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How Graham Greene’s Novel About American Policy in Vietnam Was Subverted by Hollywood

Not just the director Joseph Mankiewicz, a liberal, but even Democrats found 'The Quiet American' too anti-American and distorted it completely.

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When the film version of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American was released in early 1958 Greene was not happy. He skipped the premieres in New York and Washington DC, and later called the movie “a complete travesty.” Greene usually liked to see his novels adapted, but not this time. What Greene was trying to say about American ignorance and arrogance in foreign affairs was distorted – in fact, turned upside down by a Cold War, McCarthy-era fear of bringing a movie to the public that might be seen as “anti-American.”

There were two key figures who prevented the faithful adaptation of Greene’s novel. One was the director and screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz. Known for such mid-century blockbusters as A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), and Guys and Dolls (1955), Mankiewicz had a reputation as a liberal patriot. Greene was initially hopeful about the film, writing producers to suggest locations in Vietnam, the setting for the novel.

The other figure was Edward Lansdale. He had spent time in Vietnam in the 1950s as a CIA agent with an Air Force cover. In 1956 Mankiewicz travelled to Saigon, where he met members of the American Friends of Vietnam, the so-called “Vietnam Lobby,” including Lansdale. It was a fateful turn. Mankiewicz hired Lansdale as a film consultant. Of course, the CIA man had no respect for Greene, a British novelist who could not be trusted to understand American strategies to defeat communism in Vietnam.

The capitulation of a major Hollywood director to Cold War constraints, and the feud between Greene and Lansdale that ensued, may seem at first glance to be a tale from the distant world of the 1950s, when any whiff of subversive views could get a writer, musician, or actor blacklisted. But there are two stories here and both of them speak to the world we live in today.

The primary story is the one that Greene told in his 1955 novel, which closely tracks real events in Vietnam in the early 1950s. The American reflex to develop doomed counterinsurgency strategies that Greene was warning about led to a long series of bloody conflicts, in Vietnam of course, and later in Central and Latin America, and in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The other story emerged later – about how and why the movie was made the way it was. We see something familiar there, too. The readiness of liberals and conservatives to reject or suppress the truth about the dark side of American counterinsurgency – indeed, of any critique of this nation’s oppression, foreign or domestic – is as present as today’s wave of laws clamping down on how history is taught, what kind of “subversive” criticism will not be tolerated, and what kind of novels must be blacklisted or banned from schools, especially those featuring what censors call “divisive concepts.”

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The Quiet American is a work of remarkable prescience. Greene takes the reader into the Vietnam of 1952, as France was attempting to preserve colonial control while American diplomats and agents lurked and began to develop schemes to foil communist insurgents. Greene depicted scenes that later became part of the nightly news in America but were unknown to the vast majority of readers in the mid-1950s: a Vietnam that was a cauldron of complicated, shifting alliances among corrupt generals and sects with private armies, nighttime raids by Vietminh guerrillas, even French bombing raids in which napalm bombs were dropped over villages. There is sex and opium; there are Saigon hotels where diplomats mix with loud, heavy-drinking journalists. And what Greene saw clearly was the American delusion that spycraft and the promotion of “democracy” could manipulate events in a country they knew only as a piece on a geopolitical chessboard.

The story is told by a jaded British journalist, Thomas Fowler, who covers Indochina’s liberation war with France. In the opening scenes, a young American operative named Alden Pyle is found dead. Fowler goes on to recall the tangled experiences he’d had with Pyle, a maddening character who befriends Fowler, falls in love with Fowler’s mistress, and speaks of the noble American effort to find a “Third Force” that could save Vietnam from colonialism and communism. Pyle’s ideas come straight from a Harvard professor named York Harding (who could be modelled on any number of actual Ivy League Cold War theorists devoted to “realism,” red-baiting, and modernisation).

As the French lose battles, Pyle is part of an American strategy to reach out to other forces. He finds a former leader of Cao Dai, an armed religious sect whose teachings blend Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. (In its grand cathedral in Saigon, the sect depicts Victor Hugo as a saint.) Trained by the Japanese, the Cao Dai first fought the French alongside the communist Vietminh, then turned against the Vietminh to help the French. Pyle makes contact with a splinter group led by General Thế, who believes he can create an independent, noncommunist state. In pursuit of this Third Force, General Thế and Pyle inhabit the novel’s nexus of shadowy alliances.

For most of the novel, Fowler doesn’t know quite what Pyle is up to behind the scenes – he’s too caught up in the love triangle. While Fowler covers a battle in Phat Diem, Pyle journeys there to profess his love for Phuong, Fowler’s girlfriend. Fowler is injured in a sudden firefight and Pyle saves him from dying along the side of a road. That does little to ease the pain of losing Phuong to Pyle. Fowler’s hatred of him, and all things American, rankles. “I began—almost unconsciously—to run down everything that was American. My conversation was full of the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics, the beastliness of American children. It was as though she were being taken from me by a nation rather than by a man.”

Eventually, Fowler learns that General Thế has plotted small terrorist acts using bicycle pumps to make explosions throughout Saigon (which actually happened). While the Americans fund Thế, the media blames the Vietminh. Fowler fails to get the true story out: “My [media] colleagues . . . knew they could only get space [in their outlets] by making fun of the [exploding bicycle] affair. . . . All of them blamed the Communists. I was the only one to write that the bombs were a demonstration on the part of General Thế, and my account was altered in the office.”

The story builds to a climax that was meant to show the human toll of American meddling. A bomb goes off in a crowded square, killing and maiming civilians. On the day of the bombing, Fowler visits a cafe near the square. He overhears American Legation wives recalling they were warned not to be out that morning; they rush off, but suddenly the cafe’s mirrors fly at Fowler in shards, a woman’s compact lands on his lap. Running toward the square – seeing a trishaw driver on the ground, his legs blown off – he grasps that this time it is no prank, but an act of terror.

He knows that Phuong normally would be at her favourite milk bar on the square at this very hour. Stopped at the police barricade, Fowler turns to see Pyle watching. Fowler demands they go find Phuong. She’s fine, Pyle says; he’d warned her to stay home. Fowler understands that Pyle and Thế have plotted the bombing, Pyle supplying the plastique explosive while Thế sought to blame the Vietminh. It was supposed to be a military parade, Pyle mutters; only military men would be hurt. The parade was cancelled, says Fowler, inviting Pyle to observe the carnage:

“This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children. . . . How many dead colonels justify a child or a trishaw driver’s death, when you are building a national democratic front?”

The stark reality, at odds with Washington’s humanitarian rhetoric, was Greene’s warning. Shortly before the bombing, Fowler had upbraided Pyle with his British skepticism: “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 Thế’s only a bandit with a few thousand men: he’s not a national democracy.”

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Joseph Mankiewicz was fresh off of projects with Marlon Brando (Julius Caesar, 1953) and Humphrey Bogart (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954) when The Quiet American landed on the New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for sixteen weeks. He had more than the usual influence in Hollywood: his older brother was Herman Mankiewicz, famous as a co-writer of Citizen Kane (more recently the subject of the David Fincher film Mank). Joseph Mankiewicz secured the movie rights to The Quiet American in 1956 and admitted in interviews he was offended by the portrayal of Pyle and the novel’s lack of sympathy with American anti-communist intentions. He was quoted when the movie came out explaining that “Greene’s book made me so mad, I was determined to make a picture of it.”

He found just the man to share his ire: Edward Lansdale. Lansdale was a former adman who became an important figure in American counterinsurgency theory. In a previous posting in the Philippines, he allegedly found dead civilians whom his trainees took for Huk fighters. Seeing a lost opportunity (for the dead had not been tortured for information), Lansdale had his fighters place two holes in one’s neck and hang him upside down from a tree near the forest’s edge. To prey on villagers’ fear of vampires, and block their enlisting, he ordered his men to drain the corpse’s blood.

In Vietnam, too, optics mattered. Lansdale grew close to the corrupt US puppet, Ngo Dinh Diem, who assembled a Vietnam Lobby of conservative Catholics, liberal anti-communists, and intelligence-adjacent wonks who vowed to use nonprofit fronts to prop up an anti-communist regime whose methods included mass arrests and torture. Mankiewicz knew well before he met Lansdale that the Hollywood production code would not allow certain details from Greene’s novel to reach an American film audience – Pyle would not be portrayed as working for the American government. Mankiewicz also knew from the start he wanted a more admirable Pyle, so he cast a purported World War II hero, Audie Murphy. Other cast members complained of Murphy’s acting and of his menacing gunplay on set.

But Lansdale relished the chance to “correct” Greene’s narrative. The key historical detail, the bombing of the Saigon square in January of 1952, was an event Greene knew about from his trips to Vietnam while reporting for Life magazine. The scholar Jonathan Nashel (Edward Lansdale’s Cold War, 2005) found a March 1956 letter to Mankiewicz in which Lansdale admits that the explosives were American-made, adding that “General Thế claimed credit for this explosion via a broadcast over the National Resistance radio.” Lansdale advised: “let it be finally revealed [in your screenplay] that Communists did it after all, even to faking the radio broadcast (which would have been easy enough to do).” Reality just felt more real when it favoured the American storyline.

Mankiewicz sent Lansdale the final draft for approval. Lansdale’s aide wrote that “Colonel Lansdale . . . wishes to convey to Mr. Mankiewicz his appreciation of the script as well as his best regards.” According to Nashel, an executive with the film production company, Figaro, Inc., also met CIA director Allen Dulles before the film’s release to coordinate its messaging. In the book, Fowler comes to realise that many in Saigon assumed Pyle was working for the US intelligence service. “What is he? O.S.S.?” Fowler asks one source, who responds: “The initial letters are not very important. I think now they are different.” The reference is to the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services and its successor organization, the CIA, which was established in 1947.

In the movie, Fowler is portrayed as having fallen for communist disinformation when he concludes that Pyle and Thế were responsible for the terrorist bombing. “They have made a bloody fool of you,” he is told by a French police investigator, a line that does not appear in the book, just as the O.S.S. line does not appear in the movie. Though unaware at the time of Lansdale’s role, Greene recoiled at what Mankiewicz had produced, calling it “a propaganda film for America.” He wrote later of his suspicions of a coordinated campaign to attribute the bombing to the Vietminh, adding that a Life magazine photograph featuring the legless trishaw driver was reproduced in a propaganda magazine published in Manila over the caption “The work of Ho Chi Minh.”

The CIA’s seal. Photo: Duffman/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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As events played out in Vietnam through the 1960s and 1970s, and then as United States militarists worried about a “post-Vietnam Syndrome,” the controversies that swirled around The Quiet American—both the book and the film—never faded. By the 1970s, nobody could have been unaware of how central the CIA was in Vietnam. As Viet Thanh Nguyen recalled in a 2016 interview, the year he won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer:

[My parents] were part of a great migration of about eight hundred thousand North Vietnamese Catholics who had been persuaded by their parish priests that the communists were going to massacre them or at the very least persecute them. And that idea had been promulgated by the CIA, by Colonel Edward Lansdale who became famous for helping the Philippines suppress a communist insurgency in the 1950s, and then he brought his talents to South Vietnam. And he became the inspiration—so it was rumored—for Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. So that was the history behind why my parents had decided to flee.

It was a common assumption over the years that Greene had based the Pyle character on Lansdale. Lansdale himself encouraged such speculation while also laughing it off. Greene disavowed it. “Just for the record,” he wrote in a letter to the Sunday Telegraph in 1966, “your correspondent . . . is completely wrong in thinking that I took General Lansdale as the model for The Quiet American. Pyle was a younger, more innocent and more idealistic member of the CIA. I would never have chosen Colonel Lansdale, as he then was, to represent the danger of innocence.”

Correcting the record yet again in a letter to the same newspaper in 1975, Greene wrote, “I grow tired of denying that there is any connection between my character Pyle in The Quiet American and General Lansdale, the American counter-insurgency expert whom I have never had the misfortune to meet. Pyle was an innocent and an idealist. I doubt whether your correspondent . . . would so describe General Lansdale. . . . Other journalists please note.”

The more important questions have to do with the never-ending debates about American folly versus the so-called realism associated with the likes of Lansdale. In 2020, Scott Anderson borrowed Greene’s title for a biography of Lansdale and three other spooks, The Quiet Americans, offering a critical take of what his subtitle describes as “the dawn of the Cold War—a tragedy in three acts.” Remarkably, former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, now secretary of transportation in the Biden administration, wrote his Harvard thesis on the Lansdale-Greene feud, winkingly siding with Mankiewicz’s cinematic distortions and echoing Lansdale in calling Greene anti-American.

Even today, there are neoconservatives and centrist Democrats touting counterinsurgency as the key tool in US foreign policy. The one-time Iraq war booster, Max Boot – who wrote a Pulitzer-nominated 2018 hagiography of Lansdale, The Road Not Taken – has seen new possibilities for Lansdalian counterinsurgency over conventional warfare, suggesting the Biden administration represents a “return to normalcy” in this respect.

Twenty years after the novel appeared, the US failure in Vietnam turned out worse than Greene predicted – in a 1952 draft of an article for Life magazine (which never ran), Greene foresaw a stalemate in Vietnam institutionalised through an “armistice comparable to the arrangement in Korea.” In the end, it wasn’t so much an armistice as a full US retreat. In Congressional postmortems, one general was grilled over whether he read the novel’s warning. Mankiewicz’s obituary in the New York Times ignored the film, which the director had come to disavow as shoddy. In 2002, Hollywood even redid the film with Michael Caine starring as Fowler. Yet even then, the fear of “anti-Americanism” was in the air: in the year after the 9/11 attacks, the film’s depiction of a terrorist bombing, according to Caine, almost caused Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein to shelve the movie.

Greene’s critiques of Lansdale and other officials’ “innocence” matters still, as new retreats have become necessary, as multi-trillion-dollar dalliances of destruction and bloodshed in theatres like Iraq and Afghanistan pile up, and as civilian casualties are immediately, dubiously, written off as anti-terror successes. When Greene was in Vietnam, he finagled his way into a fly-along with a pilot named Pinquet. During forty minutes of tumult, the French bomber took fourteen dives, from nine thousand to three thousand feet, with Greene’s knees against the pilot’s back. The experience inspired a scene in the novel. Pinquet is renamed Captain Trouin, and a conversation between Trouin and Fowler takes place after the plane returns, with Trouin admitting “what I detest is napalm bombing . . . You see the forest catching fire. God knows what you would see from the ground.” He continues: “But we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop. Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years.”

That’s the warning that Mankiewicz and Lansdale dismissed. They didn’t see nonsense or waste or needless brutality; they saw a vital and noble American mission. “One could almost believe that the film was made deliberately to attack the book and its author,” Greene said at one point. “But the book was based on a closer knowledge of the Indo-China war than the American [Mankiewicz] possessed and I am vain enough to believe that the book will survive a few years longer than Mr. Mankiewicz’s production.” He was right.

Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. His Twitter handle is @joel_whitney.

This article was first published in The Baffler.