The Quiet American, the Ugly American: Counterinsurgency from the Fifties

By Fontenot, Gregory | Military Review, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Quiet American, the Ugly American: Counterinsurgency from the Fifties


Fontenot, Gregory, Military Review


The Quiet American, The Ugly American Counterinsurgency from the Fifties

In a recent speech highlighting what might happen if the U.S. should withdraw quickly from Iraq, President George W. Bush alluded to Graham Greene's Vietnam-era novel The Quiet American (William Heineman, London). Greene's book is arguably the yin to the yang of William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American (Fawcett Crest, New York) in the American counterinsurgency (COIN) Tao. Much noticed at the time they were published (19SS and 1958 respectively), bom novels deserve to be reread for the two diametrically opposed views they offer of the role the U.S. should play in confronting insurgency abroad.

Obviously, the context of insurgency then and now is different. When these novels first arrived on bookstands, the optimism America felt at the end of World War II had evaporated. The U.S. and its former allies, fresh from a near-pyrrhic victory over fascism, immediately split into bi-polar, mutually antagonistic democratic and Communist blocs. Almost immediately, the world was back on the brink of war, and a nuclear one at that. Empires were breaking up, too. France and the U.K., exhausted by World War H, either gave up their colonies or fought losing struggles against nationalist insurgencies. These transitions created battlegrounds for the new war between democracy and communism. Like President Bush would do 40 years later in calling for a global war against Islamic terrorism, President John F. Kennedy declared Communism a direct threat to U.S. interests in Asia, Europe, Cuba, and South America-an assessment that is even now understandable.

Both The Ugly American and The Quiet American consider how and whether the U.S. should confront communism in Vietnam, or anywhere else for that matter. The Ugly American is not really a novel at all, but a series of vignettes designed to show how the U.S. might fail in Vietnam and what it might do that could work. Lederer and Burdick believed the U.S. could defeat communist insurgents and should attempt to do so. In their view, success would come if me U.S. followed the lead of pioneers in counterinsurgency. Greene, however, turned a jaundiced eye on America's effort in Vietnam, observing that U.S. COIN practitioners were boorish and clumsy and meddled unnecessarily in the host country's affairs. The book's obvious parallels with the initial U.S. stumbling in Iraq, coupled with Greene's overt hostility toward the U.S. and its government minions, may account for why it has been recently republished.

Greene's chief protagonists are a burned-out, alcoholic British reporter named Fowler and a dangerously naive American named Alden Pyle. Fowler, bitter with loss and yet convinced of bis inherent superiority, reeks of the decaying British Empire. Pyle, clearly an Ivy League product, is well heeled and well educated, but ignorant and hopelessly foolish. For Greene, Pyle is post-war America, stupefied by power and righteousness-and therefore dangerous. There are more metaphors, all as obvious and heavy-handed, perhaps none more so than the love interest, Phuong, a sexually exploited beauty whose name means "phoenix" in Vietnamese. But as Fowler observes, "Nothing nowadays is fabulous, and nothing rises from its ashes."

Both Lederer-Burdick and Greene may have modeled their protagonists on Edward Geary Lansdale, an advertising and marketing specialist who joined the Air Corps in World War II and was an early recruit to the OSS. Lansdale epitomized the good and the bad in American COIN efforts. On one hand, he applied his considerable talent in marketing and advertising to support Ramon Magsaysay's successful effort against the Huk insurgency in the Philippines; on the other, he played a part in some of the more dubious behind-the-scenes machinations in Vietnam and Cuba. …

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