Graham Greene’s Saigon: The Not-So-Quiet American.
Above Photo: Vietnamese actress Do Thi Hai Yen as Phuong, in the 2002 remake of ‘The Quiet American’ (© unknown).
Almost every person who has written about Southeast Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s – and specifically Vietnam – at some point makes mention of Graham Greene’s seminal novel, The Quiet American. The book was made into a movie, twice; the second version in 2002, starring evergreen Michael Caine.
The book, published in 1955, revolves around two main characters: Thomas Fowler, a seasoned British foreign correspondent, and Alden Pyle, a young American who attempts to create a ‘Third Force’ in and around Saigon to shore up the faltering French war effort against the Ho Chi Minh-led Vietminh.
Since publication, it has become generally, but erroneously, accepted that the character of Alden Pyle was based on the real-life person of Edward Lansdale.
Born in Detroit in 1908, Edward Lansdale served with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) during the Second World War. After the war he served as an adviser with the fledgling Philippines government, helping suppress the ‘Hukbalahap’ rebellion. In 1954, Colonel Lansdale arrived in southern Vietnam as head of a secret CIA team directed to wage political and psychological warfare against insurgents. He remained in the newly-created nation of South Vietnam until 1956 when he returned to the United States.
Graham Greene stated categorically Alden Pyle and Edward Lansdale were not one and the same. In a letter to the Sunday Telegraph published on 16 January 1966, Greene wrote “Just for the record, 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.”
This denial failed to put a halt on the theory and on 1 June 1975 yet another letter from Greene appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. “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…Other journalists please note.”
The plea seems to have fallen on deaf ears. In his 1995 autobiography, former Australian correspondent Denis Warner wrote “…Colonel Ed Lansdale, the Alden Pyle of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American”. (Wake Me if There’s Trouble, Denis Warner, Penguin Books 1995 p. 226).
Perhaps it is just as well Graham Greene, who died in 1990, is no longer around to write letters to editors denying the Lansdale/Pyle link.
© Duncan Stearn
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