Graham Greene (1904–1991) was a British journalist, screenwriter, and novelist who wrote his major works in the mid-twentieth century, from approximately 1930 to 1970. Interested in politics and history from an early age, Greene attended Oxford University, where he studied modern history. During his time at university, Greene also became interested in journalism and served as the editor of The Oxford Outlook. After graduating, he worked for several newspapers before eventually landing a job as an assistant editor at The Times. However, following on the success of his first novel, The Man Within (1929), Greene left the newspaper and set out to become a freelance correspondent and writer.
Although Greene wrote popular thrillers like The Orient Express (1932) and classic screenplays like The Third Man (1949), his literary reputation largely rests on his more serious novels that explore faith and politics, of which The Power and the Glory (1940) is a standout example. The Quiet American in 1955 and is perhaps the last of the writer’s great novels. Like his other novels of this major period of writing, The Quiet American combines Greene’s interest in foreign settings with his concerns about political conflicts and crises of faith in a century that, already at the time of writing, had experienced the horrors of colonialism, two world wars, a holocaust, and the threat of communism East Asia.
Greene set The Quiet American in the same historical moment in which he wrote, which was the early 1950s. These were the final days of French colonialism in the region, which was then known as Indochina (now Southeast Asia). In Vietnam in the early 1950s, the French were engaged in a protracted battle with a communist coalition known as the Viet Minh. This homegrown force fought for independence from the French Empire. This battle with communist forces in Vietnam also mirrored another battle that played out at the same time in Korea. In the final days of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded the northern territory of Korea, which had been under Japanese control since 1910. After the Soviets liberated Korea north of the 38th , United States forces moved in to occupy the southern territory. Because of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States, Korea was split into two distinct political dominions with separate governments. On 25 June 1950, Soviet and Chinese forces from North Korea invaded South Korea, which precipitated an armed conflict that lasted until the combatants signed an armistice in July 1953.
The Quiet American does not reference the events of the Korean War directly. Nevertheless, this conflict represents an important part of the novel’s backdrop. Korean War initiated U.S. involvement in the post-World War II struggle with communism in Asia. American involvement in set the stage for American involvement in Vietnam, and it is precisely the United States’ political activity in early-1950s Vietnam that Greene takes as his subject in the novel under discussion.
Greene wrote The Quiet American in Saigon between March 1952 and June 1955, and William Heinemann published the novel in late 1955. The Vietnam War officially broke out in November of 1955, and it would last for another two decades, until 1975. Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was considered a proxy war between Cold War powers. The army in the north received support from the Soviet Union, whereas the army in the south received support from the United States. Although Greene could not have known how history would play out, his background as a world-traveling journalist made him an astute political observer. Therefore, through his novel, Greene could be said to have predicted what American involvement would mean for the region.
In addition to the political context in which The Quiet American takes place, it is important to note Greene’s complex relationship to religion. In 1926, Greene met and fell in love with Vivien Dayrell-Browning, who had recently converted to Catholicism. Dayrell-Browning introduced Greene to the , and he joined the Church later that same year. Greene remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. However, as his biographers have pointed out, Greene himself was constantly at odds with his adopted beliefs. Moral failure and the challenge of living in accordance with Catholic doctrine therefore became major themes in some of Greene’s greatest novels, including The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). Although The Quiet American does not foreground the specific problem of Catholicism, questions about religion and faith are woven throughout the novel. Nearly every character has a different perspective on religion, and the tensions that arise illuminate the challenge of living morally in a world in conflict.
Upon its publication, The Quiet American attracted controversy for being an apparently anti-American novel. Many readers, and particularly readers in the United States, felt that Greene used Alden Pyle to criticize Americans as immature, ignorant, and ultimately dangerous. However, as the American presence in Vietnam began to increase throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and as popular opinion in the United States turned against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the controversy settled down. In fact, The Quiet American became a mainstay for Western journalists who traveled in and wrote about the region. Now, The Quiet American stands as a classic of twentieth-century literature. It (in 1958 and 2002), and it has also inspired Greene-related tourism in Vietnam. To this day, street vendors on the real rue Catinat sell copies of the novel, and people who visit what is now called Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) can even spend the night in the room at the Hotel Continental where Greene drafted the book.