The Ugly American

by William J. Lederer, Eugene Burdick

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Chapters 16–19

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Last Updated on February 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1373

Chapter 16: Captain Boning, USN

At a weapons conference in Southeast Asia, the head US negotiator is Solomon Asch, a tough former union negotiator who has been asked to convince several Asian countries to allow the US to install nuclear and conventional weapons in their countries. Asch understands that several countries—India, Burma, and Thailand in particular—will likely oppose having these weapons in their countries. Among Asch’s negotiating team are Ambassador MacWhite and a United States Navy weapons expert, Captain Boning, as well as two US foreign service officers, Dooling and Anderson.

Asch tells his negotiating team that there will be dinners and cocktail parties every night, but they are to avoid the cocktail parties altogether and attend only two dinners per week. Dooling objects on the bases that avoiding the social gatherings will offend the Asians and that Americans will miss opportunities to pick up intelligence during social interactions. Asch rejects these arguments, saying that nothing useful can come from so much socializing.

During the first week of negotiations, MacWhite and Captain Boning do very well. Political issues are directed to MacWhite and weapons-related questions to Boning. The British representatives, however, point out to Asch that the Asians are not accustomed to dealing with weapons issues on a national level: they are used to thinking in terms of provincial needs. Asch responds that the Asians must be treated as if they are fully capable of handling the weapons issue as representatives of their entire country. If they think they are being treated as inferiors, Asch argues, they will never agree to the United States’ proposals.

The meetings in the second week do not go as well, and Asch is puzzled. He decides that the problem is Captain Boning, who seems tired and answers questions hesitantly. When Asch confronts Boning and asks if he is tired from “living it up,” Boning denies this emphatically. He says that the questions are becoming more difficult to answer quickly because he has to think about what information is public and what is still classified.

It is revealed to the reader, however, that Boning is tired because he has been seeing a Hong Kong professor named Ruby Tsung, who was educated both in the US and at a “special school in Russia.” At first, she is simply a willing guide, but after two weeks, she and Boning spend the night together. During the next day’s negotiations, Boning, his eyes barely open, hesitates to answer a crucial question from the Indian representative about nuclear bomb safety. The Asian representatives mutter sarcastically about Boning, and Asch immediately recognizes that they have lost confidence that the US is telling them the facts about the weapons. The negotiations fail.

Chapter 17: The Ugly American

Homer Atkins is presenting his recommendations for Vietnam’s infrastructure projects to American and French bureaucrats. He has been roaming Vietnam’s countryside for months and has concluded that what Vietnam needs more than anything are improvement projects. The work could be carried out on a small scale by the Vietnamese themselves and would require only native materials. The bureaucrats, however, believe that Vietnam needs dams and military roads, large projects that would cost millions of dollars. Atkins uses the trail from Hanoi to what is now South Vietnam as an example of what people can do without outside help, a suggestion that enrages the bureaucrats, who believe such a thing cannot be done. Atkins has seen this trail in his travels, but the bureaucrats deny its existence and respond that the Vietnamese will decide what they need, not Atkins. 

Present in this meeting is Ambassador MacWhite,...

(This entire section contains 1373 words.)

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who likes Atkins’s recommendations, and the two continue to talk after the meeting. MacWhite offers Atkins a hand in implementing his suggestions in Sarkhan. MacWhite points out that Sarkhan, unlike Vietnam, is hilly, and a major problem is getting water from rivers and canals to hillside rice paddies. Atkins immediately begins to sketch a rudimentary pump system that fascinates MacWhite, even though he doesn’t understand its complexity. When Atkins is finished with his sketch, he asks MacWhite if he can publish a magazine to distribute his designs, and MacWhite agrees. In two weeks, Atkins and his wife, Emma, come to Sarkhan.

Chapter 18: The Ugly American and the Ugly Sarkhanese

In a suburb of Haidho, Atkins and his wife are living in a house with rudimentary comforts. Emma Atkins is learning to cook Sarkhanese dishes and has picked up enough Sarkhanese to carry on basic conversations, and Atkins continues to work on his design for a manually-powered pump.

Part of Atkins’s design problem is solved by discarded military jeeps, which provide part of the pumping system. Atkins still has a problem with how to power the mechanism, which is solved by Emma as she watches a villager go by on a bicycle: she suggests that Atkins use the chain drive system from discarded bicycles.

When his design is complete, Atkins travels to a poor village called Chang ’Dong, introduces himself to the village headman, and asks if the village has a man skilled in mechanics. Atkins then meets Jeepo, so named because he is expert in jeep repair. The men bond immediately. Atkins and Jeepo assemble the pumping mechanism next to a rice paddy, and Jeepo uses a bicycle chain drive to actuate the pump and water flows from a pipe in the paddy above the pump. Despite their success, Jeepo points out that although the bicycle pump is working, most people own only one bicycle and can’t afford a second bicycle for pumping. Hours later, and after many attempts to solve the problem, Jeepo designs a frame for the bicycle when it is being used to drive the pump. When the bicycle is needed for transportation, the user disengages the bicycle from the pump, lifts it out of the frame, and rides away.

Atkins and Jeepo create a company and agree to split the profits. They also agree that the pump system will not be licensed or patented, as they want it to be used by the greatest number of people possible. Atkins and Jeepo then decide that the workers who build the pumps will be given a chance to sell them for a commission, a proposal that shocks the Sarkhanese. In five days, a worker returns with orders for eight pump systems but believes that he has failed because he has given his two sample pumps to customers for demonstration purposes. Atkins and Jeepo celebrate his success.

Chapter 19: The Bent Backs of Chang ’Dong

Emma Atkins notices that many of Chang ’Dong’s elderly people walk with bent backs and appear to be in constant pain. She asks villagers for an explanation, and two women tell her that bent backs are natural for old people. Not satisfied, Emma begins to observe village life more closely.

After observing that old people do most of the sweeping in houses and village common areas, she realizes that the brooms they use have very short handles, requiring them to sweep in a hunched-over position. When Emma asks why brooms have such short handles, a village woman replies that brooms have always had short handles. Further inquiries indicate that wood is scarce in the Chang ’Dong area, so the villagers have been using a short-stem reed as a handle for centuries. And although it would be simple to import wood and give the villagers new brooms, Emma has learned from her husband that, in order to change behavior, the people themselves must take an action that leads them to a behavioral change.

In her searches around the Chang ’Dong area, Emma finds a tall, strong reed. She asks her husband to collect some, which she then plants around their house. In time, the reeds mature with tall, sturdy stalks, and Emma harvests one, attaches some coconut fronds to it, and begins sweeping—with an unbent back. As more villagers observe her sweeping, they also begin to look for the tall reeds.

After their work in Chang ’Dong is done, and the Atkinses return to Pittsburgh, Emma receives a letter from the village headman telling her that the village has erected a shrine to Emma for having “unbent the backs of our people.”


Chapters 12–15


Chapters 20–22