The Ugly American is an example of a novel that met with only modest commercial success until an effort was made to ban it. The United States Information Service tried to ban the book’s sale overseas—especially in Asia—until adverse publicity forced it to rescind its ban. The book then gained further notoriety when the U.S. Department of State and Senator J. William Fulbright attacked the truthfulness of the authors, hinting they were traitors. Thanks to the ensuing publicity, the book jumped onto the bestseller lists for seventy-eight weeks and sold more than four million copies.
The book also stimulated the American public to question the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policies, and it may have influenced the shaping of foreign policy during the era. Both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon often cited the book’s premise—that communism in Southeast Asia could only be defeated by small-scale actions in the field, not by bungling bureaucrats who preferred the cocktail circuit and schmoozing with political insiders.
When the book was adapted to the screen in 1963, its producers felt pressured by the Agency for International Development to tone down the theme of governmental incompetence.
Ambassador Lou Sears, a political appointee, is angry at the Sarkhanese newspaper for printing a defamatory cartoon. Because he does not know the language, he does not understand the cartoon, but senses the derision that the cartoon expresses. John Colvin, an American businessman, has been beaten and left for dead at the U.S. embassy’s steps; Sears hears about the incident but dismisses it. Colvin is a former agent of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II-era precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He has returned to Sarkhan to help in the fight against communism and has enlisted the help of a former U.S. ally, Deong, to sell powdered milk to improve native diets. Deong, however, is now a communist; he attempted to poison the milk in order to engender anti-American sentiment. Deong told the Sarkhanese that Colvin was putting aphrodisiacs into the milk to make Sarkhanese women sexually compliant. They consequently attacked Colvin and left his body at the embassy.
Louis Krupitzyn, the Soviet ambassador to Sarkhan, has spent his life studying communism. He has learned the Sarkhanese language and religion and molded himself physically and intellectually into the ideal Sarkhanese. As ambassador, he has visited and made friends with local religious and government leaders. When the United States ships tons of rice to Sarkhan in foreign aid, Krupitzyn changes the labels on the rice to read “Gift of Russia.” The Americans do not realize the labels have been changed because none of them have learned Sarkhanese.
Father Finian, an American Catholic priest assigned to Burma, vows to combat the communist religion. He travels into the countryside, learning Burmese and enduring months of dysentery. He then recruits native helpers, notably U Tien, a jeep driver. They decide to work for freedom of religion, learning why the Burmese like communism and gathering information about the extent of local communist power and spies. They publish a small anticommunist newspaper. Communist publications attack their articles, and the communist faction seeks to locate and kill Finian’s volunteers; the anticommunists fight back by broadcasting Russian speeches that belie the communists’ propaganda. Despite Finian’s success, Sears opposes him for “raising hell” and says his efforts are unnecessary. Sears damages American prestige with wild parties and malicious decisions against people such as Colvin and Finian.
Sears’s replacement, Gilbert MacWhite, prepares for his post by studying the Sarkhanese language and culture and preparing to combat communism. However, while entertaining his Chinese friend Li Pang, he foolishly discusses strategy in front of his Chinese servants. Li tests and interrogates the servants, discovering that they have siphoned information to the communists. MacWhite, chagrined...