Graham Greene's The Quiet American: Background information when reading The Quiet Americans

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The Quiet Americans

Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War--A Tragedy in Three Acts

by Scott Anderson

The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson X
The Quiet Americans by Scott Anderson
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 576 pages

    May 2021, 608 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book

Graham Greene's The Quiet American

This article relates to The Quiet Americans

Print Review

Vintage cover of The Quiet American featuring a man in a suit lighting a cigaretteThe Quite Americans by Scott Anderson takes its name and inspiration from a highly popular 1955 spy novel by Graham Greene called The Quiet American.

Henry Graham Greene (1904-1991) was an English novelist, short story writer, journalist and playwright whose writing often focused on moral ambiguities set within political contexts. Many of his novels were very popular, especially his thrillers, or as he liked to call them, "entertainments."

Greene enjoyed writing "entertainments" dealing with spycraft and international espionage and was first inspired to write The Quiet American in 1951 after a jeep ride back to Saigon with a young American economic aid official. The young man regaled Greene with a lecture on how the Vietnamese needed to find a "third force" in Vietnam that was neither communist nor colonial, preferably a democratic force. The novel Greene published in 1955 centered around a young American intelligence operative named Alden Pyle and his support for the democratically-minded warlord Trinh Minh The, who advocated for this same concept of a "third force."

Colonel Ed Lansdale, a high profile CIA operative in both the Philippines and Vietnam, claimed for many years that the novel was based on his experiences. One reason he and many others believed this was due to his nickname in intelligence services as the "quiet American," referring to his well-known habit of listening intently to his Philippine and Vietnamese contacts, rather than speaking over them. Greene, however, always denied the book was based on Lansdale, saying "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."

Greene's novel was extremely prescient for its time in predicting — through the experiences of its main characters Thomas Fowler, Alden Pyle, and Pyle's lover, Phuong — the eventual disastrous outcome of the Vietnam War and the misguided foreign policy of America in the 1950s.

The Quiet American was received warmly by English readers but received an extremely chilly reception in the United States upon its publication there in 1956. It was considered by many in U.S. cultural circles to be an "anti-American" novel that portrayed Americans as murderers. Despite that, the book was adapted twice into major motion pictures in 1958 and 2002. It was named one of the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World by BBC News in November 2019, and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg cited the novel as an influence for his philosophy on American foreign affairs during the 2020 primary election.

1955 Bantam cover of The Quiet American, courtesy of The Ugly American Book Club

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Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Quiet Americans. It originally ran in November 2020 and has been updated for the May 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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