonial control. It was also clear that various other trespassers, to say nothing of governments, had other futures in mind for Vietnam. Enter Alden Pyle. Bush refers to him as just plain "Alden," and seems to regard the assessment of Pyle that he quotes--"I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused"--as a compliment.

Those words were spoken by Thomas Fowler, the narrator-hero, who in essential respects was the moral opposite of Alden Pyle. Yet Fowler is probably the best spokesman for "the Graham Greene Argument," whatever it is exactly that Bush means by the term.

After the president's speech, I reread The Quiet American for the first time in many years. I recommend the experience. Whatever his reason for referring to Alden Pyle in support for his course in Iraq, his choice of a literary hero provides a revealing if inadvertent window into the president's character.

Alden Pyle, In Full

In the novel, Alden Pyle is a newcomer to the U.S. legation, attached to the economic aid mission, with, as a colleague says, "special duties." He soon collides with Thomas Fowler, a British newspaper correspondent with a taste for opium, and a ruined marriage back home. Pyle tries to appropriate Phuong, Fowler's Vietnamese girlfriend, and the two fight over her and clash in their political views.

Greene visited Indochina often during the French war and the political climate of the time is part of the story's texture. This was just a few years after Mao Zedong consolidated control of China. Pyle is depicted as a fervent believer in a "Third Force," a dreamy political ideology that he hopes will defeat both the French and the Communist Viet Minh. He and General The, the commander of a "Third Force" militia, whom Pyle covertly finances, hatch a plot to advance the prospects of the Third Force involving the use of concealed explosives. Their intended target is a military parade, but thanks to Pyle's incompetence, the blast kills hundreds of innocent civilians in downtown Saigon. Fowler realizes that Pyle is the culprit, and Pyle himself ends up dead not long afterwards. Did Fowler share culpability for Pyle's death? Read the book.

The Quiet American proved sadly prophetic. Pyle's ideological descendants abounded in Vietnam when I reported on the war for Newsweek from 1968 to 1972. And there are obvious parallels between Alden Pyle and George W. Bush.

Much like Bush's debt to various neoconservative mentors, Pyle owed much to York Harding, an important, off-stage character in the story. Harding is an intellectual journalist who has recently published a book titled The Advance of Red China. ("It's a very profound book," Pyle tells Fowler.) For Pyle, Harding has the answer to what ails Vietnam, but Fowler has a distinctly different view that illuminates "the Graham Greene Argument."

As Fowler sees it, Harding is "a superior sort of journalist--they call them diplomatic correspondents. He gets hold of an idea and then alters every situation to fit the idea. Pyle came out here full of York Harding's idea. Harding had been here once for a week on his way from Bangkok to Tokyo. Pyle made the mistake of putting his idea into practice. Harding wrote about a Third Force. Pyle formed one--a shoddy little bandit with two thousand men and a couple of tame tigers. He got mixed up."

Fowler tries to warn Pyle about the hazards he faces, and tells the young American, "We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, but we've learnt a bit of reality, we've learned not to play with matches. This Third Force--it comes out of a book, that's all. General The's only a bandit with a few thousand men; he's not national democracy."

After Pyle's death, Fowler says "Perhaps I should have seen that fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures: Fifth column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved all of us a lot of trouble, even Pyle, if I had realized the direction of that indefatigable young brain." Fowler tells a U.S. Legation official: "He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said 'Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body he couldn't even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy...he...

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