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.