The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the CIA’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.