Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

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.

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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 Asians, on the other. Engineers and hands-on workers of the soil are glorified, even romanticized, in contrast with citified officials who wear suits, never get dirty, and spend all their time eating, drinking, and pursuing other pleasures. The values of the frontier and American principles celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman are personified in the “good” characters: They are common folk who are not afraid to rub shoulders with indigenous peoples and who respect them enough to learn their language and use their ideas. It is these people, working on their own rather than through government-sanctioned channels, who bring about progress and enhanced relations in Asia.

Whereas unaffected Americans in their “natural,” pioneer-like state are glorified, such people are capable of being corrupted by exposure to too many urbanized European gifts, wines, cuisines, and women. Knox, who initially wants to benefit the Asian people with better poultry, is deliberately seduced away from his ideas by the French. The novel achieves an almost archetypal quality: Paradise is lost, as readers see such innocent and well-meaning individuals either lured away from their ideals or crushed by pleasure-loving, self-serving politicians, while the “evil” armies of the Viet Minh and Khmer Rouge lie in wait to swallow the entire region.

(The entire section contains 799 words.)

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Criticism