The Ugly American

views updated

The Ugly American
William J. Lederer
Eugene Burdick

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Ugly American, by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, was published in 1958. Set for the most part in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, with excursions to Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Burma, the novel takes place in the 1950s, during the cold war, when the United States and the Soviet Union struggled for supremacy across the globe. Sarkhan is presented as a country of about 18 to 20 million people with a rather shaky government that fears a possible coup attempt by the communists, who are powerful and well-organized. Sarkhan tries to stay independent of the two superpowers and as a result receives aid from both. But too often, as the authors make clear in this fictional story that they claim is based on fact, U.S. aid does not meet the needs of the local people. Moreover, the American diplomats who serve in Sarkhan and throughout Southeast Asia do not for the most part have any knowledge of the country's language or culture, so they are not effective in winning the people to their side. By contrast, Russian diplomats are well trained. The authors fear that unless the United States adopts a different strategy and trains its foreign service personnel better, it may end up losing the cold war.

The Ugly American was a bestseller and had an impact on the politics of the day, being read reportedly by President Dwight Eisenhower and many U.S. senators. It helped to create an atmosphere in which the United States reaffirmed and reshaped its commitment to defending freedom against communism. This new commitment was apparent during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, from 1961 to 1963. Kennedy fostered new methods of fighting communism in South Vietnam, developed the U.S. Special Forces, and founded the Peace Corps.

Author Biography

William J. Lederer was born on March 31, 1912, in New York City, the son of William Julius and Paula (Franken) Lederer. He attended the United States Naval Academy, from which he graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1936. Lederer's main career was in the U.S. Navy, from 1930 to 1958. He retired as captain. During wartime he served in Asia and with the Atlantic Fleet. From 1950 to 1958 he was special assistant to the commander-in-chief, Pacific.

After Lederer retired from the navy, he went into journalism, becoming Far East correspondent for Reader's Digest, from 1958 to 1963. He was author-in-residence at Harvard University, 1966–1967.

Lederer has written many books, including novels, short stories, and nonfiction on a variety of topics, during his long career. His best known work is The Ugly American (1958; with Burdick). His other novels include Sarkhan (1965; with Burdick) and I, Giorghos (1984). Ensign O'Toole and Me (1957) is a humorous look at life in the navy; A Nation of Sheep (1961) discusses how the United States could be more successful in its foreign aid projects. The Mirages of Marriage (1968; with Don D. Jackson) is an analysis of marriage in the United States. Other works include The Last Cruise (1950), All the Ships at Sea (1950), Timothy's Song (1965), The Story of Pink Jade (1966), Our Own Worst Enemy (1968; published in England in 1969 as The Anguished American), and A Happy Book of Christmas Stories (1981).

Lederer married Ethel Victoria Hackett in 1940. They were divorced in 1965. In the same year, Lederer married Corinne Edwards Lewis. They divorced in 1976. Lederer has three sons.

Eugene (Leonard) Burdick was born in Sheldon, Iowa, on December 12, 1918. He was the son of Jack Dale, a painter, and Marie (Ellerbroek) Burdick.

Burdick gained a bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University in 1942. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy and became lieutenant commander. He was awarded the Navy/Marine Corps Cross. After the war he studied in England and received a Ph.D. from Magdalen College, Oxford University, in 1950.

Burdick became assistant professor and then professor of political theory at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1950 to 1965. In addition to his scholarly writings, which included a book on voting behavior, Burdick wrote novels. His first was The Ninth Wave (1956), about a California politician who exploits fear and hatred. This work was followed in 1958 by The Ugly American, which he co-wrote with William J. Lederer. The book became a bestseller. Burdick wrote several more novels: Fail-Safe (1962; with Harvey Wheeler) is about the accidental triggering of a nuclear war; The 480, about the selection of a Republican presidential candidate, followed in 1964. In 1965, Burdick collaborated again with Lederer on another novel set in southeast Asia, Sarkhan (1965), which was published as The Deceptive American in 1977. Burdick's final work was the novel Nina's Book (1965).

Burdick married Carol Warren in 1942; the couple had three children. Burdick died on July 26, 1965.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1-4

The Ugly American begins in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, in the office of U.S. ambassador Louis Sears. Sears is upset because a hostile cartoon of him has appeared in the local newspaper.

Meanwhile an American named John Colvin is recovering in the hospital after being beaten up. Colvin has been trying to help the Sarkhanese learn how to use milk and its by-products, and he set up a milk-distribution center outside the capital city, Haidho. But he is betrayed by an old friend named Deong who has turned communist. Deong tells a group of Sarkhanese women that Colvin is trying to put a drug in the milk that would enable him to take advantage of Sarkhanese girls. Colvin denies it, but the women beat him. He is left unconscious on the steps of the U.S. Embassy.

The ambassador complains about the cartoon to Prince Ngong, the head of the Sarkhanese government. Ngong fears that a large U.S. loan may be in jeopardy and instructs the newspaper to print a flattering cartoon and editorial about Sears.

The second story introduces Ambassador Sears's Russian counterpart, Louis Krupitzyn. Unlike Sears, Krupitzyn has had long preparation for his position. He can read and write Sarkhanese and understands Sarkhanese culture. He is also cunning. During a famine, the Americans send 14,000 tons of rice. However, Krupitzyn arranges for every bag of American rice to have stenciled on it in Sarkhanese that it is a gift from Russia. The Americans protest, but the Sarkhanese continue to believe the Russians were their benefactors.

The next character to be introduced is Father Finian, a Catholic priest from Boston who has been assigned to Burma. A fierce anti-communist, Finian recruits nine local Catholics who also want to fight communism. They publish a small anti-communist newspaper and then trick a Russian expert by secretly recording and then broadcasting disparaging things he has said about the local peasants. It then becomes clear to the local people that the Russians do not have their best interests at heart.

Chapters 4-10

Joe Bing, a flamboyant American public relations officer in the Southeast Asian city of Serkya, gives a presentation in Washington about employment opportunities abroad. He paints a rosy picture of luxury travel, an excellent salary, low expenses, with no need to learn a foreign language. A young American, Marie McIntosh, is recruited. She writes home about the pleasant and luxurious life she now lives in Sarkhan.

Sears makes another diplomatic blunder over a rumor that the United States is about to evict the Sarkhanese Air Force from land lent to them. But Sears soon gets what he wants when he is recalled to the United States to take up a federal judgeship. The new ambassador is Gilbert MacWhite, a professional foreign-service officer. Unlike Sears, MacWhite learns the local language. MacWhite is eager to combat communist influence, but he makes the mistake of trusting his old Chinese servants, Donald and Roger. Li Pang, a visitor and friend of MacWhite, interrogates Donald and tricks him into revealing that he has been passing information to the communists. MacWhite tries to learn from his mistake by traveling in the Philippines and Vietnam so he can understand how to combat communism. In the Philippines, he hears about Colonel Hillandale, an American who embraces local culture and is known as "The Ragtime Kid" because of his love for jazz and his ability to play the harmonica.

Chapters 11-15

Major James Wolchek of the U.S. Army visits Major Monet, a Frenchman, in Hanoi, Vietnam. The French are losing the battle against communist in surgents; at Dien Bien Phu, French forces are encircled. Monet invites Wolchek to parachute with French troops into the besieged fortress as a foreign observer, but before they can do this Dien Bien Phu falls to the communists. In subsequent skirmishes with the enemy, Monet and his legionnaires are defeated again and again. Wolchek explains to Monet and MacWhite that the communists are winning because they are practicing a new kind of warfare. As the communists press their assault on Hanoi, Wolchek and Monet are slightly wounded. MacWhite acquires a pamphlet by Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung that explains his concept of guerilla warfare. Monet uses these new tactics and wins a skirmish with the communists. But then the French evacuate Hanoi and a communist army enters the city.

In Cambodia, Tom Knox, an American, helps the local people improve their chicken and egg yield and is greeted with enthusiasm by villagers wherever he goes. At a conference that appraises the results of U.S. aid to Cambodia, Tom makes practical proposals for further increasing chicken and egg yield, but he is overruled because the Americans want to develop mechanized farms. When French government diplomats and a wealthy Cambodian landowner provide Tom with a series of luxury trips, he forgets all about his good idea.

In Sarkhan, Colonel Hillandale attends a dinner party given by the Philippine ambassador. Hillandale entertains everyone by giving palm readings, which is a respected practice in the country. He is given an opportunity to read the palm of the king, but the appointment is sabotaged by the hostility and incompetence of George Swift, MacWhite's deputy. The king is insulted, and MacWhite gets Swift transferred.

Chapters 16-18

In Hong Kong, a meeting of the Special Armament section of the Asia conference is discussing the prospect of placing U.S. nuclear weapons on Asian soil. The Asians become suspicious when the Americans refuse to discuss classified material about the safety of the weapons. Solomon Asch, leader of the American delegation, feels let down by Captain Boning, one of his negotiators, who gives the impression he is deliberately holding back information. As a result, the Asians decide to oppose the installation of nuclear weapons on their soil.

In Vietnam, Homer Atkins, a retired engineer, meets with Vietnamese, French, and U.S. officials. He has been asked to give advice on building dams and military roads, but he tells the Vietnamese that they should start with smaller projects they can do for themselves, such as building brick factories and a model canning plant. MacWhite is impressed by Atkins and invites him to Sarkhan, where Atkins teams up with a local man named Jeepo to design a water pump. They go into business together, hiring workers who manufacture the pumps and then sell them.

Media Adaptations

  • The Ugly American was made into a film in 1962, produced and directed by George Englund and starring Marlon Brando as Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite. For his work on the film, Englund was nominated for a Golden Globe award.

Chapters 19-21

Atkins's wife Emma notices that all the old people in the village of Chang 'Dong have badly bent backs. She realizes this pervasive condition is due to the short-handled brooms they use for sweeping, so she invents a long-handled broom using sturdy reeds as a handle. The local people soon learn to make their own long-handled brooms.

Jonathan Brown, a tough U.S. senator, visits Vietnam to find out for himself what use is made of U.S. aid. He wants to meet local people, but the U.S. Embassy staff tries to control the information he has access to. On a visit to an ammunition depot, Brown questions a Vietnamese man, but Dr. Barre, the interpreter, alters the man's answer in a way that he thinks will please the senator. The same thing happens when Brown visits Hanoi and tries to find out what the real military situation is there. As he goes home to the United States he realizes that he has talked only to military men and government officials, although later on the Senate floor he claims that he understands the situation in Vietnam because he has been there.

MacWhite is rebuked by the secretary of state for his testimony to a Senate committee about the situation in Southeast Asia. MacWhite replies that he fears the Russians will win the cold war unless the Americans act in the real interests of the countries whose friendship they need, not in the interest of propaganda. He makes many practical suggestions, all of which are rejected. He resigns as ambassador, and the State Department decides to replace him with Joe Bing.

The Ugly American ends with a "Factual Epilogue" in which the authors explain that although their stories are fiction, they are based on fact.



Apache is a Vietnamese man who fights for the French. He is captured by the communists who cut out his vocal cords.

Solomon Asch

Solomon Asch is the head of the American delegation to the Special Armament section of the Asia Conference. He is a tough and experienced negotiator.

Emma Atkins

Emma Atkins, the wife of Homer Atkins, is a simple, straightforward woman who in her own way is as physically ugly as her husband. But also, like her husband, she has a creative and inventive mind and, in fact, supplies him with some of his best ideas. She also develops her own ideas, managing to invent a long-handled broom that the old people in Sarkhan can use in place of their short-handled brooms, which are too hard on their backs.

Homer Atkins

Homer Atkins, the "ugly American" of the book's title, is ugly in physical appearance, not in character. A tough, blunt-spoken man, he is a highly successful retired engineer who is worth $3 million. The U.S. government consults him about building dams and military roads in Southeast Asia, but he insists that what is really needed are things that the local people can manufacture and use for themselves. His advice is ignored, but Ambassador MacWhite is impressed by him and invites him to Sarkhan. In that country, Atkins, in collaboration with a Sarkhanese man named Jeepo, invents a water pump that proves to be an immense labor-saving device for the local people. Atkins sets himself up in business with Jeepo and twelve local workers, and his enterprise is a big success.

Dr. Hans Barre

Dr. Hans Barre is a naturalized American citizen who specializes in Oriental languages. He is on temporary duty at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam and acts as interpreter during the visit of Senator Brown.

Joe Bing

Joe Bing, an American information officer living in Burma, is a gregarious, sociable man who is very popular amongst other Americans and Westerners, but he is also the kind of American Characters disliked by Asians, since he is loud and ostentatious in his manner and does not mix with the local people. Asians are not invited to his diplomatic parties, at which there is always plenty of alcohol. He appears to think that representing the United States abroad is more about having a good time than in promoting U.S. national interests. When Gilbert MacWhite resigns as ambassador to Sarkhan, Bing is nominated by the State Department to take his place.

Captain Boning

Captain Boning is a Navy officer who takes part in the negotiations in Hong Kong about the placing of U.S. nuclear weapons on Asian soil. During the time of the conference, Boning has an affair with a local Chinese woman who is also a communist agent, and he spends most of his nights with her. Thus he is not alert during the conference sessions, and he gives hesitant answers to questions from the Asian delegates, which makes them think that the Americans are hiding something.

Senator Jonathan Brown

Senator Jonathan Brown, a tough and experienced U.S. senator, started his career as a corrupt man who granted favors to corporations in exchange for financial contributions to his campaign. But once in the Senate he changed his ways and became a man of integrity. As a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, he visits many countries in Southeast Asia to see for himself what is being done with U.S. aid. But in Vietnam his desire to meet and talk to the local people is thwarted by the plans of the embassy staff, who ensure that he talks only to military and government officials. The result is that he never does find out the real situation, but he fails to realize this.

John Colvin

John Colvin is an American who was an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent in Sarkhan during World War II. After the war he ran his family's business in Wisconsin, buying bulk milk and drying it into powder. In 1952, he returns to Sarkhan because he hears that the country is leaning towards communism, and he is convinced the situation is being handled badly. He tries to help the local people by selling them milk made from powder. But he runs afoul of a former friend of his named Deong, who has turned communist. Deong tricks some local women into believing that Colvin is trying to put an aphrodisiac in the milk so that he can seduce local girls. The women beat him up, almost killing him. Colvin returns to the United States but later goes back to Sarkhan and succeeds in his milk enterprise.

Jim Davis

Jim Davis, a black man from Los Angeles, is serving in the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam. He is captured by the Vietnamese, who gouge out one of his eyes.


Deong is a Sarkhanese communist who betrays his old friend John Colvin.


Donald is an old Chinese servant who has given many years of loyal service to the U.S. Embassy in Sarkhan. He does not read or write and knows almost no English. Ambassador MacWhite trusts Donald completely. However, it transpires that Donald is not quite what he appears. Through interrogation, Li Pang discovers that Donald has been passing along information from the embassy to the communists.

Father Finian

Father Finian is a Catholic priest from Boston who is assigned to Burma. A Jesuit, Father Finian has a fine intellect and is a scholar, but he is also tough-minded and practical, and he relishes the challenge of combating communism in Burma. He regards communism as an evil ideology. Father Finian makes a point of learning the local language and eating the local food, even though at first he finds it very hard to digest. He recruits nine local men who are also anticommunist Catholics and asks them what strategy they want to pursue. He does not make the mistake of imposing his own views but encourages the men to make their own decisions. Eventually, Father Finian establishes a four-year college in Burma, at which the curriculum includes study of the writings of both communist and Western leaders.

Ambassador Arthur Alexander Gray

Arthur Alexander Gray is the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. When Senator Jonathan Brown visits, Gray makes extensive preparations with his staff to ensure that the senator only has access to the information the embassy thinks he ought to have.

Colonel Edwin B. Hillandale

Edwin B. Hillandale, a U.S. Air Force colonel, was sent to Manila, in the Philippines, in 1952. He is extremely popular with the local people because he embraces their culture. His love of jazz and his skill with the harmonica earn him the nickname The Ragtime Kid. He is not so popular, however, with the officials at the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. But Ambassador MacWhite recognizes Hillandale's worth and invites him to Sarkhan. Hillandale's knowledge of palmistry, which is valued in the local culture, stands him in good stead at a dinner party given by the Philippine ambassador.

Thomas Elmer Knox

Thomas Elmer Knox, an American farmer from Iowa who lives for a while in Cambodia, knows more Cambodians than any other Westerner, and he loves Cambodian food. In Iowa, he raises chickens, and he is full of ideas about how the local people can improve the quality of their chickens and increase the chickens' egg yield. But when he puts his ideas to American and Cambodian agricultural experts, as well as some French officials, he gets nowhere. The officials are only interested in developing canals and mechanized farms. Tom is angry at their refusal to listen to him, but after some high-level diplomats and businessmen treat him to luxury trips to Paris, Indonesia, and India, he forgets all about his good ideas for Cambodia.

Louis Krupitzyn

Louis Krupitzyn is the Russian ambassador to Sarkhan. Unlike his American counterpart, Ambassador Sears, Krupitzyn is well prepared for his position. He began his diplomatic career in 1935 and has been stationed in the United States and China. When he becomes ambassador to Sarkhan he learns the language, immerses himself in the local culture, and attends lectures on Buddhist religion and practice. He outwits the Americans when he tricks the Sarkhanese into believing that a shipment of U.S. rice, sent to relieve a famine, in fact came from Russia.


Jeepo is a Sarkhanese man who has a talent for working with machinery. He gets on well with Homer Atkins, and the two of them develop a water pump for raising water economically and efficiently. They try various versions of the pump, and it is Jeepo who points out their shortcomings to Atkins. He is not intimidated by working with an American, and the two men argue as equals. It is Jeepo who comes up with the final version of the water pump, solving a problem that had eluded Atkins.

Ruth Jyoti

Ruth Jyoti, editor and publisher of one of the best independent newspapers in Southeast Asia, is invited to the United States, and at a dinner for the press in San Francisco she gives a talk on how and why Americans in Asia are not effective.

Marie MacIntosh

Marie MacIntosh, a twenty-eight-year-old American, is impressed by a talk given by Joe Bing and applies for a position in government service in Sarkhan. She writes back to her friends about her new, rather luxurious and easy life.

Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite

Gilbert MacWhite replaces Louis Sears as U.S. ambassador to Sarkhan in 1954. Quite unlike his predecessor, MacWhite is a professional foreign service officer, and he has a long diplomatic career already behind him, even though he is only in his mid-forties. MacWhite has read the communist writings of Karl Marx and Lenin and is a recognized expert on Soviet theory and practice. He learns Sarkhanese and reads books about Sarkhanese history and politics. He is courageous, efficient, and imaginative, and has an ability to recognize and learn from his mistakes, an ability his predecessor conspicuously lacked. He travels extensively in Southeast Asia because he is determined to learn everything he can about how to defeat communism. He has good judgment and invites some of the best American talent, such as Homer Atkins and Colonel Hillandale, to visit Sarkhan and put their ideas into practice. When he is well established in his job, he writes to the U.S. secretary of state asking permission to make some urgent and practical changes in the U.S. diplomatic mission to Sarkhan. He is turned down, and as a result he resigns as ambassador.

Bob Maile

Bob Maile is an official in the United States Information Service (USIS) stationed in Setkya, a city in Southeast Asia. According to Ruth Jyoti, Maile has done more than anyone else to raise U.S. prestige in the area. He mixes easily with the local people and everyone trusts him. He even sends his children to an Asian school, which is very unusual for an American.

Major Monet

Major Monet is a French soldier in Hanoi, in charge of a company of French foreign legion. He comes from a long line of soldiers in his family, and he understands the art of war, at least in its traditional form. But his legionnaires keep losing their skirmishes with the communists. It is left to Major Wolchek to point out to Monet that he needs to study the works of Mao Tse-tung, since Mao describes a new kind of warfare. As a proud Frenchman, Monet is reluctant at first, but he later realizes the value in Wolchek's advice.

Prince Ngong

Prince Ngong is a distinguished Sarkhanese poet and drama critic and member of the government. He tells the Sarkhanese cabinet that they must do something to remedy the offense that Ambassador Sears has taken from a hostile cartoon in one of the local newspapers.

Li Pang

Li Pang, a businessman and soldier, is a representative of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader. He is also an old friend of Ambassador MacWhite. While visiting MacWhite, Li Pang interrogates Donald, the old Chinese servant, and finds that he has been passing on information to the communists.


Roger is one of the two old Chinese servants at the U.S. Embassy in Sarkhan.

Ambassador Louis Sears

Louis Sears is the U.S. ambassador to Sarkhan. Known as "Lucky" because of the good fortune he enjoyed during his long political career, he is a former U.S. senator. He is only in Sarkhan for two years while he waits for a vacancy to arise for a federal judgeship. While he is ambassador, Sears does not bother to learn the Sarkhanese language, nor does he make any attempt to mingle with the Sarkhanese people, so he has little idea of what is really going on in the country. He spends too much of his time attending cocktail parties and talking to other diplomats. Sears is presented as an example of all that is wrong with U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia. The Russians regard him as so incompetent that they are eager for him to remain in his position, since his presence helps them so much. Sears eventually gets his judgeship and is replaced as ambassador by Gilbert MacWhite.

U Maung Swe

U Maung Swe is the best known journalist in Burma. In 1954, at dinner in honor of Ambassador MacWhite, U Maung Swe explains in detail why U.S. prestige in Southeast Asia is low.

George Swift

George Swift is the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sarkhan. He is responsible for sabotaging Colonel Hillandale's appointment to read the palm of the king of Sarkhan. Hillandale is so angry he punches him, and Ambassador MacWhite, sensing that Swift has no understanding of the local culture, arranges for him to be transferred.

Major James Wolchek

Major James Wolchek, whose nickname is "Tex" because he comes from Texas, is a combat veteran of World War II and the Korean War. He was wounded in both wars. In 1954, he is assigned as a foreign observer to the French foreign legion in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he meets Major Monet. After the French suffer a series of defeats at the hands of the communists, Tex realizes that their failure results from their fighting war by the old rules, while the communists follow the new rules of war written by Mao Tse-tung. Tex explains Mao's battle tactics, and, as a result, Monet and the legionnaires finally win an encounter with the communists, during which Tex is slightly wounded.


American Arrogance and Failure in Southeast Asia

The purpose of the novel is to point out the ways in which the United States is failing in its attempt to defeat communism in Southeast Asia and to explain the alternative methods that must be adopted in order to succeed. In brief, the United States is in danger of losing the cold war in this part of the world because it relies on a complacent political and bureaucratic establishment that fails to understand the local culture and relies on large-scale foreign aid programs that do not address the real needs of the people. Each story in the book illustrates some aspect of this or related themes, showing an American who is either part of the problem or part of the solution.

First among those who put U.S. enterprise at risk is Ambassador Sears. Sears has no training for his position, which is handed to him by the leader of the Democratic Party merely out of political loyalty. Sears knows nothing about the country to which he is assigned and makes little attempt to find out. He spends his time at social events, entertaining visiting American politicians and military men, and never meets any of the local people. He also forbids any of his staff to go into the local villages. In spite of the fact that he is despised by the locals and outwitted by the Russians, he believes that his relations with the Sarkhanese "couldn't be better." He has no grasp of the seriousness of the communist threat in Sarkhan, and there is an unconscious irony in his letter to the U.S. State Department in which he dismisses the prospect of a communist takeover: "I get around at one hell of a lot of social functions, and official dinners out here, and I've never met a native Communist yet."

Similarly Joe Bing, the information officer, thinks the situation is positive. Americans in the region regard him as a charming man who knows everyone in Setkya, but he is viewed very differently by the locals. Ruth Jyoti says of him that far from knowing everyone, he acknowledges only those who are "European, Caucasian, western-educated, and decently dressed." Her description of him suggests the image of the "ugly American" that since the book's publication has come to symbolize the worst aspects of American behavior abroad: "He drives a big red convertible, which he slews around corners and over sidewalks. And he's got exactly the kind of loud silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear."

When Bing gives a lecture in Washington, D.C., he reveals a flaw in American recruiting strategies for foreign service. He emphasizes the easiness of the life—the perks of free housing and the availability of servants—not the challenges. Americans are not even required to learn the language of the country to which they are sent. Bing's statement reveals his ethnocentric view of the world: "Translators are a dime a dozen overseas. And besides, it's better to make the Asians learn English. Helps them too." The result of all this is that the Americans attract only mediocre people into foreign service.

Since few Americans bother to learn the local language most Americans end up staying in the cities, talking to others just like them—American and European diplomats, and cultured, English-speaking members of the Asian elite. This language insulation contrasts with the Russian diplomats, who all learn to speak the local language and understand the culture. The Russians go out to the countryside and the villages and work hard to get the local people on their side. They are better at propaganda and "dirty tricks" than the Americans, as is shown when they convince the Sarkhanese that the rice delivered from the United States was in fact from Russia.

Topics for Further Study

  • What was the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, and how did it lead to the Vietnam War? What are the lessons to be derived from the Vietnam War? In what ways does the early 2000s conflict in Iraq resemble the Vietnam War and in what ways does it not? Give a classroom presentation in which you compare and contrast the Vietnam War and the conflict in Iraq.
  • As of 2005, what is the U.S. mission in the world, given that the cold war is over? Does the United States have a right to expect other countries to adopt democracy? Is democracy always the best form of government? Explain your position with examples.
  • In terms of an enemy that threatens the United States, what is the difference between international terrorism by a group such as Al Qaeda, and Soviet communism? How does the fight against terrorism resemble the fight against communism, and how does it differ? What is the best way to defeat international terrorism?
  • Research the cold war and discuss the various reasons that have been advanced to explain the fact that the United States won and the Soviet Union lost. What were the roles played by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev? Write a compare and contrast paper on Reagan and Gorbachev.
  • Select any international problem and write a short story, in the style of The Ugly American, illustrating two different ways, one foolish and counter-productive and the other wise and effective, in which the problem might be approached or solved. The problem can be anything from global warming to nuclear proliferation or the AIDS epidemic.

How to Win the Cold War in Southeast Asia

The success of the communists and the failure of the bureaucratic Americans is countered by those American characters who understand and respect the local people and their culture. Father Finian, for example, is the inspiration behind a small-scale black propaganda campaign in Burma, in which he helps a group of local men to publish a fake communist newspaper that undermines support for the communists. The key element in Father Finian's strategy is that he allows the local men themselves to decide what they want to do. He does not impose his views on them; he merely guides their discussions. "It is your country, your souls, your lives," he says. "I will do what we agree upon." Thus the authors criticize the prevailing attitude of Americans that they, rather than the people who actually live there, know what is best for southeast Asia.

Just as Father Finian knows how to combat communist propaganda, Major "Tex" Wolchek is an American who understands the military demands of the struggle. Unlike the French and their American supporters, Tex realizes that the war in Indochina is a new kind of conflict that demands knowledge of guerilla warfare, as explained in the writings of Mao Tse-tung. It is no longer enough to rely on the old concepts of war as the French are trying to do. But when Tex and Ambassador MacWhite explain this to a meeting of French and American generals in Hanoi, they are met with ridicule. The words of a French general sum up the sense of cultural superiority and snobbishness that characterize the West's attitude to the region:

If you are suggesting … that the nation which produced Napoleon now has to go to a primitive Chinese for military instruction, I can tell you that you are not only making a mistake, you're being insulting.

Another American, Colonel Hillandale, shows the importance of understanding and respecting the local culture. When Hillandale was stationed in the Philippines he "embraced everything Filipino": the food and drink, the music, the people, and he also learned the language. When he is assigned to Sarkhan he walks the streets of Haidho and takes note of what he sees. He observes that well-qualified astrologers and palmists occupy elegant buildings, and he deduces from this the importance of such practices in the Sarkhanese culture. Had he been one of those Americans who never ventured further than the cocktail-party circuit, he might never have made this key observation. Since he has made a hobby of palmistry, he uses this knowledge to win influential local friends. Hillandale's opposite is George Swift, a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy, who expresses what in the book is typical American cultural arrogance in dismissing something foreign that he does not understand. "A vaudeville stunt," he says of palm reading, to which Ambassador MacWhite, who is thoroughly aware of what is really required of Americans in Southeast Asia replies, "[N]othing is fake if people believe in it. Your business is not to judge whether or not things are fakes, but who believes them and why and what it means."

Other Americans, such as John Colvin and Homer and Emma Atkins, develop strategies for helping the local population with agricultural and technological projects at the grass-roots level. Like Tex, Homer Atkins comes up against the obduracy of U.S. officialdom. They seek him out as an adviser on foreign aid projects, but what they have on their minds are big technological projects such as dams, highways, and irrigation systems. These are of immediate benefit only to local politicians who use them as a means to gain wealth and power. Atkins is more aware of what the people really need, and he uses his skill, ingenuity, and perseverance to bring his idea to fruition. He respects the local people and works with them as equals, showing none of the underlying assumptions of racial superiority shown by many other Americans, such as the technical adviser to the U.S. Embassy who tells Atkins that "for white men to work with their hands, and especially in the countryside, lower[s] the reputation of all white men."



The Ugly American is an unusual novel in that there is only a loose connection between all the different episodes. The only semblance of a unified plot is in Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite's gradual accumulation of the knowledge about how to win the struggle against communism. Each story serves as a parable, illustrating either the folly of U.S. behavior and policy or a positive alternative. According to M. H. Abrams, a parable is "a short narrative presented so as to stress the tacit but detailed analogy between its component parts and a thesis or lesson that the narrator is trying to bring home to us." Thus in the first story, of "Lucky" Lou Sears, every detail contributes to the theme of the book: Americans in foreign service are not performing their jobs in a way that is likely to bring any success, but they are mostly unaware of this fact. In the third story, "Nine Friends," about Father Finian, every detail contributes to the opposite effect: Father Finian is one of the few men who knows how to act effectively and decisively in American interests. There are no subtle nuances in this black and white approach to story-telling. The meaning of each parable is crystal clear.

Historical Context

The Cold War in the 1950s

During the 1950s, and continuing until the late 1980s, global politics was dominated by the struggle between the West (the United States and its Western European allies) and the communist Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, and China. This struggle was described as a cold war because it did not lead to direct armed conflict between the two superpowers. Instead, much of the contest was played out in the Third World, in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The United States would give economic and military support to emerging nations in these regions as a reward for any government that adopted an anti-communist stance. The Soviet Union lent support to Third-World communist parties and to communist insurgencies, which they described as wars of liberation against the retreating Western colonial powers. The Soviets denounced as imperialism any U.S. attempt to influence public opinion or government in such countries. The United States denounced Soviet aggression and claimed that the Soviets were bent on world domination.

In 1950, cold war rivalry focused on Korea, where Russian-backed North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States entered the war with United Nations support and engaged Chinese forces. After a truce in 1951 and an armistice in 1953, the United States regarded Vietnam as the next Asian country that had to be defended against communism, and it channeled huge military aid to the French, who were already battling Vietnamese communist forces. After the French defeat in 1954 (described so vividly in The Ugly American), the United States tried to halt any further communist advance by creating a viable South Vietnam state. It also sought stability by founding the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which in fact included only two Southeast Asian states, Thailand and the Philippines, in addition to Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, and the United States. SEATO was designed to prevent the invasion of any nation in Southeast Asia by a foreign power. But as Lea Williams points out in Southeast Asia: A History, SEATO ignored the reality of communist advance, which was not by direct invasion but by agitation from within and by guerilla warfare; it was very unlikely that traditional methods such as full-scale invasion would take place. Williams criticizes the limitations of U.S. diplomatic and military thinking at the time that produced such an ineffective treaty as SEATO: "Generals are inclined to be prepared for the last, rather than the next war; and SEATO was proof that diplomats, as exemplified by John Foster Dulles [U.S. secretary of state], can be equally hypnotized by history." This is essentially the same point made by Burdick and Lederer in their story of the French and U.S. generals who expect to be able to win a war in Indochina using outdated tactics.

The shock of the French defeat in Vietnam in 1954 was taken by the United States as a warning of what the future might hold if it did not exert all its influence in the region. The so-called domino theory which dictated U.S. policy in Southeast Asia held that if one nation went communist the others would soon follow, one by one, like falling dominoes. The theory reflected what was perceived as the reality of the global power game, that smaller nations would be unable to avoid being drawn into the orbit of one or other of the two superpowers. If the United States did not win control, the Soviets would.

The Strategic Importance of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia was considered to be of great strategic importance for both sides in the cold war, from both an ideological point of view and because the region was rich in natural resources. Writing in 1953, political scientist Amry Vandenbosch, declared:

Control of the oil, rubber, tin, rice, and other commodities of the region would give the Communist bloc a very great advantage and the loss of these strategic materials would constitute a severe blow to the West.

In 1958, the year The Ugly American was published, Southeast Asia consisted of nine independent states: Thailand, Burma, Malaya, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Singapore and Borneo were still British colonies, and Timor was a Portuguese colony. In the global struggle between the West and communism, North Vietnam committed itself to Russia and China, while Thailand, the Philippines, and South Vietnam sided with the United States and accepted U.S. military aid. The remaining four nations sought to remain independent, not wanting to commit to either side, and accepted only nonmilitary aid. (This is the position of the Sarkhanese government in The Ugly American, whose main goal is to maintain its independence.) These neutral nations were courted by both the West and by the communists, and they accepted aid from both sides.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1950s: In 1957, the Russians launch Sputnik 1, the first space satellite, thus inaugurating the space age. This event prompts fears in the United States that the Soviet Union may be leading in military technology and may be able to launch ballistic missiles from Europe that could reach the United States. The Sputnik launch leads directly to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. The following decade is dominated by the so-called space race between the two superpowers.

    Today: In 2004, President George W. Bush announces a new vision for the nation's space exploration program. The president commits the United States to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, starting with a return to the Moon that will ultimately enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations. The return to the Moon is planned for as early as 2015 and no later than 2020.
  • 1950s: The cold war between the United States and the communist Soviet Union dominates global politics. Fear of communist conspiracies in the United States leads to the McCarthy era, named for the role played by Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.). McCarthy uses unscrupulous and demagogic methods to expose alleged communists and their sympathizers, but his methods are so extreme that he is discredited. He is censured by the Senate in 1954.

    Today: The cold war is over, and communism survives in only a few states in the world (Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea). Instead of communism, the greatest perceived danger to the United States and the West is international terrorism. Just as during the cold war, politicians did not want to be perceived by voters as being "soft on communism," so today, politicians like to win votes by presenting themselves as tough on terrorism and their opponents as weak.
  • 1950s: The United States begins its involvement in Vietnam by sending military aid to the French in their struggle with the communists. After the French defeat, U.S. efforts in the region focus on establishing a stable noncommunist government in South Vietnam that will be friendly to U.S. interests.

    Today: The Vietnam War, which ended in U.S. defeat, still casts a shadow over the national psyche and national politics. In the presidential election of 2004, Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry relies heavily on his experience as a decorated Vietnam War veteran, while his record in Vietnam is challenged in television advertisements by a conservative group of Vietnam veterans.

The criticisms of U.S. attitudes and policies in Southeast Asia made in The Ugly American were not uncommon at the time. For example, in Southeast Asia and the World Today, which was published a few months before The Ugly American, Claude A. Buss, professor of history at Stanford University, made a number of similar points when he reviewed relations between Southeast Asian countries and the United States. Buss reported that many people in these countries reacted with skepticism to U.S. military aid and also had reservations about economic aid, which was perceived as serving American self-interest. Buss also reported that regarding foreigners who worked in their countries, Asians regarded the Americans as mediocre; they were people who viewed their overseas posting "as an interesting experience or a good deal—as an excellent opportunity to see the world at government expense and to collect cheap, unusual souvenirs." Buss further states, in another passage that might have come directly from The Ugly American, "Asians decried the waste, the rusting machines, and the useless projects which they also helped pay for…. They wished that programs had been more tailored for their own needs and desires."

Critical Overview

The Ugly American was an immediate success with the American public. It was on the bestseller list for seventy-eight weeks and went on to sell four million copies. The message of the novel seemed to strike a ready chord amongst Americans who feared that their country was not pursuing the wisest policies abroad and that the Soviet Union might be winning a decisive advantage in the cold war.

Critical reaction, however, was mixed. Robert Trumbull, in the New York Times Book Review, praised the "sharp characterizations, frequently humorous incident and perceptive descriptions" in the book. He offered the opinion that it may act as a "source of insight into the actual, day-by-day by-play of [the] present titanic political struggle for Asia that will engage future historians—unless, of course, the Communists win, and suppress all such books." In contrast to Trumbull, Robert Hatch in The Nation, commented sharply on the book's "easy, surface characterizations," but he had some appreciation for it nonetheless: "[A]t once slick and angry; [the authors] have an awkward way of advocating decency and generosity, to say nothing of intelligence, not for their own sake but because that is the way to beat the Russian game."

In Yale Review, Edward W. Mill commented that his experience as an American diplomat abroad led him to believe that there was much truth in the critique of U.S. policy offered in The Ugly American. He acknowledged the need for more effective training for overseas service but suggested that for such a policy change to be made, there would need to be much more support and understanding of the issue by the American people, Congress, and the nation's colleges and universities. Mill concluded: "If the American people want to be represented by the MacWhites and the Hillandales instead of 'Lucky Lou' and the Joe Bings, they will have to make their wishes clear."

The Ugly American had a pronounced influence on the politics of the day. It was reportedly read by President Eisenhower, who then ordered an investigation of the U.S. foreign aid program. In 1959, then-Senator John F. Kennedy, who was preparing to run for president, and three other unnamed men prominent in public life, sent a copy of the book to every U.S. senator. It was not well received by all. In September, 1959, Senator William Fulbright denounced the book on the Senate floor. He claimed that there were many successful American aid projects in Southeast Asia and complained that "in the world of Lederer and Burdick, almost everything is reduced to idiot simplicity" (quoted in John Hellman's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam). The following year Vice President Nixon referred to The Ugly American in a speech at the University of San Francisco. He acknowledged that while some of the charges in the book might be partially correct, the real lesson to be absorbed was the need to understand the strategy of world communism.

One result of the popularity of the book was that the title became part of the American language. The "ugly American" was soon in common usage and referred to a certain type of arrogant American who when abroad did not understand or respect the culture he was in and saw everything through ethnocentric eyes.


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he discusses the novel in the context of the cold war, the Vietnam war, and the nature of the U.S. national identity and character.

Central to The Ugly American is the historical reality of the cold war. Behind all the individual stories lies the larger picture of a global struggle between two superpowers who embrace competing ideologies and compete ruthlessly for influence and control over smaller countries not only in Southeast Asia but all over the world. Given the fact that both superpowers have the capacity to destroy each other several times over through the use of nuclear weapons, the future of human civilization may depend on the outcome of the struggle.

Since the novel is so rooted in a particular period of history, it is impossible for readers in the early 2000s to respond to it in the same way that the original readers did, in the 1950s. In the early twenty-first century, the outcome of the cold war, far from being in doubt, is known, and that long struggle has receded into the pages of history. In fact, young people of college age in the early 2000s can have little or no direct memory of the cold war, since it wound down during the late- 1980s and finally ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the United States and its allies won the cold war, and communism has completely lost the worldwide appeal it held for so many people from the 1950s to the 1980s, it is apparent from the perspective of the early 2000s that many of the fears expressed by Burdick and Lederer did not come to pass. The Soviets did not outwit or outlast the Americans. American ideas, the clarion call of freedom and democracy, proved to be more durable than the collectivist ideas of Marx and Lenin.

Tragically, however, that is only part of the story. Some of the fears expressed by the authors in The Ugly American did indeed come true. The United States did not learn its lessons quickly enough to avoid the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, in which over 58,000 Americans were killed from 1964 to 1973, and the nation lost a war for the first time in its history.

In connection with Vietnam, The Ugly American seems prescient indeed, as the two chapters, "The Iron of War" and "The Lessons of War" demonstrate. The French, as they battle the communist insurgency, believe that their well-trained army, equipped with all the most modern weapons of war, will surely triumph over a ragged band of poorly equipped communists. They continue to believe this, according to The Ugly American, even when the evidence proves them wrong, again and again. When the French finally capitulate and withdraw from Hanoi, Major Monet, who has been enlightened by his discussions with Major "Tex" Wolchek and Gilbert MacWhite, expresses the truth as he watches the final French military parade: "No one bothered to tell the tankers that their tanks couldn't operate in endless mud. And those recoilless rifles never found an enemy disposition big enough to warrant shooting at it with them."

Less than a decade later, the United States made the same mistake as the French, thinking that a huge army—U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam reached 543,000 in 1969—with the most sophisticated military equipment in the world would defeat an enemy that possessed almost nothing in comparison. The shock of that defeat in Vietnam continued to reverberate in the national psyche for over thirty years.

But The Ugly American is about more than history and the cold war and the forewarnings about Vietnam. Behind the swirl of political events in Southeast Asia, the authors ground their work in a larger issue, the nature of the U.S. national identity and character. They are very careful to draw a distinction between the real American character and the distortions of it that occur when Americans get caught abroad in the twin traps of bureaucracy and shallow conventional wisdom. When Ambassador MacWhite visits the Philippines, for example, he meets the head of the government, Ramon Magsaysay, who makes the following observation:

[A]verage Americans, in their natural state … are the best ambassadors a country can have…. They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to Americans when they go abroad.

Magsaysay, who, incidentally, was a real historical figure, believes that many Americans abroad are "second-raters" who get carried away by their luxurious style of living and all the cocktail parties they attend. They lose the natural good qualities that are otherwise such a prominent feature of the national character.

The Burmese journalist U Maung Swe expresses the same idea. At a dinner party in Rangoon, he remarks that the Americans he knew in the United States "were wonderfully friendly, unassuming, and interested in the world." He trusted and respected them. But he continues:

The Americans I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They live pretentiously. They're loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they're frightened and defensive; or maybe they're not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.

The characters in the book who accomplish something of value are presented as examples of the true American character, as opposed to the distortion of that character that seems to occur in the foreign service. These "real Americans" are all practical men, not intellectuals. They are adventurous, creative, and ingenious. They are brave, they relish a challenge, and they are hardworking. They are also open and friendly, and not prejudiced. They speak their minds, and a rough exterior often hides a gentle heart. They are always willing to use their talents and knowledge in service of others not because they are especially religious or saintly, but because they are naturally warm and good-hearted, and they like to share what they know.

An example is John Colvin, the man who tries to help the Sarkhanese with his milk and cattle scheme and is betrayed by his former friend turned communist, Deong. Colvin is a tough, confident, battle-hardened World War II veteran. Back home in Wisconsin, he is a successful small-businessman who runs the family milk business. When he hears that Sarkhan is in danger of going communist, he feels a sense of personal responsibility to the Sarkhanese people, whom he had learned to love during his adventures there in World War II. So he returns to start up a business in Sarkhan and puts up the small amount of capital required himself. It should be noted that this is private enterprise in action, not a big government-funded project, and it will rely on local free market forces to prosper.

Colvin again shows what he is made of after Deong gets the better of him, and the mob of women beat him. Ambassador Sears only manages to send Colvin home over his vigorous objections (Colvin says, with great intensity, "I won't go"). But Gilbert MacWhite sends for him again, and this time Colvin's persistence pays off. Within a year or so, his project is a success, and the local economy benefits from his innovation. Thus Colvin demonstrates qualities that the authors believe represent core American values: initiative, self-reliance, business acumen, determination, perseverance, and personal and civic responsibility.

What Do I Read Next?

  • In Sarkhan (1965; published as The Deceptive American in 1977) Burdick and Lederer return to the fictional landscape of The Ugly American. The novel is about the attempts of two Americans, one a businessman and the other a professor, to prevent a communist takeover of the country. As in The Ugly American, the authors are critical of the U.S. government, and the characterization exhibits the same black and white quality of the earlier novel. But unlike The Ugly American, Sarkhan is a suspense novel that builds to a thrilling climax.
  • The Quiet American (1955), by British novelist Graham Greene, takes place in Saigon, Vietnam, during the later stages of the French war in In dochina in the 1950s. The "quiet American" is Alden Pyle, who works for an American aid mission in Saigon but is also involved through the Central Intelligence Agency with espionage and terrorism. The novel offers insight into the early U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Greene's apparent anti-American stance meant that the novel was not initially popular in the United States, but Greene's warnings about American policies proved prescient.
  • Dennis Bloodworth's An Eye for the Dragon: Southeast Asia Observed, 1954–1970 (1970) is a lively journalistic account of Southeast Asia by a veteran Far Eastern correspondent. Bloodworth's purpose is to describe historical and contemporary events in a way that reveals the beliefs, customs, prejudices, and patterns of thought in the people of Southeast Asia. He also describes the love-hate relationship between these countries and the West.
  • Eric F. Goldman's The Crucial Decade and After: America, 1945–1960 (1960) is a classic account of the United States at home and abroad in the years following the end of World War II. Goldman shows how, after much debate and disagreement, the United States continued on the economic and social revolution it had embarked on in the previous two decades. This continuation was achieved by extensions of the welfare state (a system in which government strives to create economic and social benefits for all its citizens) and other policies. Goldman also shows how the United States continued the policies mapped out in the immediate postwar years for containment of the Soviet Union and co-existence with it.

The preeminent example of the ideal American character in action is Homer Atkins. Although he is the "ugly American" of the title, his rough outward appearance does not reflect the inner core of the man. As a blunt-spoken inventor and engineer, Atkins has no patience with intellectual theories or with men who dress in nice suits, wear after-shave lotion, and sit around conference tables. Atkins travels to Vietnam and then, at MacWhite's request, to Sarkhan, as a private individual. He certainly does not need the money, since he has been highly successful in his career and is worth $3 million (a huge fortune in 1958 dollars). He enjoys the challenge of new projects, but he is only interested in things that will be immediately useful for the local people. He is a realist and has no time for grandiose dreams. When it comes to setting up his business in Sarkhan, he presents a textbook example of how foreign aid programs should be conducted. He provides the expertise and the creative mind (in consultation with the local man, Jeepo), but all the materials he uses for the water pump he invents are local: pipes made from bamboo, pistons adapted from the pistons of old jeeps, and power from the drive mechanism of bicycles. Everything is cheap and easily available, and nothing has to be imported. Atkins then employs local labor, and they all work eighteen to twenty-hour days to get the business off the ground. Then those who make the product get the chance to sell it and make money. It is an ideal set-up all round, and its success is due to the sturdy good sense, ingenuity, hard work, and benevolence of Atkins.

Homer's wife Emma is another example of this sturdy American character. She is happy to live in a simple cottage in Sarkhan with relatively primitive facilities: "pressed earth floors, one spigot of cold water, a charcoal fire, two very comfortable hammocks, a horde of small, harmless insects." She does not for a moment miss the amenities of a modern American kitchen or the luxuries that are available in an advanced civilization. Indeed, in their simple, self-reliant way of living, Homer and Emma Atkins resemble not so much a modern American couple but a throwback to earlier times, the nineteenth century or even the colonial period. As John Hellmann points out in his book American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, the Americans who have the right approach in The Ugly American represent ideas about the American character and about the nation's role in the world that go back to colonial times. One of these myths is of the frontier hero, with the frontier displaced in the novel from the American West onto the landscape of Southeast Asia.

Seen in this light, The Ugly American is not only an indictment of the ineffectiveness of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, it is also a wake-up call to Americans to rediscover their own best qualities and values. The authors return to this theme in their "Factual Epilogue," in which they write:

We have so lost sight of our own past that we are trying to sell guns and money alone, instead of remembering that is was the quest for the dignity of freedom that was responsible for our way of life.

The authors' conclusion, in which they write, "All over Asia we have found that the basic American ethic is revered and honored and imitated when possible," sends a very clear message. As long as Americans remain true to themselves and their values, they have nothing to fear from communist aggression; they will surely prevail.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Ugly American, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

John Hellmann

In the following essay excerpt, Hellmann examines the socio-political environment in which The Ugly American was published, and posits that the novel is a form of the American Jeremiad, a form of "political-sermon" dating back to the Puritans.

The Ugly American appeared in the wake of such influential analyses of postwar American society as David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950), William H. Whyte, Jr.'s The Organization Man (1956), and John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958). These books were widely discussed and alluded to in reviews, columns, and articles. They had such impact because they articulated in persuasive detail suspicions voiced through the decade with steadily increasing anxiety. These suspicions had in common a fear that trends in contemporary American society were fundamentally altering the American character. Conservatives usually focused upon "socialistic" tendencies toward conformity and mediocrity within a network of dependence on the large organizations of government, business, and unions now dominating American life. Liberals more typically emphasized the corrupting effects of a cynical, materialistic consumer society. Underlying these critiques was a shared suspicion that Americans were becoming too "soft," immoral, and greedy to survive the Soviets' dedicated pursuit of world communism.

In 1952, for instance, Louis B. Seltzer, the editor of the Cleveland Press, asked in an editorial "What is wrong with us?" and provided an answer that would be received with a torrent of approving telephone calls, letters, and personal congratulations on the street:

We have everything. We abound with all of the things that make us comfortable. We are, on the average, rich beyond the dreams of the kings of old…. Yet … something is not there that should be—something we once had….

Are we our own worst enemies? Should we fear what is happening among us more than what is happening elsewhere?…

No one seems to know what to do to meet it. But everybody worries.

Forty-one publications all over the country would reprint the editorial. At the end of the decade novelist John Steinbeck received a similar response to the publication of his letter to Adlai Stevenson in which he declared that if he wanted to ruin a nation "I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, and sick…. [In rich America] a creeping, all pervading, nerve-gas of immorality starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices, both corporate and governmental." Steinbeck's letter was also reprinted many times and discussed throughout the country. Luxuriating in a landscape of tailfins, lawn sprinklers, and gray flannel suits, thoughtful Americans were uneasily considering what they had lost in their character and what they might be on their way to losing in the world at large.

Lederer and Burdick's novel presented Americans with confirmation of these fears in melodramatic terms charged with American mythic conceptions. Unlike The Quiet American, it attacked not the American character but the failure of many contemporary Americans to retain that character. Presenting confirmation of suspected corruption, The Ugly American echoed a traditional American message extending back to the New England Puritans. In The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch has shown that the political-sermon form of the Puritans known as the jeremiad survived in the political rhetoric of the formative years of the republic, and has continued to be a central ritual of American culture. Combining a criticism of contemporary errors and vision of future disaster with an affirmation of the correctness of the traditional character and purpose of the American "errand," the American jeremiad has enabled speakers and writers to exert a power at once conservative and progressive, demanding of each generation that they return to the way of the fathers and rededicate themselves to the special mission of the culture.

In The Ugly American the authors explicitly make this ritualistic call in the epilogue. After finishing their claims for the book's factual basis, the authors begin the ritual with the traditional cry of doom:

The picture as we saw it, then, is of an Asia where we stand relatively mute, locked in the cities, misunderstanding the temper and the needs of the Asians. We saw America spending vast sums where Russia spends far less and achieves far more. The result has been called "an uneasy balance," but actually it is nothing of the sort. We have been losing—not only in Asia, but everywhere.

If the only price we are willing to pay is the dollar price, then we might as well pull out before we're thrown out. If we are not prepared to pay the human price, we had better retreat to our shores, build Fortress America, learn to live without international trade and communications, and accept the mediocrity, the low standard of living, and the loom of world Communism which would accompany such a move.

The authors follow this grim assessment with assurance that the future nevertheless remains conditional, since the responsibility for this imminent catastrophe lies in the present attitude of American society:

Actually, the state in which we find ourselves is far from hopeless. We have the material, and above all the human resources, to change our methods and to win. It is not the fault of the government or its leaders or any political party that we have acted as we have. It is the temper of the whole nation.

They follow this denunciation of the present "temper of the whole nation" with an explanation that the problem lies in a deviation from the past mythos of the nation: "We have so lost sight of our own past that we are trying to sell guns and money alone, instead of remembering that it was the quest for the dignity of freedom that was responsible for our own way of life." Finally, they reassure readers that success is preordained if they will simply return to American principles:

All over Asia we have found that the basic American ethic is revered and honored and imitated when possible. We must, while helping Asia toward self-sufficiency, show by example that America is still the America of freedom and hope and knowledge and law. If we succeed, we cannot lose the struggle.

The fictional text of The Ugly American is a narrative version of this jeremiad: its structure of parabolic tales induces anxiety by showing imminent communist victory in Asia, places the blame upon the lapse of the majority of Americans serving there, and offers visions of the completed errand through small but exemplary successes won by a few virtuous Americans. The story then ends with an apocalyptic challenge to the reader in the form of the Secretary of State's rejection of the heroic few on the grounds that not enough Americans would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary for such policies. The characters of this drama symbolize the concepts intrinsic to the jeremiad from Puritan times to the nineteenth century: the Asian villagers are the American Indians or the Chinese, living in a terra profana, to be converted to the Forces of Light; the Soviet agents the clever and ruthless Forces of Darkness; the Viet Minh guerrillas the "savage" Indians manipulated by the Dark Forces; the British and French colonial officials the "dead hand of the European past"; the "ugly" Americans the Chosen who have fallen away from the errand; and the few "non-ugly" Americans, as Lederer and Burdick referred to them in a subsequent Life article, the traditional heroes of American mythic history.

The resulting allegory is played out upon an Indochina as much imagined as observed, an Indochina overlayed with the mythic landscapes represented in the American mind by the frontiers of the American West and nineteenth-century China. Set in the invented nation of Sarkhan and such actual nations as Vietnam, Burma, and Cambodia, The Ugly American imposes upon an exotic but generalized Southeast Asian topography and demography the "moral geography" characterizing American thought since the colonial period. The dominating features of the resulting symbolic landscape are the classic images of city and country, embodying the stark opposition between civilization and wilderness, Europe and America, technology and nature, the conscious and unconscious, that such critics of classic American literature as D. H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler have identified as obsessions of the American psyche. The power of the book lies in its presentation of the struggle in Indochina, and by extension the global cold war, in images holding mythic resonance.

In their prefatory note Lederer and Burdick protest that "what we have written is not just an angry dream, but rather the rendering of fact into fiction." But, however strong the basis of The Ugly American in actuality, its fictional power is precisely that of dream, the collective dream of authors and readers in a text based in shared myth. The vivid but formulaic prose, the alternately sentimental and horrific plot, and the sharply drawn but stereotypical characters call easily upon cultural memory. We can compare The Ugly American in this aspect to such myth-laden children's tales as Parson Weems' fable of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, which presented generations of American schoolchildren with a symbolic resolution of the psychological conflict of a culture both revolutionary and conservative in its origins. Though it functions as a jeremiad as opposed to the celebration of Weems' fable, The Ugly American possesses a similar power and method in its symbolic, ultimately uncritical, presentation of American cultural conflict.

In the symbolic landscape of The Ugly American, the success of the external struggle with Soviet agents and their "savage" Asian army of Viet Minh depends upon the outcome of an internal struggle taking place within the American psyche and the American society. The crucial conflict in The Ugly American is thus between two types of Americans. The "ugly" Americans, far from being simply incompetent diplomats, represent the"temper of the whole nation" that is in error. They present grotesque reflections of those contemporary Americans who have fallen away from American virtue and mission. In the moral geography of American myth found in the novel, the journey of the ugly Americans west to Asia is ironically a spiritual flight east back to Europe. The targets of the exposé in The Ugly American—narrow careerists in the diplomatic service, pleasure-seeking staff members, and "big" foreign-aid projects conferring wealth and status on the native elite without actually helping the people—are the means by which the book indirectly points its accusing finger at the loss of the frontier virtues in postwar society.

In its attacks on American policies and personnel in Asia, The Ugly American shows its American readers a mirror of their own "ugliness." Lederer and Burdick depict Americans in Washington being recruited to service overseas with assurances that they will "be living with a gang of clean-cut Americans" on "the high American standard," for even "in Saigon they stock American ice cream, bread, cake, and, well, anything you want." A friendly Asian leader observes that "something happens to most Americans when they go abroad…. Many of them, against their own judgment, feel that they must live up to their commissaries and big cars and cocktail parties." Readers in 1958 and later could recognize in these images the pervasive conformity, affluence, and status-seeking characterizing their postwar society.

Source: John Hellmann, "Entering a Symbolic Landscape," in American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 19-24.

Edward W. Mill

In the following review of The Ugly American, Mill provides background on U.S. policy and presence in Asia, and examines the novel's "aim to point the way to a stronger and more effective American policy."

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

[Text Not Available]

Source: Edward W. Mill, "A New Diplomacy for Asia," in Yale Review, Spring 1959, pp. 431-36.


Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, fourth edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 6.

Buss, Claude A., Southeast Asia and the World Today, D. Van Nostrand, pp. 92-93.

Hatch, Robert, "Books in Brief," in The Nation, October 4, 1958, p. 199.

Hellmann, John, American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam, Columbia University Press, 1986, p. 17.

Lederer, William J., and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American, Norton, 1958.

Mill, Edward W., "A New Diplomacy for Asia," in Yale Review, Spring 1959, p. 434.

Trumbull, Robert, "The Ambassador Who Didn't Read Sarkhanese," in New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1958, p. 38.

Vandenbosch, Amry, "Our Friends and Antagonists in Southeast Asia," in Southeast Asia in the Coming World, edited by Philip W. Thayer, Johns Hopkins Press, 1953, p. 47.

Williams, Lea E., Southeast Asia: A History, Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 266.

Further Reading

Allen, Richard, A Short Introduction to the History and Politics of Southeast Asia, Oxford University Press, 1970.

This concise survey of Southeast Asia is very useful for understanding the political situation in that region in the 1950s. Especially interesting is Allen's discussion of the French involvement in Indochina and their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which sheds light on the episodes involving Major Monet and Major Wolchek in The Ugly American.

Christie, Clive, "The Quiet American" and "The Ugly American": Western Literary Perspectives on Indo-China in a Decade of Transition, 1950–1960, University of Kent at Canterbury, Centre of South-East Asian Studies, Occasional Paper No. 10, 1989.

Christie discusses Graham Greene's The Quiet American, The Ugly American, the memoirs of Dr. Thomas Dooley, a U.S. Navy doctor who worked in Vietnam and Laos in the 1950s, and French literature about the war in Indochina. Christie analyzes these works in the context of the struggle with communism in Southeast Asia and prevailing Western political attitudes toward Asia.

Kuhn, Delia W., "Bagging Asia," in Saturday Review, October 4, 1958, pp. 32-33.

In this review of The Ugly American, Kuhn, like some other reviewers, criticized what she regarded as shallow characterization. But she also expressed respect for the authors' direct experience of their subject while remaining skeptical of any belief that somehow the United States could save Asia.

Steel, Ronald, Pax Americana: The Cold War Empire and the Politics of Counterrevolution, revised edition, Penguin, 1970.

In this widely read book, first published in 1967, Steel discusses the idea of a "Pax Americana" (Latin for "American peace"), which for him was based on a benevolent imperialism with a noble purpose. Steel's chapter on U.S. foreign aid and how it serves the purposes of imperialism has great relevance for The Ugly American. In the revised edition, published when the United States was heading for defeat in Vietnam, Steel modified his views, arguing that it was not so easy to claim that U.S. foreign policy was designed to promote liberty.