Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Katie Roiphe makes an interesting point in Slate magazine about Graham Greene's famous novel, "The Quiet American", and its recent film adaptation. The book, published in 1955, presents an American CIA agent in Vietnam through the eyes of a grizzled British expatriate who happens to be caught with him in a love triangle involving a beautiful local girl. The American character is portrayed as (in Roiphe's words) "almost every cliché of the naive American abroad that has ever amused a turtlenecked European", from "the maddening simplicity of his political beliefs to his embarrassing sexual earnestness."

Nevertheless, as Roiphe points out, the book, though vilified by Americans at the time, is far from resolutely anti-American: "Greene's exquisite condescension toward America is tinged, at every turn, with a kind of grudging appreciation.... Though the book's affection for America—its energy, its innocence, its belief in changing the rotting world—is couched in fierce criticism, the novel presents a much richer and more nuanced view of Americans abroad than it has been given credit for."

The more recent film, however, paints a much darker picture: beneath his sunny ignorance, the new "Quiet American" is eventually revealed to be a "ruthless CIA mastermind", as Roiphe puts it. This shift, she notes, mirrors the change in America's European image from then to now: once viewed as a vibrant-but-immature, strong-but-bumbling do-gooder, America is now more frequently depicted by Europeans as a kind of all-powerful, thuggishly ignorant, uniformly malevolent force.

What Roiphe never discusses is the source of this shift in European attitudes. It's hard, after all, to argue that America's behavior has changed for the worse; in fact, the America of 1955 was incomparably wealthier, more dominant, and more ruthless, with respect to the rest of the world, than the America of 2003. From Iran to Guatemala to Lebanon, 1950's America was asserting its might everywhere, toppling unfriendly regimes and installing its clients without a second thought. Cuba's open political effrontery--let alone Vietnam's brazen military challenge--was far in the future, and as yet virtually unthinkable. Domestically, Joseph McCarthy had only recently been discredited, and fierce anti-Communism was still the conventional stance at home and abroad. The civil rights movement had barely begun, and segregation was still being enforced throughout the South. The evolution of the "Quiet American" stereotype from the 1955 version to the current one is thus hard to attribute to any change in American society or geopolitics.

On the other hand, consider the contrast between (Western) Europe in 1955 and 2003. Fifty years ago, several European countries still had substantial colonial holdings, primarily in Africa. Britain was one of the world's three nuclear powers, and its (as well as France's) permanent veto-wielding membership on the UN security council seemed perfectly natural, given its colonial influence and independent global military reach. The Cold War, the overarching geopolitical conflict of the time, was being played out on European territory. The idea of the American Secretary of Defense suggesting that France and Germany might one day be eclipsed by Poland and Hungary (let alone that they already had been) would have seemed utterly absurd.

Given this striking contrast between Europe's stature in the world then and now, is it any wonder that the amused condescension of a previous era's confident Europe towards upstart America has since given way to bitter resentment and suspicion of American hegemony?

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