Historical Context

The Quiet American is set in the Indochina War in the early 1950s, at the time when French involvement in Vietnam was drawing to a close. After about 80 years of French colonisation, Vietnamese nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh and known as the Vietminh, went to war for independence in 1946. This first Indochina war lasted from 1946 until 1954. In 1950, the US began funding the French military effort as it was afraid that communism would spread throughout the region, although it wasn’t until 1954, when the French withdrew from Vietnam, that the Americans started to become openly involved in Vietnam. In 1954 the Vietminh regained control of much of the country, however internal conflicts and Western intervention continued to prevent Vietnam from unification. The situation worsened in the 1960s, which is when the Vietnam War began.

Fowler represents an anti-colonial point of view that wants to see Vietnam work out its problems without the intervention of European or American military forces and without the more dangerous ideals championed by people such as Pyle. Fowler asks the important question that hangs over this period of Vietnam’s history: why are Western ideals and ways of life being forced onto these people?

Timeline of Vietnamese History

15th Century

After centuries of Chinese control, Vietnam (known as Dai Viet) regains her independence although peace is not completely restored between the north and the south of the country for at least another century.

18th and early 19th Centuries

The Nguyen dynasty is overthrown by the Tay Son, but they are defeated in the early years of the 19 th century and the north and south parts of the country are united under the name, Vietnam.


The French had helped the new emperor, Nguyen Anh defeat the Tay Son and in return had hoped for some trading and missionary privileges in the united country. However, the new emperor was unwilling to give these and so the French entered upon a forceful occupation, seizing Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and establishing a colonial government in Vietnam.


At the beginning of World War Two, Japan gained permission from the French to assume effective control of French Indochina. The communist forces, the Vietminh began to build their forces to take over the country when the war ended.


When Japan surrendered to the Allies, the Vietminh declared an independent republic with its headquarters in Hanoi and under the Communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The French were unenthusiastic about such a situation and forced the communist forces from the south of the country.


Despite attempts to negotiate a settlement between the two parties, no solution could be found, and the French embarked on a war (The First Indo-Chinese War), which continued until 1954.


The Communist-led Vietminh defeated the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Vietnam was divided into two nations. Ho Chi Minh became president of North Vietnam, and Bao Dai became the leader of South Vietnam


Backed by North Vietnam, Communist guerrillas called the Vietcong began to rebel against the South Vietnamese government.


United States forces landed at Da Nang and began fighting in Vietnam.


The United States ended its military involvement in the Vietnam War.


To what extent should we expect a novelist to accurately report specific events - especially events that are crucial to the plot of his novel?

Further Reading


Vietnam War



Lucien Bodard. The Quicksand War: Prelude to Vietnam , Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1967.

Stanley Karnow. Vietnam: A History , Penguin Books, New York, 1984.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, ‘Troubling Quiet American ', in United Press International , 25 February 2003.

The Quiet American : An English website unit developed by George Marootus with additional material by VATE and contributions by Bianca de Vos and Sam Bryant. Website designed and constructed by George Marotous.
Contact.© English Faculty, Melbourne High School. 12 July 2010