The Reader’s Compass

Ian Buruma selects five books about the relationship between the East and West, including Graham Greene’s The Quiet American:

The Quiet American is much more about America than it is about Indo-China. The titular character is an idealistic young man in Indo-China, probably working for the CIA, whose well-meaning actions cause havoc. That is a sort of microcosm for what has actually happened in various parts of the world because of American intervention.

The Dutch and the British colonial enterprise was largely a commercial one, or in both cases it certainly began as a commercial enterprise, by traders. But the American attitude towards the non-Western world, from the late 19th century onwards, has been of a different kind. The Americans of course see themselves as being on the side of the anti-imperialists, as they fought an anti-colonial war themselves with Britain. So they couldn’t think of themselves as imperialists, even if they were – specifically in the Philipinnes, which they ran as their own colony. But there has been a strong sense of misguided idealism. This is something to do with the missionary spirit, and the Americans have been very active in that sense. But it’s also to do with the way in which Americans see themselves as having a mission to bring their concept of freedom, equality and democracy to the rest of the world. That’s rather akin to France, and both are Western democracies born from revolution.

Graham Greene should not be seen in the way that [Louis] Couperus and [E.M.] Forster were, of being fundamentally out of sympathy with colonialism. He was a Francophile. And in The Quiet American you get a very strong impression that the French, with their superior wisdom and their rich European sense of history, really understood the oriental mind, as people still put it in those days – whereas the brash, superficial Americans with their naïve idealism had no idea what they were doing, and caused great problems.