While dropping off several books for others to read at a local lending library, a thin, yellowing paperback caught my eye. After flipping through a few pages, I decided to borrow and read. It would be a great diversion from my usual Revolutionary War fare.
I selected The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Written in the mid 1960s, Greene describes the waning days of French Colonialism in Vietnam. His story is narrated by a British journalist covering the war between the Vietnamese patriots, the Vietminh and the French colonial army. The second major character is Mr. Pyle, an American who, on the surface, is promoting commercial ties with the United States, but under the cover is sponsoring a splinter group, the Third Force to wrest control from both the Vietminh and the French.
As I reached a particulary dramatic passage a third into the book, a scene sounded familar. The two major characters are holed up one night in a roadside metal watch tower seeking refuge from attacking Vietminh soldiers. At this point, I realized that sometime, likely twenty or more years ago, I read this book. What probably piqued my interest long ago was the love triangle between a lovely Vietnamese woman named Phuong and the two foreigners. It’s a complicated interpersonal story of seeking security, escapism, and desire.
Now, as a more mature reader, there is a deeper, more impactful meaning to this novel. The author provides a vital lesson for all state and societal leaders today. One country or society does not necessarily know what is better for another country or culture. Just the way the Brit and the American did not know what is best for Phuong or the Vietnamese people. Many will read this book as anti-American as it was written during the Ameridan build up in the Vietnam War. This is the wrong lesson. The story pertains to all countries seeking to physically exert their politics, culture, and norms on other countries or societies. Unfortunately, we continue to re-learn this message as many societies, and world leaders think they know what it is best for “non-conforming” countries. In these dangerous times, I encourage all to read this engaging story to understand this timeless lesson better.
If you prefer watching movies to reading there, is a recent cinematic account.