According to The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the single most important problem with the Cold War policy of the United States of America in Asia is the lack of cultural knowledge and sensitivity that Americans brought to Asian countries; by contrast, Russian officials were culturally sensitive and took the time to learn the customs, language, and culture, which benefited their standing within those countries.
The Ugly American is written as a series of loosely connected stories that focus on Americans and Russians doing work in Asia. The characters who emerge as positive representations are the ones who attempt to understand the Asian culture in which they're living and working. Those people are better able to connect with the locals and further their agendas. On the other hand, some characters are cut off from the populations they're living with; those characters, like an "ambassador who refuses to learn the language or the personality of the country to which he is assigned," are unable to further their own agendas and, more importantly, the overall agenda of the United States.
Lederer and Burdick explain in an author's note at the beginning of the book that the novel "is written as fiction; but it is based on fact. The things we write about have, in essence, happened." They go on to say that they're hoping not to embarrass people but rather to stir both thought and action to improve things for Americans stationed and working abroad.
The disconnect between the Americans and the countries in which they're living are symbolized in the first chapter of the book. They explain that the embassy is wholly separate from the country itself, saying, "At the end of the lawn the pickets of a wrought-iron fence separated Embassy grounds from the confusion and noise of the road" (11). Like the building itself, the Americans who are damaging foreign policy keep themselves separate from the Asian people; this creates a gap in understanding that prevents them from being able to further the policies they're trying to push to prevent Asian countries from aligning with Russia.
Unlike the "ugly" Americans in the book, the Russians integrate themselves into the culture. An example of this is Louis Krupitzyn's encounter with the Chief Abbot, who is the leader of all the Buddhists in the area where Krupitzyn is stationed. He's told that a younger monk will have to accompany him to translate because the Chief Abbot doesn't speak English. They write:
When they were in front of the monk, Louis Krupitzyn bowed very low and said in classical Sarkhanese, "It is very gracious of Your Reverence to accord me this privilege."
"You did not tell my secretary that you spoke our language."
Krupitzyn, still bowing low, replied,"It is traditional, Your Reverence, that one saves his best words for the master."
Krupitzyn sat cross-legged on the floor and the Grand Leader of all the Buddhists of Sarkhan and Louis Krupitzyn, the Russian Ambassador, began to talk. At first it was chitchat, and then it turned to philosophy. They sat there for the rest of the afternoon until it became dark. (37)
Krupitzyn, unlike his American counterparts, understands the culture and language of the area. He's better able to show and gain respect than the ambassador who doesn't speak English, for example.
Later, Krupitzyn is told by local informants who work as translators at the American Embassy that American rice shipments are coming to Sarkhan, where a typhoon damaged a lot of crops. He quickly buys rice at escalated black market prices and delivers it himself to the area, where a Communist newspaper "had come out with a special edition whose headlines announced that Russia, the friend of Sarkhan, would relieve the famine; and that the Russian Ambassador would personally arrive that day with the first token contribution of rice" (38).
In this way, Krupitzyn is able to further the idea that the communist countries will help the Asian countries for nothing at all. He explains that capitalist countries like America will only help when they can profit from it. By the time the American rice arrives, this idea is ingrained in the population. Also, it's given from the American Ambassador to the Prime Minister of the country, rather than to the people themselves. When it is delivered to the people, the Sarkhanese communists claim that the Russians, not the Americans, have delivered the rice, saying "Didn't the Russian Ambassador warn you that the capitalists would do anything for profit?" (39).
It turns out the Sarkhanese people who weighed the rice stenciled "This rice is a gift from Russia" in Sarkhanese on it once it was taken off the ships. The Americans are unaware of what's happened. They write that "The Americans took pictures of the distribution of the rice and the smiling faces of the now happy people. There were no comments from any of the Americans present. None of them could read or understand Sarkhanese and they did not know what was happening" (39). They don't find out about what the Russians have done for a week.
This lack of knowledge and understanding prevents the Americans from making an impact on the population. Even when America tries to do the right thing, Russia is able to stay ahead of them simply by staying connected with the locals. Krupitzyn even explains in a letter to Russia that they want to keep the clueless American ambassador in place, if possible. He ties up his employees with meetings and forbids them to go into the hills, as well as annoying "the people of Sarkhan with his bad manners," Krupitzyn explains (40).
Though The Ugly American is a fictional book, it made an impact in the real world. According to the New York Times:
Most controversially, "The Ugly American" warned, unsubtly, that the United States was losing influence in the region to the Communists in China and the Soviet Union. The book, which was published by W.W. Norton in 1958, caused a major stir. It catalyzed outrage over the tax dollars spent on foreign aid, stimulated debate in Congress — Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas called the book "sterile, devoid of insight, reckless and irresponsible" — over the efficacy of foreign aid programs, and in years to come influenced the training of Peace Corps volunteers.
Lederer and Burdick make the point that America is failing in its dealings overseas because they aren't making an effort to connect with and understand the local population; since Russia is making that effort, they appear more friendly and more in line with local values. Therefore they are better able to win them over.
The single most important problem with cold war policy in The Ugly American isn't a policy but rather the way in which all policy is being implemented -- without regard for local culture, customs, or languages, which keeps the Americans overseas from connecting with the Asian people. This is why in the epilogue Lederer and Burdick say:
What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and—in some lands—their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment, and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives. (284)
Only in that way, the authors make it clear, can America hope to influence Asian countries during the Cold War.