In the prologue and epilogue to The Ugly American, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick state that their novel is not fiction: The personalities and episodes presented are factual, and only the names have been changed. The country of Sarkhan is fictional, but real countries, such as Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma, appear in the novel. The purpose of the novel is to bring to light what the authors see as abuses in the foreign service. They plead for diplomats to learn the language of the area in which they serve, read about it, get out of the major cities (“golden ghettoes”) and into the countryside, and spend less of their time entertaining rich Americans. They argue that the United States spends too much money on the wrong aid projects while overlooking projects that would cost less and be more helpful. They warn that if members of the foreign service do not learn about communism and changes are not made, Southeast Asia will be lost to communism.
When this angry and cynical novel appeared in the late 1950’s, it caused much political reaction. Many were convinced and angered by Lederer and Burdick’s contentions; others disagreed. The book was denounced in the U.S. Senate by those whose policies it criticized, and the term “ugly American” became part of the national lexicon, describing Americans abroad who remain ethnocentric and insensitive to other cultures. Characters in the novel were traced by readers to real individuals whose names were only superficially changed. Whereas many at the time discounted the authors’ characterizations of American problems in Southeast Asia, their forecasts of the victory of communist tactics in the area were borne out in subsequent decades.
The Ugly American has been criticized for its black-and-white portrayals, drawing lines of good and evil with bureaucrats and elitist European diplomats on one side and “common people,” individual working Americans and...
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