1956 March 11

Author Graham Greene Skewers CIA Mentality; U.S. Reviewers Denounce the Novel


In the novel The Quiet American, British author Graham Greene skewered the mentality of covert CIA operations around the world. The novel is set in Indochina before the end of French colonial rule in 1954. A CIA agent embodies the combination of idealism, to build democracy in Third World countries, with sinister covert action, which in the novel results in a bombing in a public square that kills dozens of people, including women and children. The atrocity spurs a previously apolitical British journalist to investigate and expose those behind the bombing, which turn out to be Americans, led by a particularly naïve figure.

When published in the U.S. in 1956, The Quiet American was savagely attacked by book critics because of its criticisms of American CIA activity and his failure to take a strong anti-Communist position. A New York Times review published on this day accused Greene of “hatred” of Americans, portraying the U.S. as “a crassly materialistic and ‘innocent’ nation with no understanding of other peoples.” To the contrary, Greene portrays the U.S. as anything but innocent in its policies overseas. Nor does he portray Americans as materialistic, since a central point in the novel is how naively idealistic the key American figure, the covert CIA agent, really is.

The Times’ review was an excellent example of the culture of the Cold War period, in which no criticism of American foreign policy was tolerated. The reviewer, in this case a respected historian, accused the novel of having an “ideological” point of view. But in fact, the reviewer was the ideological one, aggressively defending American foreign policy.

The Quiet American is astonishingly prophetic. Not only does it anticipate the disaster of the Vietnam War for the U.S. but also the disaster in the 2000 Iraq War. Greene also captured the true CIA mentality in his book, Our Man in Havana (1958), in which an utter disaster is covered up by proclaiming it a great success and honoring and promoting everyone responsible for it.

Hollywood retaliated against Greene with a movie version of The Quiet American (1958) that completely reversed Greene’s point of view, was belligerently anti-Communist, and is worth watching only as a Cold War curiosity. The more recent 2002 movie version is faithful to the novel and well worth watching.


Read the great novels: Graham Greene, The Quite American (1956) and Our Man in Havana (1958)

Watch a documentary on Graham Greene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOpurufruQ

Learn more about Graham Greene at Greeneland: http://greeneland.tripod.com/

Watch the movie: Our Man in Havana (2002)

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