Graham Greene’s The Quiet American & the Dangers of Ideology

When it comes to examining the world around us, most people find it impossible not to let their ideals of how the world should be influence their view of how the world actually is.  To the individual, the ideals s/he project onto the world are not just some arbitrary concepts, but the very mode by which a person’s identity can be defined; it is in this mindset that ideologies are created.  And once one’s ideology–one’s ideals–become a personal cause, the greatest difficulty confronting the individual will not be finding the means by which to further this cause, but maintaining the sketchy line between one’s greater identity and one’s circumscribed ideology separate; to keep the former from fully succumbing to the latter.

Set in the backdrop of 1950s war afflicted Vietnam, the prominent theme that runs through Graham Greene’s war novel The Quiet American, is the omen of letting one’s ideals of life take precedents over life itself.  This message is explored through the contrasting characters of Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle.  The former (Fowler) is a cynical, middle-aged British reporter, who views his role in the warring country as staunchly nonaligned with any side or ideology, stating, “It has been an article of my creed.  The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved” (page 28).  Pyle, on the other hand, is an impressionable, idealistic young American, enchanted with the romantic idea that it is his duty to help spread democracy to the oppressed parts of the world. [I should note that at the time the book was published, 1955, the conflict in Vietnam was still predominantly a struggle between the French (who had up to then held the country as a colony), and the Vietnamese Communists looking to end France’s colonial rule and establish an independent (communist) state; during all of this, America’s official role in the region was still much subtler than what it would become in the 1960s and 70s.]

Throughout the plot, Fowler refers to Pyle as innocent, to describe the way the young man viewed the world and the childlike affect this has on him:

I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth when reality didn’t match the romantic ideals he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set.

Characters like Pyle are not complicated or hard to explain.  He is someone who has been educated to venerate and see the absolute nobility in the notions he has come to value.  In the book, ideas of freedom and democracy are as tangible to the young American, as any object or person.  Unsurprisingly, this puts him at odds with the pessimistic Fowler, who scoffs at the youngster, “I laugh at anyone who spends so much time writing about what doesn’t exist–mental concepts” (page 94).  He is a reporter, first and foremost, and his job is to observe and report the unfiltered facts of the situation.  At times, the reader is left wondering how much of Fowler’s cynicism stems from having observed and reported on so much despair in the world, that the promises of hope offered up by any ideology seem too hollow in light of life’s suffering to even bothering considering.  This sentiment is best captured when Fowler and Pyle are stuck in hostile territory, and the two engage in a heated discussion about Pyle’s idealistic convictions; the exchange begins with Fowler stating:

“Sometimes the Viets have a better success with the megaphone than a bazooka.  I don’t blame them.  They don’t believe in anything either.  You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.”

“They don’t want Communism.”

“They want enough rice,” [Fowler says].  “They don’t want to be shot at.  They want one day to be much the same as another.  They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want […] If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats” (pages 94-95).

Fowler understands that Pyle’s hopes and dreams for the Vietnamese people come from benign intentions (page 133), but he has little patience in humoring the idea that the underlying motivation of the idealists behind all the virtues the young man treasures is little more than naive armchair philosophizing.  Nonetheless, Pyle holds to his belief that his principles are of benefit for the people, in contrast to the alternatives being offered:

“They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.”

“Thought’s a luxury.  Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?”

“You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated?  Are they going to be happy?”

“Oh no,” [Fowler says], “we’ve brought them up in our ideas.  We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut […]  Isms and ocracies.  Give me facts” (page 95).

To the reader, a great bit of irony comes from the fact that Fowler’s own anti-ideology stance, sounds much like an ideology in and of itself; a staunch conviction to remain untainted by the stains of ideals.  Fowler himself appears to notice this problem, and quickly amends, “I don’t take sides.  I’ll be still reporting whoever wins” (page 96).  Pyle is unconvinced of the sincerity in Fowler’s words, and pointedly remarks how his apathy to which side (i.e. ideology) wins the war, conflicts with his statements about individual value:

“Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould?  You’re arguing for the sake of arguing.  You’re an intellectual.  You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do” (page 97).

To which Fowler bitingly responds:

“Don’t go on in the East with that parrot cry about a threat to the individual soul.  Here you’d find yourself on the wrong side–it’s they who stand for the individual and we just stand for Private 23987, unit in the global strategy” (page 97).

Fowler’s point is that the idea of military endeavors standing in as the great defenders of the individual, when military personal are by necessity trained to eschew their individuality for the sake of becoming a monolithic unit, is a highly facetious proposition.  Furthermore, one can deduce from Fowler’s tone that he views the individual to be an entity that exists in the moment, for the moment; thus ideologies (and the ideals they are founded on), which perpetually aim to always establish a desired state of existence for some future condition, are innately antithetical to the interests of the individual.

Despite his animosity with Pyle’s idealistic views, Fowler does not consider the American to be the cause of this problem he has with ideological thinking, but a consequence of it.  And as a consequence, Pyle is doomed to give the necessary sacrifice to the cause he chose to allow to define him as a person:

“They killed him because he was too innocent to live.  He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved.  He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, ‘Go ahead.  Win the East for Democracy.’  he never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him.  When he saw a dead body he couldn’t even see the wounds.  A Red menace, a soldier of democracy” (pages 31-32).

It is easy to philosophize about the world, create values and meaning safely within the confines of one’s head, but it’s when one sets out to make such mental concepts a reality, that it becomes clear how reality is not contingent on the romantic musings you have constructed from your desk.  Yet, ideologies aren’t really dependent on reality either, they are based on further mental constructs, limited solely by one’s conception of possibilities; aimed at what situation can be achieved, not what the situation currently is.  And if it weren’t for our conviction that reality is negotiable, would humanity ever have accomplished as much as it did?  Did we not, in our brief history as a species, constantly redefine and reevaluate what is possible–what is attainable in reality?  Ideals are dangerous in the way they can consume a person’s self-identity, but without ideals would we have no prospect for betterment as a whole?  It may be true that reality simply is what it is, and not what we want it to be, but if we can convince enough people to believe otherwise–to subscribe to the ideals and values we wish to promote–does it really matter what reality is anyway?  The strict definition becomes relative and redundant–for most of us.


Greene, Graham.  The Quiet American.  Penguin Books:  New York, 1955 (1973 reprint).


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