Although the popular view of Cold War is frequently characterized as a battle between two polar superpowers, the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union, it can be argued that the war’s real battles were fought, not over red phones with threats of nuclear annihilation, but on the fringes of civilization with propaganda and foreign aid. Desperate to gain control over nonaligned nations and prevent each other from enlarging their ideological sphere of influence, the United States and Soviet Union competed for dominance in the Third World in a contest of diplomacy.
Greene’s The Quiet American and Lederer and Burdick’s The Ugly American both present portraits of America’s struggle to “save” Southeast Asia from the clutches of communism during the height of the Cold War. Although the authors have different goals and thus take different perspectives in their writing, both books serve a similar purpose. Through painting portraits of Americans abroad, describing the inefficiencies and excesses of American diplomatic programs, and suggesting that America has overstepped its boundaries only to lose its battle with communism, the novels offer striking criticisms of the failures of American foreign policy.
In both The Quiet American and The Ugly American, the authors use the personalities and actions of their characters as a vehicle to reflect of the nature of American involvement abroad. Graham Greene follows this technique, presenting a portrait of Cold War politics through contrasting his novel’s two main characters, Fowler and Pyle. As a symbol of the political stance of “old colonial power” Fowler, like his native Britain, has chosen to extract himself as fully as possible from the ideological battle being waged in Vietnam.
When questioned by the police after Pyle’s murder, Fowler, with a stereotypically British attitude of staunch reservation, exhibits his detachment from the events as he explains his philosophy for keeping himself out of trouble with his personal life and with his career. “The human condition being what it was, I let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved… I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action” (Greene, 27). In contrast to the apathetic and discrete character of Thomas Fowler, the idealistic and blundering Alden Pyle serves as a metaphor for Greene’s critique of American foreign policy.
Although it fancied itself different from Europe in its “lack” of colonial aspirations, the United States ended up assuming many of Britain’s colonial responsibilities after World War II. As a result of its perceived responsibility to protect these nations from communist infiltration, America quickly found itself fighting a desperate ideological battle in the Third World. Alden Pyle, overzealous and overoptimistic in his goal of saving the world from the evil of communism, exhibits the sort of pompous chauvinism that seemed to characterize many of America’s Cold War diplomatic initiatives.
Blinded by the passion of his ideals and led by the assumption that the inherent greatness of the American values he was spreading would guarantee the success of his endeavor, Pyle was somewhat oblivious to the strength of forces he was fighting and had little concern for strategy when carrying out his mission. Upon hearing of his friend’s death, Fowler sums up Pyle’s fatal shortcoming, stating “he was determined – I learned very soon – to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now, with the whole universe to improve” (Greene, 13).
Pyle’s ultimate death, a result of his indiscretion and blundersome meddling, serves as Greene’s warning to American leaders to rethink their foreign policy or risk suffering the same fate. In contrast with Greene’s technique of presenting two characters within a single plot line, Lederer and Burdick frame The Ugly American as a series of interconnected fictional anecdotes designed to reflect America’s involvement in international affairs in a range of scenarios. As such, it provides a subtler and less inflammatory critique of American foreign policy.
With its reflections of Americans abroad as both helpful missionary types and egotistical interlopers, the novel caught the attention of President Eisenhower and encouraged his administration to review America’s diplomatic and political strategy in Asia. The Ugly American, unlike The Quiet American, which was popularly dismissed as anti-American propaganda, enjoyed runaway success, largely because the Lederer and Burdick skillfully managed to include realistic criticisms and suggestions for change within a framework that praised the American people’s goodhearted contributions to fighting the Cold War.
The “good” characters of the novel, such as Colvin the well-meaning milkman, the fearless and devoted Father Finian, and Atkins the pragmatic, plain spoken engineer, offer an insight into the mindsets of concerned Americans who were willing to make personal sacrifices for what they believed to be a worthy and admirable cause. Amidst these tales of American goodwill, however, the authors plant the seeds of their critique.
Selfish, arrogant, and isolated from the quotidienne realities of the nations they have come to occupy, the “ugly” attitudes of several of the novel’s characters impart a candid and shocking analysis of the corruption rampant within the infrastructure of the American diplomatic corps at the height of the Cold War. Central to the critique is the author’s condemnation of America’s condescending and self-interested relationship with Asia and its native populace.
The story of Louis Sears provides a prime example of the sort of disconnect that existed between the attitudes of many American government officials and the cultural and social realities of the jobs they had been assigned. Lederer and Burdick described Sears as the quintessential “good ole boy. ” After receiving his well-paying ambassadorship as the result of his political connections rather than his qualifications, Sears immediately displays his ignorance and intolerance as he initially refuses the post on the grounds that he doesn’t “work well with blacks” (Lederer and Burdick, 14).
Like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, Sears carries out his duties with a complete unwillingness to assess his shortcomings and admit his failures. In a letter to the State Department, he assures his superiors in Washington that “we’re in good shape out here”, despite the presence obvious evidence that the communists are gaining ground, namely the incident where communist agents hijacked a shipment of American grain and changed the markings on the containers to pass it off as Soviet aid (Lederer and Burdick, 75).
Like his ineffectual counterpart Sears, the character of newspaperman Joe Bing also displays the arrogant attitude and clear lack of regard that made visiting Americans such unpopular figures among their Asian neighbors. Loved by everyone except those who understand what a liability to diplomacy he is, Joe Bing is American chauvinism embodied. At a conference for potential candidates for employment in foreign service, Bing rants about the superiority of American culture and the fact that there is hardly any need to adapt to Sarkhanese culture when living there.
When asked by one candidate if she will need to learn the language, Bing’s response that “translators are a dime a dozen… and it’s better to make the Asians learn English,” suggests that the American attitude towards her Asian neighbors is one that is based on dollars and domination rather than aid and assistance (Lederer and Burdick, 81). Ultimately, The Quiet American and The Ugly American succeed in crystallizing the nature of American intervention in Southeast Asia in terms of its economic, political, and social ramification.
As the de facto colonial power in many Third World nations including those described in the two novels, the United States, despite its adamant disavowals of imperialist motivations, found itself embroiled in a situation where it was fighting to prevent the communists from adulterating its ideological satellites while simultaneously working to ensure that these nations would remain friendly to American policy.
The establishment of a Third Force, thus, meant far more than simply finding a non-communist power to lead these non-aligned nations – it entailed choosing a government that could be trusted to resist the communist at all costs, a government whose tendencies were clearly and undeniably Western. By assuming the inherent weakness and inferiority of the Third World nations it was trying to aid, America alienated the individuals and groups it should have been considering as candidates to leadership, thus transforming their enmity into support for communism or other forms of anti-Western doctrine.
As The Quiet American and The Ugly American suggest, the ultimate problem with Washington’s strategy for defending Southeast Asia lies in the plan’s lack of forethought and the obvious differences between its stated objectives and the political implications associated with the achievement of those goals.