The Quiet Americans focuses on the lives of four engaging and adventure-seeking men, using the techniques of collective biography to tell a story at once sweeping in its scope and fascinating in its particulars ... The four-character structure seems to be especially appealing to chroniclers of the early CIA ... Anderson enjoys his characters and brings the reader in on their jokes ... Anderson is sympathetic to...the perceived need for expanded intelligence capabilities and the worries about what they might mean for democratic values ... A skillful and engaging writer, he manages to provide efficient historical context for these local-but-global situations, each one hopelessly complex in its own right, with its own combination of factional and territorial and cultural disputes. What ties them all together is the problem at the heart of the book: how the United States came to see its national interest at stake nearly everywhere in the world.
... enthralling ... takes its title from Greene’s classic — and shares much of its disillusionment ... Lying and stealing and invading, it should be said, make for captivating reading, especially in the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Anderson. All the characters of The Quiet Americans could have stepped from a film set — and some of them actually had ... for all their ill-advised or bungled covert ops — which included coups from Tehran to Guatemala City — it is impossible not to be a little swept up in the spectacle of this bygone era when intrepid individuals actually shaped history, even if it was often for the worse ... Some of the people in this book will be familiar to students of C.I.A. and Cold War history. The story of Wisner, the head of the early intelligence apparatus’s covert action arm, has been well told many times before. Anderson is at his best, however, when he plows fresh ground ... Anderson’s book is a period piece, covering the years 1944 to 1956 — but the climate of fear and intolerance that it describes in Washington also feels uncomfortably timely ... Anderson’s critique raises the question: If not Eisenhower’s particular brand of containment, then what? Most of the time the book leaves this unanswered ... Greene liked to quote Chekhov’s aphorism that a writer is 'not a confectioner, not a cosmetician, not an entertainer.' Anderson’s narrative is certainly entertaining, but he is no confectioner, and the dark, poignant tale he tells is far the better for it.
...what situates his book in the wave of CIA revisionism is his contention that the agency’s operations branch was not full of cowboys and adventurers willing to throw any kind of spaghetti at the wall but was rather led by agents and administrators who were, for the most part, cautious and judicious, dubious about the cockamamie schemes proposed to them by people who would never have to get their own hands dirty ... this wave of scholarly and popular revisionism about the agency is welcome, particularly in dispelling simplistic or conspiratorial thinking. But it may run the risk of glossing over the magnitude of the political, economic, and human tragedies the CIA caused or exacerbated. More importantly, this makeover leaves us vulnerable to future adventurism and blunders from an agency with an appalling track record ... Anderson calls his book a tragedy in three acts, and it gets positively cinematic near the end, as the scenes get shorter, turning into jump cuts. It’s undeniably well-told and vivid, and the personal reflections of people like Sichel give it a granular, first-person quality lacking in other critical histories of the agency, without turning it into a pro-CIA screed.