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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

August 7, 2012: Quiet but Dangerous

[This week we’re hosting a Chinese exchange student as part of a program at the boys’ elementary school, so I thought I’d return the favor and focus in the week’s series on interesting representations of Americans abroad. This is the second in the series. Your responses, and other suggestions and nominations, very welcome for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the controversial British novel that captures the too-often-minimized dark side of America abroad.
One of the toughest things about bridging the gap between academic and public American Studies scholarship is the fact that in many ways academics and the public can seem to have entirely different understandings of American history. Take 20th century foreign policy, for example. It seems to me that the popular narrative focuses almost entirely on the wars, and on the best intentions or goals behind them; while the less triumphant efforts in Korea and Vietnam can’t be elided from that narrative, they can for example be contextualized as part of the Cold War, and thus still linked to sympathetic and even inspiring ideals (the spread of democracy, containing communism, and so on). An academic narrative, on the other hand, might focus instead on the broader and much less easily idealized spread of US intervention and influence throughout the 20th century: highlighting Nicaragua alongside World War I, Guatemala alongside the Korean War, the Dominican Republic alongside Vietnam, and so on. In this analysis, while America might have had some good intentions around the world, it has for at least a century been all too willing to pursue any and all means (including much more shadowy and even illegal ones) to achieve its international objectives.
Obviously (to anybody who has read this blog or knows me, at least) I’m in favor not of revision so much as of addition, of expanding and complicating and strengthening our national and public narratives as much as possible, including as much of the history and story as we can, engaging as fully as we’re able with all the events and details. What we do with the expanded narratives, how we interpret and analyze them, what meaning we make of them for the present and future, are entirely and crucially open questions—but they can’t be answered in any meaningful way if they aren’t proceeded by that process of addition. Just as obviously, I hope and think that scholarly writing—such as, you know, on blogs—can contribute to that process. But the truth is that creative and artistic works can do so as well, and with an intimacy and immediacy and ability to speak to their audience that certainly distinguish them from even the most compelling works of scholarship. And when it comes to these questions of American foreign policy and interventions, of their best intentions and their far more complex and often much darker sides, I don’t know of any better or more revealing work than a British novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955).
Greene’s novel, based in large part on his experiences as a war correspondent in French Indochina in the prior few years, is many things: a somewhat conventional love triangle; a pseudo-autobiographical narrative of a middle-aged British war correspondent (Thomas Fowler); an interesting sociological depiction of early 1950s Vietnam. But its most famous and controversial element is the title character, an idealistic yet shady young American diplomat named Alden Pyle; Pyle seems genuinely to want the best for Vietnam, yet (spoilers ahead!) later in the novel is willing to explode a car bomb (and kill many civilians) in order to push the country in the direction he prefers. In Greene’s fictional world, the British journalist then conspires to assassinate the American diplomat, and perhaps helps save Vietnam from further such actions; in reality, on the other hand, America took over from France and Britain as the dominant international presence in Vietnam, and the next two decades are, well, history. And while Greene’s novel thus has a great deal to say about its particular setting and issues, those focal points can at the same time help us engage with more than a century of sometimes quiet but always significant American foreign interventions.
Next Americans abroad tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses or suggestions of works about Americans abroad?
8/7 Memory Day nominee: Ralph Bunche, the pioneering political scientist and mediator whose efforts in Palestine earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, one of many signal achievements in his inspiring life.

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