Archive for the ‘USA’ Category


Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.


Publications: Scope Book Review

26 June 2009

The June 2009 issue of the online film studies journal Scope contains my review of What Have They Built You to Do: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. It’s a bit longer than my usual reviews, but I do tend to go on a bit when it comes to Cold War film studies.


English as a Global Language by David Crystal

16 June 2009

Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.

English as a Global Language by David Crystal

The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.

English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.

Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.

(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)


Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

17 February 2009

Another particularly good review of the following book can be found as part of the Institute of Historical Research’s collection of book reviews.

Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower

On 15 August 1945, nine days after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, the Japanese government unconditionally surrendered to the Allied powers and brought World War II — known to the Japanese as Daitōa Sensō, or the Greater East Asia War — to an end. For the next eight years, Japan would be occupied by the Allies, led by the United States under the supreme command of General Douglas MacArthur. As the general history goes, the occupying authorities issued various edicts and reforms to root out the oppressive militarism and fanatical emperor-worship of the war years, all in the name of bringing modern democratic ideals to Japan. The Japanese, for their part, seemed to accept the new social and political order with humble gratitude, as well as profound thanks for the victors’ benign guidance in building a democratic society on the ashes of defeat. Yet as in so many cases, this simplistic reading of historical events glosses over years of bitter political struggles and social upheaval, of little children mimicking their elders by playing ‘prostitute and GI’ and sly satirical poetry published in literary magazines and more than a few Japanese politicians committing suicide out of despair and shame. In short, the story of the occupation of Japan is seldom told from the perspective of the Japanese — an omission that John Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II seeks to rectify.

Embracing Defeat begins, understandably, with the defeat, and the earth-shattering effect it had on many ordinary Japanese people who had been prepared to give their lives for the emperor and for their homeland. Japanese society had been shaken to its foundations, and people had to reinvent their lives and reevaluate their ways of thinking even as they scrabbled for enough food to stay alive. Dower describes the various subcultures that sprang up under the occupation, from the illegal trades of the prostitutes and black marketeers to the growing influence of left-wing writers and thinkers, many of whom benefited from the fact that they had spent the war in prison or exile and could not be accused of sympathising with the wartime regime. The remnants of that regime also had to come to terms with the occupying authorities, whether in the war crimes tribunals or in the painful negotiations over the status of the emperor and the shape of the country’s new constitution. Dower devotes several chapters to analysing the various battles that Japanese politicians had with the occupying authorities over the details of the reinvented political system, even as General MacArthur’s subordinates seemed to go to inordinate lengths to curtail ordinary people’s attempts to express their opinions in a more free and democratic fashion — whether through strict censorship, strike-breaking, or other curbs on popular protest against the government. Embracing Defeat includes many similar incidents where the tensions between prewar Japan and occupied Japan had to be worked out in careful compromises, and Dower’s equally careful analysis shows how these compromises shaped the Japan that emerged from defeat and sought its own place in the postwar — by that point, the Cold War — era.

Perhaps because of the wider availability of documents from the Japanese national archives and the occupation’s Tokyo headquarters, Embracing Defeat dwells on life in Tokyo and a few other major cities at the expense of a more detailed look at life across Japan. (Granted, a survey of the particular circumstances of the occupation of Okinawa would require a separate book of similar length.) The jumps between social history and political history can also seem jarring at times, even though the wealth of insightful anecdotes helps to make up for the transition problems. Overall, Embracing Defeat is both far-reaching and thoughtfully written, especially when it comes to Dower’s familiarity with the subtleties of the Japanese language. Many of his most informative passages explore how a certain word choice or English-to-Japanese paraphrasing altered the effect of a notable statement or idea, whether it involved the concept of the Japanese imperial family’s descent from the goddess Amaterasu or the politically charged nuances of possible Japanese translations for the word ‘democracy’. In a sense, Dower’s emphasis on translation and word choices is central to the main themes of Embracing Defeat — the ability of language to shape political and social thought, the reinvention of old traditions and the creation of new ones, and the complex relationships between victors and vanquished that were never absent from everyday life in occupied Japan.


Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

7 October 2008

Falling a bit behind in my book reviews, mostly because my writing energies have been devoted to preparing for the Film & History conference at the end of this month. I’ll post new reviews when I can.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

It began with an attempt to purchase a birthday present for less than $20. Nancy and Larry Goldstone had decided to limit the amount they would spend on birthday gifts for each other that year, and so when Nancy managed to acquire a good used copy of a fine edition of War and Peace for $10, she considered it a brilliant find. That edition of Tolstoy, however, opened the door to the world of used and rare books, and the Goldstones soon found themselves drawn back to local used book stores in search of replacements for other books in their collection that were falling apart. In time, they go from being people who had never thought of themselves as ‘collectors’ to eager bidders for a first edition of James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr Chips at a Swann Galleries auction in New York City.

Used and Rare, as its subtitle suggests, reads very much like a travelogue, focusing as it does on how the authors slowly branch out from the offerings of the used book stores in their small corner of New England. The Goldstones rarely go farther afield than Boston or New York City, constrained as they are (most of the time) by the need to find a reliable babysitter for their young daughter. The emphasis of their story is less on the books themselves and more on their gradual awakening to the small details of the book trade, from the initial sticker shock at the cost of a complete set of Charles Dickens’ works to…well, mostly the sticker shock at the prices of the books they come across along the way. One small sour moment in their otherwise pleasant experiences occurs when they attempt to view the rare books held in the Boston Public Library, and are brusquely turned away by the librarian for not having a letter of introduction or a specific reason for requesting to look at the books, apart from simply wanting to see them. (Considering that this happened in the mid-1990s, before the widespread availability of the Internet, the Goldstones might be forgiven for not knowing the standard access procedures for rare-book collections in libraries.) Otherwise, though, they find much to enjoy as they look for books that interest them, and learn a bit about the history of book-collecting and what drives people to build a collection of their own.

Overall, Used and Rare is a quick and easy read, relaxed and light without being overly fluffy. The Goldstones freely admit that they are amateurs in the book world, and make no pretensions of being more ‘in the know’ than they actually are. In its own way, this very amateurishness gives the book a refreshing quality, as it allows the reader to share in the sense of wide-eyed wonder that the authors feel with each new discovery and each successful foray into small, dusty shops filled with potential treasures.


The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

3 September 2008

I tend to review very specialised, subject-specific books, mostly because I am often dissatisfied with a lot of the broader survey books that are out there. So when a good example of a well-written survey book lands in my reading pile, it’s that much more enjoyable to review.

The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

Attempting to write a good general history book about Europe after World War II presents any number of challenges to a prospective author, the most common of which tends to be the prominence of the Cold War in that postwar history. Cold War-era histories cannot help but dwell on the roles of the superpowers, and depending on the author’s own nationality, many promising books on postwar European history end up giving the United States or the Soviet Union too much ‘screen time’ at the expense of their actual subject. A book that is able to keep the focus squarely on the European experience is worthy of note — and history professor William Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent manages this feat with alacrity.

The Struggle for Europe works hard to balance the little details and the broader themes of postwar European history, and as a rule it does not dwell too long on one subject, country, or historical figure. Both sides of the Iron Curtain are represented, and the often neglected countries of southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, and Greece — have a separate section devoted to the history of their respective transitions from right-wing authoritarianism and military governments to democratic participation in the European Union. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle, who can easily overwhelm historical writing by the sheer force of their presence, are prominent but kept in proportion — most often, in proportion to the amount of trouble they caused their neighbours. One of the more notable sections of the book is Hitchcock’s comprehensive coverage of events in the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980s and 1990s, from the Solidarity strikes in Poland to the gruesome execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife in Romania, which avoids treating the end of the Cold War as a fait accompli in the way that so many other Cold War history books do. This leads nicely into an overview of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian wars, as good a place as any to bring a history of postwar Europe to a close.

Hitchcock’s writing style is smooth and flowing, not exactly conversational but nonetheless free from the stiffness that might make it sound too much like a straight classroom lecture. There’s little in the way of social history or commentary on demographic and other trends, which might make the history seem a little dry for some yet manages to prevent the narrative from meandering off on random tangents. (Personally, I would have liked a little more structure to the end-notes, but I know that some readers find end-notes off-putting and Hitchcock clearly has taken this segment of his intended audience into account.) Overall, The Struggle for Europe hits all of the right points that a basic, general survey history book should have. Those who are looking to brush up on the events they lived through and never appreciated, or learned about in school and never understood, likely would find it a very useful place to begin.


The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

3 August 2008

I’ve opened up a new tag for this review: economics. I have a few books in the queue that will fit nicely into this tag, and I’m looking forward to posting them.

The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz, it might be said, knows a little something about economics. He was a professor of economics at Stanford University, served as a member and later chairman of the Clinton administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (a group of appointed economists who provide policy analysis and advice for the executive branch), went on to become chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, and was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. Not only was he in a position to witness first-hand the economic boom of the 1990s, but he also bears some responsibility for both the boom and the subsequent fallout that later affected people all around the world. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997, the mass protests at the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999, the collapse of corporate giants like Enron and the tarnished records of major accounting firms like Arthur Andersen and Merrill Lynch — there are no shortage of incidents to consider in any book that seeks to blend historical analysis with coverage of current events. Stiglitz has been a critical commentator on international economics in the past, most notably in his 2001 book Globalization and Its Discontents which lambastes the IMF and the World Bank for aggravating poverty in many places around the world. In The Roaring Nineties, Stiglitz attempts to paint an economic picture of the title decade, exploring the reasons for the boom and subsequent bust that made the 1990s resemble the financial panics of 1890s in more ways than one.

The book as a whole is really an expanded version of an article that Stiglitz wrote for the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. In both the article and the book, he points out that while the 1990s were undoubtedly a time of high optimism and growth in the business community, the foundations were being laid for the problems that were to come. Accounting standards were growing more and more lax, the greed of CEOs and other high-powered corporate figures remained generally unchecked, and deregulation of certain industries like telecommunications and utilities exacerbated existing inequalities to a degree that would not be fully felt until after the end of the Clinton administration. ‘Creative accounting’ and ‘crony capitalism’ are two of Stiglitz’s particular phrases to describe the practices of the decade. And he has no small amount of contempt for George W. Bush’s handling of the U.S. economy, which he claims worsened the fallout of the tech bubble’s bursting and only underscores the problems inherent in pandering to the very wealthy few at the expense of the far less wealthy majority.

The primary difficulty faced in expanding an article to a book is that you have to provide enough substance to add to or elaborate on your original ideas. The Roaring Nineties suffers from a tendency towards clunkiness and periodic heavy-handedness in the expansion that veers towards sanctimonious. Stiglitz almost can’t seem to decide whether he should be beating his breast or washing his hands of responsibility for the outcome of the 1990s — he tries to do both, and it doesn’t work very well. The economic history is certainly sound, and the conclusions are solid and well reasoned, but I wonder if the book might not have been improved by a co-author who hadn’t been quite so in the thick of things, as it were. Something to consider, at any rate.


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

27 July 2008

I wrote this review quite a while ago, and wasn’t entirely satisfied with the organisational structure of my first attempt. I think I like this version a bit better — it seems slightly clearer than my initial review — but I may end up revisiting it later on to make a few more tweaks to it.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

German political economist Max Weber wrote extensively on what sociologists today would consider the ‘sociology of religion’, specifically regarding the effects of religious beliefs on social structures and the economic activities that developed in different societies. His best-known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, coined the phrase ‘Protestant work ethic’ to represent one particular connection he noticed between religion and economics and its effect on the historical development and evolution of capitalism.

Simply put, Weber suggests that some Protestant denominations, specifically those of the Calvinist or ‘Puritan’ school of thought, came to view economic success as an outward sign of an individual’s chances of salvation. Those who worked hard, saved much, spent little, and prospered financially seemed to be marked (to mortal eyes) as God’s chosen, and their example fed back into the religious teachings of their communities and continued the same interconnected cycle of religion and economics. These teachings, Weber theorises, contributed to the growth and development of capitalism in the economies of European countries like the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as in the American colonies — specifically, those of New England and the mid-Atlantic regions — where the more Puritan types of Protestant settlers made their homes. Weber also suggests that the religious basis of this school of thought and action gradually faded and blurred over time (as in Benjamin Franklin’s sayings, which emphasise thrift and hard work with less overt emphasis on the spiritual reasons for these practices), leaving behind only the more secular side of the drive towards personal financial prosperity.

Nonetheless, Weber takes care to state that this ethic was not the only factor in the development of the new economic order, nor still was it the most important factor. But he views the Reformation and the Protestant religion as one very specific influence on the modern system of political economics. As both a work of economic history (from one of the last political economists to emerge from the traditions of the German Historical School of economics) and a work on the sociology of religion (from one of the founders of this particular discipline), it is hardly surprisingly that historians, economists, sociologists, and religion students have all been able to find something of value in The Protestant Ethic over the year.

The edition I read was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic, which I found to be a very good English-language edition. At times, I almost appreciated his clear and concise footnotes (and the explanations they provided) more than the actual text of the book. My edition also has a superb introduction by Anthony Giddens, which goes into very interesting detail about the writing process that went into the creation of The Protestant Ethic and its relation to Weber’s other works on the sociology of religion. Since the notion of a ‘Protestant work-ethic’ has long since passed into common parlance, to the point where most people who use it would have a difficult time explaining what they actually mean by it, it’s certainly interesting to look at the work that coined the phrase and see precisely what the author originally intended by the concept.


Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

20 July 2008

Another book that I found a bit tricky to review in full. I think I’ve managed to summarise most of what I wanted to say, but I’d be happy to elaborate in comments if there’s something it seems I’ve left out.

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

The coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election, called after Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no-confidence — by one vote — on 28 March 1979. That election brought the Conservative Party back into power for the first time since 1974, and brought Margaret Thatcher into office as Britain’s first female prime minister. So much has changed since 1979 that it’s often difficult to pinpoint where and when those changes took place, which makes it equally difficult to fully study how those changes have shaped how we look at recent history. Political journalist Simon Jenkins (formerly of the Economist and the Times, now a Guardian columnist) has taken it upon himself to delve into this recent history and thoroughly examine Thatcherism, its theory and practice, and the permutations it has gone through in the years since the Lady was unceremoniously ousted from power in 1990.

In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins identifies not just one, but two Thatcher ‘revolutions’: the first involving an ideological shift from the ‘commanding heights’ of a mostly socialist economy to wholesale privatisation, and the second involving a massive push to centralise the government’s control over more and more aspects of British life. As he looks into these revolutions, Jenkins traces the line from Thatcher through John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, showing how Thatcher’s ‘sons’ have embraced (in varying ways, and with varying degrees of eagerness) the murky ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism. He also shows how Thatcherism has permeated the structure of Whitehall, especially in terms of the power that has built up in the Treasury in the past three decades. But most of all, he attempts to describe how the seemingly contradictory aims of privatisation and centralisation came together to drive the revolutions forward, in a manner that eventually made it difficult for their proponents to control.

At its strongest, Jenkins’ prose is clear and sharp and almost damning in its thoroughness, particularly in his overview of Tony Blair’s rise to power in the various Labour Party upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. (For those who were too young to remember the specifics as it happened, or paid very little attention to Labour’s persistent navel-gazing in Foot-Kinnock-Smith years, the book is worth reading for this section alone.) He does his best to examine and weigh the merits of many commonly held beliefs about Thatcher and her successors, but there are times when his analysis misses the mark. To take one example, he criticises Thatcher’s insistence that she owed very little loyalty to the Tory establishment because, in her words, ‘They had fought me unscrupulously all the way‘. Jenkins hints, quite openly, that this attitude smacks of ingratitude. After all, didn’t she owe many of her rapid advances in the party to her position as that rare and wonderous bird, the female Tory MP? There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in that approach, as Thatcher herself might be first to claim. She was all too aware of the fact that her sex was both her greatest weapon and her greatest weakness, and it is hardly surprising that she should have felt insulted that her advance in the party often had less to do with her political or intellectual merits and more to do with the need to have some sort of token woman on the front bench. And with so much attention paid to the similarities between Thatcher and her ‘sons’, especially Thatcher and Blair, it seems odd that Jenkins should have trouble explaining some of their differences in opinion over points like European integration.

Jenkins concludes his book by declaring that the only possible means of countering the worst excesses of the Thatcher revolutions is to encourage a third revolution to strike back at Thatcherite overcentralisation: ‘localism’, by which he means a devolution of power and responsibility from Whitehall to strengthen the local government institutions that were either weakened or abolished by the Thatcher revolutions. Jenkins heaps praise on the strength of local government as it appears in the United States, particularly the town-hall meetings held in the New England states, as well as on the strength of local civic life in France and the Scandinavian countries. Yet there is something about this third revolution that fails to sound convincing, perhaps because it veers too close to an outright political manifesto at times. As the lessons of Thatcher and Sons indicate all too well, one more all-encompassing solution that is guaranteed to fix Britain’s economic and social ills might not be what the public wants or the country needs. As this kind of manifesto, the book falls rather short — but as a work of very recent political history, it is a useful point of reference.


The Quiet American by Graham Greene

6 April 2008

Graham Greene is one of those authors whose works always hover somewhere in the background of my ‘to-read’ list but very seldom end up in my hands. Fortunately, a friend of mine had a copy of this particular book, and lent it to me after I’d expressed an interest in reading it. I had some good advice and feedback on this review from another friend — the third paragraph owes a good deal to her questions to me, and I’m quite grateful for the consideration.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

In the early 1950s, French colonial military forces are bogged down in an increasingly brutal war for control of French Indochina, and the possibility of a Viet Minh victory has begun to attract the attention of certain sectors of the American military and political establishment. But for Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged British journalist who has been living in Vietnam and reporting on the fighting between the Vietminh and the French, the grander political games are of relatively little interest. Fowler is mostly concerned with his ability to live as comfortable a life as possible in Saigon, filing the occasional piece of copy for his newspaper but preferring to spend his time smoking opium and enjoying the company of Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman he has taken as a lover. Fowler has no real ambitions (except to avoid being sent back to England and to the wife who will not give him the divorce he wants) and is more than content to take no part in the Indochina conflict, but his intentions go abruptly awry when he makes the acquaintance of Alden Pyle, a young Harvard-educated American of New England stock who arrives in Saigon as part of an American aid mission. Pyle, in contrast to many of his fellow countrymen in Saigon, is a ‘quiet American’: soft-spoken, idealistic, and earnestly interested in finding a solution to the war. He is convinced that a ‘Third Force’ will be able to form a legitimate government in Vietnam, routing both the colonial power and the left-leaning nationalists. Yet Fowler soon begins to suspect that Pyle’s presence in Vietnam has a sinister component to it, and his quasi-friendship with Pyle becomes all the more complicated when Phuong leaves him, seduced by the quiet American’s promise to marry her and take her back to America. As the violence in Saigon continues to escalate, Fowler begins to rethink his personal policy of not getting involved in the Indochina conflict — although he himself would have to admit that his motivations, in this instance, may have less than altruistic intentions.

The underlying plot of The Quiet American is drawn from Graham Greene’s experiences as a reporter in Saigon during the early 1950s and to a lesser extent on his time as a British intelligence agent in Sierra Leone in the 1940s. Upon publication, the book’s unflattering depiction of the Americans and American intervention in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict prompted some reviewers to denounce Greene as anti-American and to claim that he had used the character of Thomas Fowler as a mouthpiece for his own leftist sympathies. Though one might suspect that Greene took a bit of pleasure in using Fowler to skewer some of the more egregious behaviours and attitudes he had observed during his time in Saigon, a closer reading of the text suggests that Greene found Fowler an equally unsympathetic character, one among the many unsympathetic characters in the novel. The one character who even seems to come out as a mildly respectable figure is a very minor character: Phuong’s older sister, who clearly disapproves of both Fowler and Pyle as suitable partners but who sees in them a chance to provide her little sister with stability and protection, both of which are in short supply in war-torn Vietnam. Fowler is not necessarily more observant or ‘correct’ in his thinking than any of the other characters, though his standing as both the narrator and as a foil for Pyle’s radically different beliefs does give him a more authoritative (if not necessarily authorial) voice.

Most analyis of The Quiet American tends to focus on the broader moral questions related to Cold War politics, but other questions raised by the book deserve equal consideration. In particular, the character of Phuong raises several complicated points about gender issues and Orientalism, both topics that deserve greater consideration. The trouble with considering these issues is the fact that they are both so blatant, unsubtle almost to the point of caricature, that looking deeper into them is somehow made that much more difficult. One attempt to simplify the gender issues, for instance, would say that the women of The Quiet American seem to represent marked extremes of the virgin-whore spectrum, with Fowler’s wife and Phuong at opposite ends. Yet the very obviousness of the extent to which Phuong is objectified by both Fowler and Pyle (in different ways, but with the same result) and even by Phuong’s own sister makes it difficult to tell, I think, the extent to which it’s been done deliberately. Any thoughts on Orientalism would have to take into account the Chinese and other Vietnamese characters in the book, but again Phuong dominates this theme — as in Fowler’s description of how ‘[taking] an Annamite to bed with you is like taking a bird: they twitter and sing on your pillow‘. Attempting to extract Greene’s message on Orientalism and gender issues is further complicated by the Greene-as-Fowler question, and the problem of separating Fowler’s voice from Greene’s. Awareness may be a poor substitute for analysis, but on these issues awareness is at least likely to provide some semi-satisfactory answers.

In both a Cold War and post-Cold War context, The Quiet American tends to be brought up in connection with the idea of American naïveté regarding foreign affairs, a blend of good intentions and ignorance that happens to prove particularly lethal over the course of the book. Yet Greene’s novel also brings up the question of individual moral choices and the difficulties that accompany a professed belief in remaining uninvolved in a conflict. The Quiet American isn’t one of Greene’s ‘Catholic novels’ (which include The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair), but those who simply treat it as a piece of topical political commentary and downplay everything else sadly ignore the complex moral questions that provide much of the driving force of the story.