Saturday, August 27, 2011


The Ugly American, William J Lederer & Eugene Burdick, W W Norton Company, 1958, 285 pp

Though The Ugly American was published in 1958, it rose to #6 on the bestseller list in 1959. Set in the fictional country Sarkhan, it is a fictional account of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and particularly in Vietnam. The writing style is reminiscent of James Michener, especially his early books such as Tales of the South Pacific. I was surprised at what a page turner it was and read it in just a few hours.

In the 1950s, America had decided that the USSR was our greatest enemy, that Communism was dedicated to the eradication of our "way of life," that foreign aid was the solution to successfully overcoming these threats to freedom and democracy. America, it would seem, was born in revolt against a powerful enemy and so must always have one selected to keep us going.

The point in The Ugly American is not that we should fail to fight against Communism, but that we were going about it in all the wrong ways. The authors claimed that incidents in the book were true with only the names changed. According to their views, we were losing the fight against Communism in Southeast Asia because our diplomats and foreign service workers were alienating the peoples of Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand due to arrogance, rudeness, and the inappropriate appropriations of billions of dollars in those countries.

Ambassadors and their administrative aides seldom knew anything about the countries where they served, could not speak the languages and consequently were woefully out of touch with the peoples. In contrast to the chapters exemplifying the above are others about honest, hardworking, well intentioned Americans who actually helped certain Asian villagers improve their lots by small effective measures such as showing them how to farm more effectively or start small industries.

The book had a large impact in America and some say it led the way to the formation of the Peace Corps. I was surprised to see a chapter, "The Lessons of War," in which a US Army Major, one of the good ones, studied Mao Tse-tung's writings on war and figured out why the Western armies cannot ever win against Asian guerillas.

As I finished the book, I wondered if it was still relevant today. After all, haven't we won in Asia because of Coca Cola, Hollywood movies, fashion, the internet, and all that? I came across Mekong Network that featured a review of The Ugly American. Bruce Sharpe, founder of the site, is an American who became involved with modern day issues in Southeast Asia after he began tutoring refugees from those countries in Chicago. The last line of his review states,
"And yet America's foreign policy is still haunted by the same mistakes. The Cold War is long finished and communism discredited, but it hardly matters. Who needs an enemy like communism, when you are already your own worst enemy?"

So we still have a problem with our image, not only in the Middle East but also in Asia. And yes, The Ugly American is still relevant.

I know that I have readers of this blog from Southeast Asian countries. I am curious to know if any of you have read The Ugly American and would like to hear from you. Did you find the book to be true or false or some combination?

(The Ugly American is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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