President Bush's Vietnam Fantasy
President Bush recently attracted considerable attention and criticism by stating before the Veterans of Foreign Wars that the takeaway from Vietnam was that we cut and ran too soon, and we should not duplicate that mistake in Iraq.
Actually, the president had advanced this line of reasoning last November during the APEC summit in Vietnam.
My comment at the time is still, I think, on the mark:
Asked if the experience in Vietnam offered lessons for Iraq, Bush said Friday, "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile."
He said "it's just going to take a long period of time" for "an ideology of freedom to overcome an ideology of hate. Yet, the world that we live in today is one where they want things to happen immediately."
We'll succeed unless we quit," the president said.
It seems to me that the lesson of the Vietnam War is we screwed up, we got beat, tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese died but, hey, the sun still rises in the East, things got better, and thirty years later our President is shaking hands with the political heir of the guys who kicked our ass.
In other words, the emergence of a prosperous, peaceful Vietnam is a pretty strong argument for acknowledging the mistake we made in Iraq and, bluntly, succeeding by quitting.
The new element in President Bush’s Vietnam reverie, one that attracted considerable headscratching and eyerolling from the cognoscenti, was his invocation of Alden Pyle, the blindly confident and profoundly destructive do-gooder in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American:
“In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called ‘The Quiet American.’ It was set in Saigon and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’
“After America entered the Vietnam War, Graham Greene -- the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: ‘What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?'"
Contrary to the president’s assertion, the central lesson of Greene’s book is not that Pyle’s (read Bush’s) courage, energy, and idealism were betrayed by the lazy, ignoble disdain of lesser men (read Democrats) for a multi-decade crusade on behalf of Vietnamese (read Iraqi) freedom.
Greene’s powerfully-argued theme is that Pyle sacrificed the moral high ground, doomed his venture at its inception, and sowed the seeds of his own destruction by orchestrating a terrorist bombing in a profoundly misguided and indecent attempt to advance a foolish, unrealistic, and catastrophic political agenda.
Greene got it right in Vietnam and, I would say, in Iraq.
President Bush gets it wrong.
The thought that President Bush is perhaps relying on this fictional portrayal of a deluded naif to stoke personal fantasies of omniscience, moral clarity, and perhaps even (political) martyrdom in the face of widespread repudiation of his policies is, to say the least, disturbing.
Who was Alden Pyle supposed to be?
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, the brilliant, driven general who was High Commissioner to Indo-China and the last, best hope of France’s desperate counterinsurgency effort against Ho Chi Minh, had this to say about Robert Blum, head of the US Economic Aid Mission to Indochina (Blum is sometimes cited as Greene’s model for Pyle):
You are the most dangerous man in Indochina.
And was the United States—represented in Greene’s fiction by Alden Pyle—dangerous enough to connive with a Vietnamese warlord in a terrorist attack in Saigon in 1951?
That was the explosive allegation at the heart of The Quiet American.
The Quiet American culminates with a bloody bombing in a square off the rue Catinat in central Saigon, precipitated by the naïve, bookish Pyle’s disastrous attempt to end-around the French and package a thuggish warlord, General The, as the leader of a nationalistic and democratic “Third Force”.
In real life, as in the book, the blast was set off by a “General” The, a renegade officer who had left the private army of the Caodai sect to set up business for himself near Saigon. He had apparently attracted the interest of American, keen for a nationalist third force that would supplant both Communism and the French-backed Bao Dai regime.
To make a splashy arrival on the political scene, The executed two bloody bombings in Saigon. Not only that, he took credit for them in a radio broadcast, despite initial attempts by the US to blame the Vietminh for the atrocities.
The later on became a fixture in the US-backed Diem government.
The Quiet American infuriated Americans when it came out. New Yorker writer A.J. Leibling, fresh from liberating the wine cellars of Paris and flush with the self-regard born of the good war, excoriated Greene in a famous review.
Not surprisingly, the current Vietnamese government loves the book for its depiction of a US intervention morally and strategically doomed from its inception.
The Quiet American is apparently available all over the Vietnam and the government gave full support to the filming of Philip Noyce’s excellent adaptation, which was finally released in 2002 after much 9/11-related anguish.
But the interesting and unanswered question is, what exactly did The get from the United States in 1950 and 1951?
Most American histories of the Vietnam mess give relatively short shrift to the period before 1954. That was the year of Dienbienphu, Geneva, Diem, and all that, and Vietnam officially became America’s exclusive tar baby.
That’s why Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and volume two of Norman Sherry’s authorized biography of Greene The Life of Graham Greene (Penguin, 2004) are such fascinating and important additions to the history of the period.
Greene worked as a correspondent in Vietnam in the early 50s, and many of the characters and incidents are direct distillations of his experiences. He wrote “Perhaps there is more direct rapportage in The Quiet American than in any other novel I have written”. Sherry's diligence in retracing Greene's steps and providing context for his work and life have become legendary.
It appears highly likely that in 1950-51 the US aid mission, actually a hive of CIA spooks, was chafing at the limited role and information the French were willing to grant them in the effort against the Vietminh.
The survival of the French presence in Vietnam and its Bao Dai regime was clearly a matter of no more than a year or two. The US had no qualms about pursuing Third Force options independently and displayed little sympathy for French objections or the destabilizing and demoralizing effects that their actions had on the desperate French effort to stabilize Vietnam.
Greene, himself a MI6 officer in the Second World War and sympathetic to the French view, undoubtedly learned of America’s playing footsie with people like The from indignant sources in the French Surete.
Did The, as Greene alleges in his book, get explosives, know-how, and direction from the CIA? And did the US have prior knowledge of the attacks and, instead of stopping them, encouraged them and planned around them and exploited them for propaganda purposes?
Norman Sherry is extremely cautious and circumspect in weighing the evidence for the more sensational allegations.
Greene was clearly hearing Gallic tittle-tattle as suspicious French intelligence, military, and diplomatic personnel monitored the growing and increasingly assertive U.S. presence in Saigon.
The most damning was information from the French No. 1 in Vietnam, General Salan, that he had arrested an American consular officer on the Dakow Bridge (where Alden Pyle meets his end in the book) with plastic explosives in the trunk of his car.
However, Mr. Sherry did not uncover any whistleblowers within the ranks of Americans stationed in Saigon in ‘50/’51 who supported Greene’s story that the Catinat bombing was carried out by The with guilty American foreknowledge, assistance, and approval—or even that the US had any serious contacts with The prior to 1954.
Case not proven to legal standards is the conclusion I extracted from Chapter 29, which discusses the era and the events of the bombings in great detail.
However, on artistic grounds the situation in Vietnam provided a suitable basis for Greene to depict the deaths in rue Catinat as the direct consequence of callous and overconfident American adventurism.
Examining the historical context of The Quiet American provides an illuminating picture of the creeping American intervention and sidelining of the French, which came into the open only in 1955, when the US sided with Ngo Van Diem—and General The—and closed the books on the French experience in Vietnam.
The French struggle to regain control of Vietnam after World War II was a political, human, and financial catastrophe for the French homeland.
No question that the French needed American help, which Truman and Eisenhower provided. By the time the French packed it in after Dien Bien Phu, America had underwritten 80% the cost of the failed French effort.
Nevertheless, the United States was an unenthusiastic and suspicious partner. Truman’s anti-communism had replaced Roosevelt’s support for self-determination in the liberated countries of Southeast Asia as America’s guiding ideology, but the US was never able to look upon French aims, methods, or capabilities in Vietnam with any enthusiasm.
The corrosive distrust and dislike between the French and the Americans is fully documented in Greene’s book.
The takeaway from Greene’s book is not that he was wrong about the nature of US engagement in the brief period when Vietnam was slipping from French control. It was that he was profoundly right about the twenty-year nightmare that the US and Vietnam were embarking on together.
Greene’s life and art were nourished by a stew of self-loathing and self-knowledge. France’s doomed, disgusted struggle for Vietnam resonated with Greene’s sense of sin and cynical despondency.
On the other hand, he took the blithe, assertive ignorance of the Americans—symbolized by Alden Pyle—as a personal affront.
In 1951, to indicate the disastrous consequences of virtue blindly asserted without awareness of personal sin and weakness, Greene makes the naïve Pyle knowingly complicit in a horrific crime: the terror bombing of a square filled with innocent civilians in the center of Saigon.
Later on, American errors in Vietnam would be characterized more by sins of omission by the intentionally blind and willfully ignorant, and all-too-knowing sins of commission by people who harbored no illusions about the decency of their own methods.
People like Edward Lansdale.
Thankfully, Sherry’s book lays to rest the canard, repeated in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam and countless other works—and promoted by Landsdale himself--that Edward Lansdale was the model for Alden Pyle.
Lansdale was the antithesis of Pyle: an egomaniacal blowhard, grandstander, and loose cannon whose eccentricity bordered on the pathological.
He famously put one over on Graham Greene, conspiring with director Joseph Manckiewicz to shoot the first version of The Quiet American, in 1959, in direct contradiction to the book and Greene’s intentions. When the movie appeared, Alden Pyle—played by Audie Murphy—was the hero; and Greene’s alter-ego—the jaded English journalist Fowler—is the dangerous naïf who precipitates the carnage in the square.
In explaining why his version would prevail, Lansdale wrote to Manckiewicz:
" [no] more than one or two Vietnamese now alive know the real truth of the matter, and they certainly aren't going to tell it to anyone."
Landsdale did not officially enter the Vietnam arena until 1954, when he appeared as Diem’s minder. Greene wrote his book in 1952.
But that doesn’t mean that Lansdale’s shadow isn’t over the events in rue Catinat.
Before Lansdale gained notoriety as John Kennedy’s go-to guy for spectacular failures, first in Vietnam and then Operation Mongoose—the increasingly harebrained strategies for destabilizing Cuba and assassinating Castro that attracted the attention of the Church Committee--he presided over one of the greatest successes in post-world war II US foreign policy—the crushing of the Philippine insurrection.
He did it in alliance with an energetic, talented, and compliant military office, Ramon Magsaysay.
Tactics included enlarging and upgrading the army, limiting abuses against the population by state military forces, aggressive irregular counterinsurgency operations, lots of psyops, and some land reform. Also highly trained hunter-killer squads and unreliable paramilitaries.
Amazingly, everything worked , at least against the isolated Huk movement, which at its height claimed 15,000 troops and only drew on the population of Luzon—1.5 million—for support.
The Philippines is still the acme of American counterinsurgency, and one thinks it would be cited in the same breath with British suppression of the Malay Uprising, which seems to get all the positive ink as the only truly successful counterinsurgency operation in the modern period.
According to Lansdale, in 1954 he was ordered to Vietnam "to do there what you did in the Philippines."
An academic at the University of the Philippines, Roland Simbulan, stated:
So successful was the CIA in pulling the strings thru Lansdale that in 1954, a high-level US committee reported that, "American policy in Southeast Asia was most effectively represented in the Philippines, where any expanded program of Western influence may best be launched."
The CIA's success in crushing the peasant-based Huk rebellion in the 1950s made this operation the model for future counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam and Latin America. Colonel Lansdale and his Filipino sidekick, Col. Napoleon Valeriano were later to use their counterguerrilla experience in the Philippines for training covert operatives in Vietnam and in the US-administered School of the Americas, which trained counterguerrilla assassins for Latin America. Thus, the Philippines had become the CIA's prototype in successful covert operations and psychological warfare.
After his stint in the Philippines using propaganda, psywar and deception against the Huk movement, Lansdale was then assigned in Vietnam to wage military, political and psychological warfare.
When the Americans looked at Vietnam, they believed the French had a formula for failure, and America had the recipe for success.
During World War II, Roosevelt had already touted America’s policy supporting Philippine independence as a template for Vietnam.
The Pentagon Papers record that President Roosevelt offered the De Gaulle Filipino advisors to help them out in Vietnam.
De Gaulle’s response to the astounding suggestion that the banner of European civilization and French honor could best be shouldered with the help of brown folks from the Philippines was “pensive silence”.
The Americans—like Alden Pyle—were too impatient of success and confident in their methods to work with the French.
Once the French were left, the American magic would work in Vietnam as it had in the Philippines. All it required was U.S. prestige and aid, an innovative and ruthless cadre of advisors, and a seamless coordination between the American patron and the Vietnamese client, all constellated around a charismatic, competent leader.
But the differences turned out to be more important than the similarities.
Instead of Magsaysay, a dynamic man on horseback, we put our money on Diem, a (literally) cloistered Catholic and out of touch egoist.
Instead of the hapless, isolated Huks, we got iron-hard NVA soldiers with an impregnable base in North Vietnam, safe-haven borders, and Russian and Chinese assistance.
We got a counterinsurgency operation fatally compromised from its outset by excessive American reliance on political and military violence.
And of course, we got defeat instead of victory.
That’s the tragedy Graham Greene foresaw in the rue Catinat.
I think I’ll let Philip Noyce, director of the 2002 film adaptation of The Quiet American, have the last word. From a Salon interview in early 2003, as America teetered on the brink of the Iraq invasion:
Alden Pyle is alive and well today. And that's either a mark of Greene's brilliance, or the fact that some things just never change. ..In theory, you've got a White House full of Alden Pyles. [Laughter] And that's scary...
...Well, George Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle! He's hardly been out of the country, he's steeped in good intentions, believes he has the answer, is very naive, ultimately not that bright, and extremely dangerous.