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LISA MULLINS: President Bush might have been thinking about his legacy on August 22nd, 2007. On that day, Mr. Bush delivered a speech at The National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The speech essentially made the case for war, whether it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. It was a boilerplate speech with one peculiar exception that had commentators scratching their heads. The President cited a novel written more than a half century ago. The World's Patrick Cox reports.
PATRICK COX: It's not every day President Bush cites a British novelist to help explain the Vietnam war.
PRESIDENT BUSH: In 1955, long before the United States had entered the war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American.
COX: Mr. Bush described this piece of fiction, how it was set in Saigon, and how it had a character named Alden Pyle. Pyle was an undercover CIA agent. He was young and idealistic.
BUSH: 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.?
COX: Mr. Bush went on to refute what he believed was Graham Greene's argument, that US intervention in Vietnam and elsewhere was disastrous. But the President didn't say that Greene had got the character of Alden Pyle wrong, a character that seemed to be a personification of US foreign policy.
MICHAEL CAINE: And there was Alden Pyle, a face with no history, no problems, the face we all had once.
BRENDAN FRASER: ?Morning. I'm Alden Pyle.?
CAINE: I'm Thomas Fowler.
COX: That's Michael Caine in the 2002 movie adaptation of the novel. Pyle is played by Brendan Fraser. In the movie as in the novel, Pyle tries to intervene in the conflict in Vietnam, between French colonialists and communist insurgents. Pyle provides explosives to a General Tay who he believes will battle the communists more effectively. The Michael Caine character, a world-weary British journalist, tells Pyle that arming a corrupt militia leader is stupid.
CAINE: You're a fool if you think you can control General Tay.
FRASER: In a war, you use the tools you've got. And right now, he's the best we have.
CAINE: Yes. And in the meantime, even more people must die.
COX: And they do. General Tay's explosives are used to kill civilians ? not Alden Pyle's intention, but the outcome nonetheless. The Quiet American is just about Greg Mitchell's favorite novel. Mitchell is the Editor of ?Editor and Publisher?.
GREG MITCHELL: It's kind of hard to use that book given the way that things turned out in Vietnam and then given the way that things turned out in Iraq. You really don't want to cite it in any way, because it's going to make you look bad.
COX: Mitchell says it's possible Mr. Bush cited the novel just to hit back against the claims that the Americans were naive in going into Vietnam and by extension, Iraq. But, Mitchell says, there might be something else, too. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, some in the news media had likened President Bush to Alden Pyle. And so just maybe the President wanted to disarm his critics by saying, ?Yes. I am like that.?
MITCHELL: ?People may make fun of me, or it may seem simplistic, or people may think I'm a bit of a boob, but I have noble purpose and I'm out for democracy.? So he's sort of embracing Pyle as opposed to really rejecting the comparison.
COX: But that's a tough sell. In the book and the film, Alden Pyle's noble purpose is irrelevant. It's his actions that matter, as dozens of people lay dead in a Saigon square after the militia leader Pyle has armed uses those weapons.
CAINE: Tell me that you don't mean any of this. Tell me that you were only obeying orders. Or tell me that after what you saw in the Square, those children, who did nothing and hurt no one, tell me that you were so confused and horrified at how brutal and insane these actions are.
FRASER: Look, Thomas. What happened in the square today makes me sick. But in the long run, I'm going to save lives.
BUSH: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000 more or less.
COX: This was the President on December 12th, 2005. In the speech he gave that day, he argued that democracy was around the corner in Iraq and across the region.
BUSH: Today, the call of liberty is being heard in Baghdad and Basra and other Iraqi cities, and its sound is echoing across the broader Middle East. From Damascus to Tehran, people hear it and they know it means something. It means that the days of tyranny and terror are ending, and a new day of hope and freedom is dawning. Thank you for letting me come.
COX: President Bush, hoping he'll be seen as a different Alden Pyle, one whose actions turned out for the better. For The World, I'm Patrick Cox.