Nothing much came of the meetings. In Nicaragua, he passed on the recommendation of the new Panamanian president that the Sandinistas should request a United Nations force to police the border with Honduras. In Cuba, he chatted with Castro about wine and Russian roulette. But the experience prompted him to explain his posture toward direct political involvement
“There were many in the US, I was sure,” he wrote in Getting To Know the General, “who would consider that I was being ‘used,’ but that thought didn’t worry me in the least. They could say that I had been ‘used’ too in Cuba in Cuba in 1958 when I carried warm clothes to Santiago for Castro’s men in the Sierra Maesta and, though and Irish MP, a friend of mine, I had been able to question the Conservative government in the House of Commons on the sale of old jet planes to Batista, but I regretted nothing then, and I regret nothing now. I have never hesitated to be ‘used’ in a cause I believe in.”
I remarked that I was using Greene in the cause against US intervention in Panama. And he said, “Oh yes. I’m all for it.”
Talk turned to The Quiet American, Greene’s 1955 book, which was, in a sense, the first Vietnam novel. Greene had covered the French-Indochina war as a journalist over the course of four winters, from 1951 to 1955. Out of this came the character Pyle, the American secret agent with a plan to create “a third world force” that would promote “democracy” in Vietnam. Pyle was Greene’s prototypical American innocent abroad “who was determined to do good. Not to an individual person but to a country. A continent. A world.”
Pyle’s innocence, he wrote, “was the sort that always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
I can’t think of a novelist who has skewered the American sense of manifest destiny more effectively than Greene. If you said he was automatically anti-American you’d be right, but I wish presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and Dean Fusk and Robert Mcnamara had read The Quiet American instead of Walt Whitman Rostow before they launched their war in Southeast Asia.
What was it Americans really wanted in the third world and what made us send troops with such frequency? Greene answered with his own question: “Like every country, yours is run by politicians. Why do you have this particular type of politician in the presidency and lower?”
I asked about Americans he met in Indochina in the 1950’s.
Pyle “was probably based - not physically, because he was very different physically - on an American I met when I spent the night with a French colonel, Leroy, who was like a small king in his area in the south, and who was a real Vietnamese. And I drove back with this American and that’s what gave me the idea for the book, I think. I drove back with him to Saigon and he began to talk about how America should support a third force that would take the place of the Viet Minh and the government. I couldn’t quite make out what the third force would consist of. There were other guerrilla groups. But that could hardly make a government.”