The Ugly American

by William J. Lederer, Eugene Burdick

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Chapters 9–11

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Chapter 9: Everyone Has Ears

Gilbert MacWhite, the new ambassador to Sarkhan, is “competent, exact, and highly efficient”; he has prepared for his assignment by learning Sarkhan’s language, culture, and internal politics. Within months, MacWhite creates a detailed plan to reduce Communism’s influence in Sarkhan, a plan he regards as a major personal achievement. Even though MacWhite outwardly displays modesty in all things, he has a strong ego and believes his plan to defeat Communism in Sarkhan will be considered the high point of his ambassadorial career. During his preparations, he meets to discuss his plan with an old friend, Li Pang, who is an advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek.

As the two friends discuss MacWhite’s plan, Li suddenly becomes angry and calls MacWhite “a great fool.” Li realizes that they have been discussing this highly-secret plan while two of MacWhite’s servants, both Chinese, are listening. MacWhite assures Li that the servants, Donald and Roger, are intensely loyal and speak only rudimentary English. After a series of questions and answers between Li and Donald, Li traps Donald into admitting that he speaks English. Donald also acknowledges that he has been spying on MacWhite for the Chinese Communists, who have threatened Donald’s family in China if he fails to supply useful information. MacWhite, shocked by his servant’s betrayal, is even more devastated by his own lapse of judgment. He realizes that many months and millions of dollars have been wasted and decides that he must learn as much as possible about Communist intelligence-gathering methods. He asks the State Department for permission to visit the Philippines and Vietnam to study how those countries deal with Communist ideology and tactics.

In the Philippines, MacWhite meets with Ramon Magsaysay, the Minister of Defense. Magsaysay, who goes on to serve as the Philippine president, tells MacWhite that the most effective Americans in foreign service are not bureaucrats but those who use their technical knowledge to benefit the common people and learn their concerns firsthand. Magsaysay recommends that MacWhite seek out an American Air Force colonel named Hillandale, known in the Philippines as the Ragtime Kid.

Chapter 10: The Ragtime Kid

Edwin B. Hillandale, a US Air Force liaison officer, became fascinated by Filipino culture and language after being stationed there in 1952. Since then, he has become an advisor to Ramon Magsaysay, now a presidential candidate. Although Magsaysay is popular in most provinces, in one province the Communists have persuaded the people that Magsaysay, because he associates with Americans, does not fully understand or care about Philippine’s problems.

Hillandale visits the largest city in the province, Cuenco, and rides into the city on a red motorcycle with the name “The Ragtime Kid” on the gas tank. He immediately sits on a street curb, pulls out a harmonica, and begins playing popular Filipino tunes, including “Planting Rice is Never Fun,” a popular song among the working class. After his impromptu concert, Hillandale asks to be invited to lunch because he has no money, and the Filipinos are incredulous that an American officer is penniless. Hillandale uses the crowd’s skepticism to begin a dialogue about their conceptions of Americans.

The crowd, believing all Americans are rich, simply doesn’t believe Hillandale can be as broke as he claims to be, so he shows them an empty wallet and begins to tell them of his everyday living expenses in the United States. Hillandale uses the cost of housing, food, and liquor to show the crowd that his salary is not much different from their salaries in buying power. He manages to change the crowd’s perception of the average American. Convinced...

(This entire section contains 1065 words.)

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that Hillandale struggles as they do to live a decent life, members of the crowd then compete to take Hillandale to lunch, and after the meal, he regales them with his harmonica and their local songs. He repeats this visit several weekends in a row and completely changes the perception that Americans are only out-of-touch rich people who know nothing of working-class struggles.

The Communists in the province try to downplay the people’s new perception of Americans, but when the votes are counted in the presidential election, Magsaysay has received ninety-five percent of the votes.

Chapter 11: The Iron of War

Another dedicated and highly-decorated military officer and adviser, Major James (“Tex”) Wolchek, is attached to a parachute regiment of the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam, commanded by Major Monet. Wolchek fought in World War II and Korea, and now fights in Vietnam just as the last French bastion at Dien Bien Phu has been surrounded by Communist forces (the Viet Minh). Although Monet and Wolchek have very different military backgrounds, they respect each other and prepare the regiment for a parachute drop into Dien Bien Phu to support the French garrison. Monet questions Wolchek’s experience as a paratrooper, but Wolchek points out that he has made twelve combat jumps, more than Monet has made. While inspecting the troops, Wolchek meets an African American legionnaire named Jim Davis, who is considered by Monet to be one of the most effective troops in the regiment because the Vietnamese, who usually hate African troops, like and trust Davis.

On the day of the planned assault, they discover—through MacWhite, who is now in Vietnam—that Dien Bien Phu has just fallen and Hanoi is endangered by rapidly approaching Communist troops. By analyzing what has happened throughout Vietnam in battles between the French and Vietnamese Communists, the three men conclude that the Communists’ unconventional tactics—like embedding disguised soldiers within the civilian population—make a conventional offense and defense futile. Although Monet is initially skeptical about the value of the Communists’ tactics, an incident occurs that changes his mind.

As the communists approach Hanoi, the fighting becomes intense and exhausting, and all the legionnaires, including Monet and Wolchek, are wounded, sick, or both. They send Jim Davis and a Vietnamese man to scout for enemy activity and soon lose contact with the men. When Davis and the Vietnamese man return to the French lines, they have suffered gruesome injuries—not sufficient to kill them, but designed to maim them as a “lesson to others.” Davis has had an eye gouged out, and the Vietnamese man has had his vocal chords torn out as punishment for giving intelligence to the French. Monet immediately realizes that the French need to adapt to the Communists’ tactics.


Chapters 4–8


Chapters 12–15