Last Updated on February 13, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1348
Chapter 20: Senator, Sir . . .
Though he began his career with “a high degree of corruption,” experience has changed Senator Jonathan Brown: he has “completely lost his corruption.” Brown’s realization that the US Senate is one of the world’s most powerful political bodies causes him to become both honorable and conscientious. Over the course of three years, he becomes one of the US Senate’s most knowledgeable members regarding foreign affairs, particularly issues in Southeast Asia, and he schedules an inspection trip to the area, including Vietnam.
Once in Vietnam, Brown is accompanied on his tour by Major Cravath and Dr. Barre, an embassy staff member who will act as his interpreter. They first encounter a French officer training a group of Vietnamese in the use of the recoilless rifle. Brown has Barre ask one Vietnamese man how many times he has fired the weapon and at what targets. The Vietnamese man, a cook, answers that he has never fired the weapon, but Barre’s translation is that the Vietnamese hasn’t fired the weapon because there is not enough ammunition. Brown reacts angrily and asks why they haven’t asked for more ammunition. Cravath and the French officer agree that it would confuse Brown to tell him that the recoilless rifle is useless in Vietnam because there are no appropriate targets for the weapon.
On his return to the embassy, Brown sees two officers, one French and one American, who appear to be drunk in a roadside cafe. The officers are Monet and Wolchek, and Brown is outraged to find an American officer drunk. Not knowing who Brown is, Wolchek threatens him with a beating, and Brown retreats and returns to the embassy, where he tells Ambassador Gray that the officers should be punished. Later, Gray considers the episode pivotal in mellowing Brown for the rest of his visit.
There are two additional incidents in which Brown is not told the truth—for example, he is told that the Vietnamese make poor soldiers, and when he asks where the Communists get their soldiers, he is told they are Chinese. As Brown returns to the US, he is startled to realize that throughout his tour he has only talked to two Vietnamese nationals and two officers below the rank of general, both of whom were drunk. Brown briefly begins to doubt the validity of his observations, but he soon falls into a peaceful sleep.
On his return to the US, Brown is on the floor of the US Senate. He and Senator Corona of New Mexico are vying for time to speak, and Brown yields to Corona. Corona announces that despite the US having given four billion dollars to the French in Indo-China, they have lost most of their territory. Corona notes that this information has been given to him by a credible source, Ambassador MacWhite, who is “bitterly pessimistic” about Vietnam. MacWhite has testified that Vietnamese Communists and anti-Communists both hate the French, in part because the French are more interested in making money than helping the Vietnamese. Worse, the French have routinely given US diplomats and military personnel a false picture of how dire conditions in Vietnam really are. Brown vehemently denies the validity of these observations, telling the Senate that Corona’s source, MacWhite, isn’t even stationed in Vietnam and that his information is incorrect. Brown can report this firsthand, he says, “because, gentlemen, I was there. . . .”
Chapter 21: The Sum of Tiny Things
After news of Brown’s attack on MacWhite’s testimony is published, MacWhite defends himself in the press, but he soon receives a handwritten letter from...
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the US Secretary of State. The letter includes a list of MacWhite’s actions since becoming ambassador, all of which are cast in a negative light. The secretary doesn’t ask for MacWhite’s resignation but does insist that MacWhite carry out his ambassadorial duties as expected.
MacWhite responds with a letter in which he clearly articulates all the lessons he has learned about dealing with the people of Sarkhan, as well as how best to counter Communism’s influence in Southeast Asia. Among other things, MacWhite argues for the necessity of having foreign service personnel who speak the language of the country in which they serve, as well as doing away with the luxuries and perks traditionally associated with service abroad. While waiting for a reply, MacWhite visits Chang ’Dong to look at its “thriving, although tiny, industrial complex” and Finian’s Station, a nondenominational college for Sarkhanese students, who attend on full scholarships.
Upon his return to Haidho, MacWhite receives a letter from the US State Department rejecting his suggestions for changes in recruiting foreign service workers, and he is ordered to return immediately to the US. He will be replaced by Joseph Bing, who is described as highly qualified for the ambassadorship.
Chapter 22: A Factual Epilogue
The final chapter is a nonfictional epilogue. The novel’s authors, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, acknowledge that it is unusual to end a work of fiction with a statement of facts that support the fictional account, but they wish to issue a warning. They believe that if the US does not alter the patterns depicted in the novel, the result will be disastrous for the US and good for the Communists. The principal observation is that freedom is lost “in a succession of bits and fragments,” rather than in a few large mistakes.
They note, for example, that Ambassador Sears is fictional, but he is representative of the type of political appointees who have neither the temperament nor the skills to succeed in foreign service. Further, most current ambassadors, in the experience of Lederer and Burdick, do not speak the language of the countries for which they are responsible. They argue that this is a fundamental weakness that guarantees the failure to understand both the culture and the people of these countries. Because interpreters are relied upon so heavily, US diplomatic personnel can be easily misled or manipulated by poor or dishonest translations—as depicted during Senator Brown’s visit to Vietnam.
Foreign service workers who can speak a country’s language are more likely to render effective assistance, as they are able to circulate among the people freely, learn what their problems are, and work with them to fix those problems. Communication fosters understanding, and understanding creates trust.
Lederer and Burdick also contrast America’s style of foreign involvement unfavorably with Russia’s, which requires foreign service personnel to speak the host country’s language, live among the people, and understand their culture through extended tours of up to five years.
The lack of military understanding of Communist tactics—which the authors call “avoidable ignorance”—is also a serious flaw in the US approach to foregin involvement, because the Communists’ military strategies are widely available in books by Mao Tse-tung. Unfortunately, these seem to have been ignored by US military and diplomatic personnel. As the authors point out, the disastrous fall of Dien Bien Phu, which surprised many US military advisers, was a textbook campaign fully articulated in Mao’s writings. There is no evidence that the US advisers were familiar with Mao’s tactics and overall strategy.
Russia, the authors argue, has won many victories over the US without engaging the US directly, and it has extended its influence to more than seven hundred million people outside Russia. They point out that anti-Americanism “is a rising tide” in the Far and Near East, and the 1.5 million US foreign service workers who are there at the time of The Ugly American’s publication (in 1958) are not up to the task of countering Russia’s efforts.
Lederer and Burdick believe that dollars are not the answer, but that human capital—that is, dedicated, culturally aware, hard-working Americans—is the only solution to the currently hopeless situation. The authors end, however, with a positive observation: Asians like and respect the “basic American ethic,” and if the US can demonstrate the value of “freedom and hope and knowledge and law,” the US can win this struggle of ideologies.