Bryan Aubrey

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1868

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth century literature. In this essay, he discusses the novel in the context of the cold war, the Vietnam war, and the nature of the U.S. national identity and character.

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Central to The Ugly American is the historical reality of the cold war. Behind all the individual stories lies the larger picture of a global struggle between two superpowers who embrace competing ideologies and compete ruthlessly for influence and control over smaller countries not only in Southeast Asia but all over the world. Given the fact that both superpowers have the capacity to destroy each other several times over through the use of nuclear weapons, the future of human civilization may depend on the outcome of the struggle.

Since the novel is so rooted in a particular period of history, it is impossible for readers in the early 2000s to respond to it in the same way that the original readers did, in the 1950s. In the early twenty-first century, the outcome of the cold war, far from being in doubt, is known, and that long struggle has receded into the pages of history. In fact, young people of college age in the early 2000s can have little or no direct memory of the cold war, since it wound down during the late- 1980s and finally ended with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the United States and its allies won the cold war, and communism has completely lost the worldwide appeal it held for so many people from the 1950s to the 1980s, it is apparent from the perspective of the early 2000s that many of the fears expressed by Burdick and Lederer did not come to pass. The Soviets did not outwit or outlast the Americans. American ideas, the clarion call of freedom and democracy, proved to be more durable than the collectivist ideas of Marx and Lenin.

Tragically, however, that is only part of the story. Some of the fears expressed by the authors in The Ugly American did indeed come true. The United States did not learn its lessons quickly enough to avoid the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, in which over 58,000 Americans were killed from 1964 to 1973, and the nation lost a war for the first time in its history.

In connection with Vietnam, The Ugly American seems prescient indeed, as the two chapters, "The Iron of War" and "The Lessons of War" demonstrate. The French, as they battle the communist insurgency, believe that their well-trained army, equipped with all the most modern weapons of war, will surely triumph over a ragged band of poorly equipped communists. They continue to believe this, according to The Ugly American, even when the evidence proves them wrong, again and again. When the French finally capitulate and withdraw from Hanoi, Major Monet, who has been enlightened by his discussions with Major "Tex" Wolchek and Gilbert MacWhite, expresses the truth as he watches the final French military parade: "No one bothered to tell the tankers that their tanks couldn't operate in endless mud. And those recoilless rifles never found an enemy disposition big enough to warrant shooting at it with them."

Less than a decade later, the United States made the same mistake as the French, thinking that a huge army—U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam reached 543,000 in 1969—with the most sophisticated military equipment in the world would defeat an enemy that possessed almost nothing in comparison. The shock of that defeat in Vietnam continued to reverberate in the national psyche for over thirty years.

But The Ugly American is about more than history and the cold war and the forewarnings about Vietnam. Behind the swirl of political events in Southeast Asia, the authors ground their work in a larger issue, the nature of the U.S. national identity and character. They are very careful to draw a distinction between the real American...

(The entire section contains 3750 words.)

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Critical Overview