“Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his—he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world. Phuong on the other hand was wonderfully ignorant; if Hitler had come into the conversation she would have interrupted to ask who he was."

This quotation appears at the very beginning of the novel (one, 1), when Fowler, waiting for Pyle on the night of his assassination, leaves his apartment and runs into Phuong, who is also waiting for Pyle. Since this is the first time Fowler describes Pyle in the novel, it provides the reader with a powerful, though admittedly biased, image of the American. For one thing, Fowler emphasizes the difference in age and experience between Fowler and Pyle, and in doing so he suggests just how insulting it must have felt when this younger and far less experienced man him on matters on which he has reported for a long time. Fowler portrays Pyle as a pompous know-it-all who thinks that his fierce commitment to democracy legitimizes his self-importance. In this, Fowler is also making an implicit comment on American politics and culture, of which Pyle serves as an ambassador.

Even more importantly, this passage sets up a centrally important distinction between the concepts of innocence and ignorance. Phuong lacks knowledge about world politics, and for this reason she is ignorant. As Fowler’s use of the phrase “wonderfully ignorant” suggests, he does not see Phuong’s lack of knowledge as a bad thing. Pyle, by contrast, does have knowledge about the world at large, and he is also committed to effecting change within it. What Pyle lacks, however, is the experience that would allow him to intervene effectively. Pyle’s idealism and self-importance prevent him from understanding his own naïveté, blinding him to the possibility that his actions may have unintended consequences. It is this failure of understanding that makes Pyle innocent rather than simply ignorant, and this is also what makes him dangerous.