Around the World in Books / Vietnam

When Love and War Were Both Hell

Cross-cultural romance plays out amid disaster in Vietnam

Janice Harayda
5 min readMar 27, 2022

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Michael Caine and Thi Hai Yen in the 2002 film of “The Quiet American” / Miramax Films and HBO Max

This is the 27th post in the “Around the World in Books” series that is reviewing 30 books about 30 countries in 30 days in March. Tomorrow: Wales

“Great wars produce great novels,” critics like to say — but bad wars can also produce good books. A classic example is Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

Greene covered the war in Vietnam for The Times of London, and that work inspired this 1955 novel. The Quiet American involves a love triangle that plays out during the French hot war and the American Cold War in Indochina in the early 1950s, and the book appears both on lists of the “best war novels” and “best Cold War novels.” Either way, it deserves its acclaim.

The Quiet American is a scathing — and extraordinarily prescient — indictment of the many ways the United States went wrong in Southeast Asia.

Love as a metaphor for American imperialism

Thomas Fowler, a jaded Saigon-based British reporter in his 50s, is in love with a Vietnamese woman, Phuong, as is Alden Pyle, a young CIA agent. You can read Pyle’s hapless courtship of Phuong as a metaphor for the American imperialism in Indochina, spurred by its policy experts’ misguided belief in the so-called domino theory, the idea that if one country in Southeast Asia fell to the communists, the rest would topple like dominoes.

But The Quiet American is about much more than cross-cultural romance in the run-up to the battle of Dien Bien Phu, at which the Viet Minh dealt a humiliating defeat to the French, whom the CIA had secretly aided.

In his fine introduction to the 2005 Penguin Classics edition, the novelist Robert Stone notes — as others have — that the title of the book is a joke. Pyle, the title character, isn’t quiet.

“Like all the Americans who appear in its deft, succinct story, Alden Pyle is a prattling fool,” Stone writes. The CIA agent exemplifies the unspoken punch line of the joke inherent in the title: “the only quiet American is a dead American.”

A dangerous CIA agent

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Janice Harayda

Critic, novelist, award-winning journalist. Former book editor of the Plain Dealer and book columnist for Glamour. Words in NYT, WSJ, and other major media.