Colonialism & the Cold War

Two Maps - Timeline - Greene & George W. Bush

European colonialism and the Cold War lie behind the main political conflicts in The Quiet American (set in 1952) and The Year of Living Dangerously (set in 1965). World War II and the Cold War lie behind the main political conflicts in Slaughterhouse-Five (set between 1945 and 1968).

Two Maps

1) European Colonialism in Southeast Asia

Map by Rumilo Santiago, from Wikimedia Commons

Map by Rumilo Santiago, from Wikimedia Commons

The map shows European colonial holdings in Southeast Asia toward the end of the 19th century -- at which time the US declares war on Spain (indicated in yellow) and takes over the Philippines (1898). Filipinos fight against the Americans for several years, yet are more or less defeated by 1902. The U.S. finally recognizes Filipino independence in 1946.

The red indicates Britain, which also controls west from Burma (now Myanmar) all the way to Pakistan. Australia -- two northern parts of which can be seen at the bottom of the map -- is a colony of England until 1901, when it becomes a dominion of the British Empire. This is relevant to Year since the protagonist is a mix of English and Australian, and because British diplomacy and spying play key roles in the novel.

The blue indicates France, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The green indicates Portugal (in East Timor), and the orange indicates Holland -- in Indonesia, which becomes independent from 1945-49.

European colonialism is key to QA and YearVietnam in 1952 is in the process of kicking out the French; the President of Indonesia (Sukarno) is in 1965 making nationalistic speeches that are anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist -- in other words, anti-Dutch, anti-British, and anti-American.

2) The Cold War

The following map shows the Cold War from the spatial perspective of the North Atlantic. An analysis of this map can be found  here .

The following map shows the Cold War from the spatial perspective of the North Atlantic. An analysis of this map can be found here.

The Cold War is the major global conflict in the second half of the 20th century. Very simply put, it's the conflict between capitalism (American and 'Western') and communism (Russian and Chinese). Because the U.S. and Russia each have thousands of nuclear weapons, the logic of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) creates a situation where Cold War tension erupt in proxy wars. For instance, instead of fighting each other directly, Russia supplies communist North Vietnam with weapons, while the U.S. supplies capitalist South Vietnam with weapons and military personnel.


1776: Adam Smith argues in Wealth of Nations that wealth derives from open (yet not unregulated) free markets; in 1848 Marx and Engels publish Communism Manifesto, a pamphlet arguing for a workers revolution against the capitalist elite’s control over the means of production; Marx’ major critique of capitalism is Das Kapital (1867-94).

1917: After centuries of autocratic czarist control and a brief stab at parliamentary democracy, Russia enters a civil war, at the end of which Lenin and the communists gain control; after Lenin’s death, Stalin takes power for about 30 years in an extremely repressive version of communism.

1939-45: World War II. Russia fights with the Allies against Germany, but after WW II Europe and much of the world become divided -- between capitalist U.S., Japan, England, France, West Germany, etc. on one side, and communist Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Eastern Germany, etc. on the other side.

Slaughterhouse-five starts during the WW II Battle of the Bulge, is set in Dresden during the WW II Allied bombing, and features a German-American narrator who is critical of the virulent anti-communism of the Vietnam War period. 

1949: The communists under Mao take over mainland China

The Year of Living Dangerously: The threat of Chinese communist influence lies behind the rumoured arms shipment. The degree of President Sukarno's leaning toward Peking (Beijing) and the PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) is the main question Hamilton tries to figure out.

1950: Senator Joseph McCarthy begins a witch hunt against communists and 'communist sympathizers' in the U.S.

The Korean War (1950-53) divides communist North Korea from capitalist South Korea. 

VIETNAM: The French control Vietnam from approximately 1859 to WWII, at which time the Japanese take over briefly, after which the military struggle between the Vietnamese and the French ends with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. After Dien Bien Phu, the international Geneva conference stipulates a pan-Vietnam national election in 1956. Because the North under the communist Ho Chi Minh is very likely to win, the US backs the Southern leader Ngo Diem, who refuses to allow the vote to proceed. The Americans, unable to defeat the Vietnamese without annihilating them with nuclear bombs, eventually pull out from South Vietnam -- even while continuing to bomb deeper and further (even into Cambodia). North Vietnam takes Saigon in 1975 and renames it Ho Chi Minh City.  

QA is set just before Dien Bien Phu.

The following video (1962, narrated by Walter Cronkite) contains footage from the time period and explains the importance of Dien Bien Phu: 

In 1954 and 1973 the CIA helps to overthrow elected leftist governments in Guatemala and Chile. 

1956: Moscow crushes hopes for democracy in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. 

1959: Cuba becomes communist under Castro. In 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis highlights the potential for nuclear conflict when the U.S. discovers Russian missile installations in Cuba. 

Russian influence in The Year of Living Dangerously is seen in terms of the general threat of communism and in the character of Lena, who acts as a sort of spy-thriller Soviet agent.

1965 INDONESIA (the setting for The Year of Living Dangerously). The Dutch control Indonesia from the late 17th C to 1942. After a brief period of Japanese then Dutch control, the country declares independence in 1949. Sukarno is the first president; his rule from 1949 to 1966 shows improvements in health, education and nationalist pride, yet are countered by a lack of democracy and by poor economic performance. In 1965 his left wing anti-colonial rhetoric -- part of his self-styled 'Year of Living Dangerously' -- seems to have bring on a communist coup attempt, which in turn results in the rise of the right wing Suharto and in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists.

1980s: Under President Gorbachev, Russia enters a period of economic and political restructuring (perestroika) and social openness (glasnost), leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

1972-present: The U.S. and Russia sign SALT, SORT, and New START treaties aimed at limiting and monitoring nuclear weapons.


Greene & George W. Bush 

by Frank James, 2007/08/bushs_quiet_american_reference.html (August 22, 2007)

In his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City today, President Bush summoned up the Alden Pyle CIA agent character of Graham Greene's classic Vietnam novel The Quiet American, which is essentially a contemplation on the road to hell being paved with good intentions. I'm not sure he really wanted to go there or why his speechwriters would take him there. As Bush said:

In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

After America entered the Vietnam War, the Graham Greene argument gathered some steam. Matter of fact, many argued that if we pulled out, there would be no consequences for the Vietnamese people. In 1972, one anti-war senator put it this way: "What earthly difference does it make to nomadic tribes or uneducated subsistence farmers in Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos whether they have a military dictator, a royal prince or a socialist commissar in some distant capital that they've never seen and may never heard of?"

Bush seemed to be seizing on Greene's idea of U.S. naïveté on entering the war and trying to turn it around and apply it to those now calling for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

But Greene wrote his book about the way America bumbled into Vietnam, not how it left it.

By reminding people of Greene's book, Bush was inviting listeners to recall the mistakes his administration made in entering and prosecuting the Iraq War. Did he really want to do that?

Even more astonishing is that Bush's speechwriters included in the president's speech a mention of the very fictional character some of the president's critics have used for years to lambaste him for what they consider a major strategic blunder.

The thinking goes, Bush may have been well-intentioned like Pyle but, also like the Greene character, Bush's efforts are ultimately doomed.

Writing in Newsweek in November 2005, Christopher Dickey said:

For any of us who lived through the cold war, Bush’s attempts to equate the scattershot writings of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, with the challenges posed by Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet empire are just mind-boggling. In his Veteran’s Day address to troops at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania (Murtha’s home state), Bush started four paragraphs with the phrase “like the ideology of communism.” He longs transparently for the challenge of an Evil Empire, like the one his idol Ronald Reagan confronted, whether or not it exists.

This is nuts, but alas, not that unusual in the annals of American policy. Once again, President Bush’s lethally misguided good intentions are reminiscent of Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, about the early days of U.S. involvement in Vietnam: “He was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined—I learnt that very soon—to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. … When he saw a dead body he couldn’t even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy.”

Then there's this pre-war, 2003 interview in Salon with Phillip Noyce, director of the remake of The Quiet American who also saw similarities between the very real Bush and the fictional Pyle.

NOYCE: [...] Greene defines, through the caricature that he wrote of Alden Pyle [...] some aspects of American foreign policy that resulted from all of those factors coalescing. And, in doing so, he answered a lot of questions about the war against the Vietnamese that hadn't yet been asked. And in many ways, Alden Pyle is alive and well today. And that's either a mark of Greene's brilliance, or the fact that some things just never change. I think his thesis has become very important to us, given the current administration. In theory, you've got a White House full of Alden Pyles. [Laughter] And that's scary.

INTERVIEWER: Let's draw that analogy out a little further.

NOYCE: Well, George Bush is the ultimate Alden Pyle! He's hardly been out of the country, he's steeped in good intentions, believes he has the answer, is very naive, ultimately not that bright, and extremely dangerous. One only hopes that his advisors like Colin Powell are listened to carefully.

Earlier in the interview, Noyce responded to a question about whether The Quiet American was anti-American by calling Pyle a "dunderhead."

NOYCE: So no, I don't think it's anti-American, although at the time the book was written, Greene was accused of being anti-American, really for two reasons: one, Alden Pyle is a bit of a dunderhead. He's just a complete big bumbling idiot who's really not aware of any of the implications of what he's doing. I don't think that would have been true of a CIA operative at that time. And secondly, we have to remember the context that the book was written in, when Stalinism was still a valid and onerous enemy of America and of freedom everywhere. And a treatise like this might have been considered even by reasonable people to have been anti-American within the context of 1955.

Given all this negative Pyle baggage, why a White House speechwriter would include a reference to Greene and The Quiet American is dumbfounding.

Greene doesn’t really help the White House's argument. Indeed, most people would read Greene's novel as a refutation of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. And why draw attention to a fictional character who has been used to outline Bush's alleged flaws?