Alden Pyle is a 32-year-old American who is on an assignment with the Economic Aid Mission. is a soft-spoken man who speaks and acts without apparent slant or irony. He is sincere in his interpersonal dealings, to a degree that makes him seem unduly formal as well as naïve. Pyle is an idealist and an optimist. Because of his desire to think the best of people, he frequently proves to be gullible and unsusceptible to irony.
Pyle is studious and impressionable. He attended Harvard University, where he studied social and political theory. During his studies, he grew particularly fond of the work of a fictional scholar named York Harding. Harding’s theory proposed that, in Eastern countries like Vietnam, neither communism nor colonialism provides a suitable way forward. Instead, a “Third Force” is necessary, preferably leading to democracy. Pyle has adopted Harding’s theory in his own thinking about Vietnam. Pyle’s political inclinations motivate his involvement in a clandestine American intelligence operation linked to the militant leader General Thé.
Pyle’s apparently “innocent” desire to become politically engaged in the region constitutes one of the novel’s central themes. On one level, it places him in a philosophical rivalry with Fowler, who believes in the importance of disengagement. On another level, Pyle’s political ambitions and the destruction to which they lead point to the danger of American foreign policy in the region. Unlike Fowler, who sticks to concrete facts, Pyle’s ideas about the role of the West in the East are abstract and uninformed by on-the-ground realities. Pyle’s disastrous involvement with General Thé that future American action may prove equally calamitous.