The Ugly American

by William J. Lederer, Eugene Burdick

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The Ugly American Summary

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick fictionalizes the very real failures of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia. It was published in 1958.

  • The book, which is made up of multiple interlinked narratives, is set in the fabricated Communist nation of Sarkhan during the Cold War.
  • There is no single protagonist in The Ugly American; rather, characters recur throughout the narrative.
  • Publicity around the book’s attempted overseas ban by the United States Information Service caused it to become even more popular.

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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.

Plot Summary

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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....

(This entire section contains 1164 words.)

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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 at his gullibility, vows to learn more about Southeast Asian politics. He learns that average Americans are good representatives in foreign countries, but bureaucrats are socially destructive. MacWhite hears about Colonel Hillandale, an American liaison officer in Manila who has influenced elections simply by associating and eating with Filipinos in the barrios and playing native tunes on his harmonica.

Major James Wolchek, a former American war hero, is serving with the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam under Major Monet. They lose countless villages to the communists. The communists are following Mao’s rules of infiltration and guerilla warfare, while the French adhere to outmoded classical war strategies. After enduring dysentery, fever, parasites, mud, and communist torture, Monet decides to adopt Mao’s tactics. He and Wolchek study guerilla warfare, and their first attempt to use it is successful. However, the American general, proud and unwilling to learn from Asians, refuses to change his strategies, and the colonial forces lose Hanoi.

Tom Knox, an Iowan agricultural expert in Cambodia, has learned to love the Cambodian people and their food, and he is liked throughout the country. He recommends better feed and medicine for Cambodia’s poultry and wants to import better poultry stock, but his reports to the Foreign Mission are ignored, and the American Aid Mission does not want to hear about chickens. He is angry and vows to publicize his views back in America, but the French treat him to a luxury tour of the world, showering him with gifts, and he forgets about his hurt feelings.

Colonel Hillandale, assisting MacWhite in Sarkhan, learns that the Sarkhanese have great respect for palmistry. He reads palms at a diplomatic function, impressing foreign dignitaries including the prime minister, who follows Hillandale’s advice and wants him to advise the king. A diplomatic aide, scornful of palmistry, neglects to inform Hillandale of his appointment with the king, losing an opportunity for positive American influence in the nation.

Solomon Asch, a shrewd union negotiator assigned to mediate an Asian conference on arms, heads the American delegation whose job is to decide what arms the United States will send to its Asian allies. Asch instructs the delegates not to attend drinking parties so they will be alert and arranges for translation into all Asian languages, not just French and English. The French and British want to dominate the conference, but Asch refuses to allow it. Asch is clever and capable, but one of the American delegates acquires a Chinese mistress and stays up nights partying. As a result, he is unprepared and sleepy during the negotiations; he offends the Burmese and the Indians, and the talks fail.

Homer Atkins is a hands-on American engineer in Vietnam who wants to help the people by building a brick factory, quarries, and canneries. Officials and bureaucrats who have never visited the countryside are more interested in building dams and roads for military purposes, and they refuse to listen to his ideas. MacWhite, however, is impressed with Atkins and invites him to Sarkhan. There, Atkins designs bicycle-powered water pumps for the rice paddies with Sarkhanese helpers and starts a mechanics magazine in Sarkhanese. Although the embassy disapproves of their efforts, their business succeeds. Meanwhile, Atkins’s wife Emma wonders why all the old people have bent backs. She discovers they use short-handled brooms because they do not want to waste wood on long handles. Emma finds a reed with a longer stalk, plants it in front of her house, and lets neighbors see her making a long-handled broom and using it. Eventually, everyone grows these reeds, makes long-handled brooms, and, years later, they build a shrine to the woman who unbent the backs of the old.

Senator Jonathan Brown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, goes on a fact-finding tour of Southeast Asia, determined to find out what the situation really is. Ambassador Gray, in Vietnam, is warned of the senator’s visit. Gray and his French counterpart orchestrate a tour, a brochure, an untruthful translator, and parties for the senator that keep Brown away from the Southeast Asian people and their reality, glorifying the status quo. Back in the Senate, Brown refutes all MacWhite’s information, saying “I was there.” MacWhite’s suggestions for saving Sarkhan from the communists are rejected, and his resignation is requested.


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