The Ugly American Themes

The main themes in The Ugly American are American arrogance and failure in Southeast Asia and how to win the Cold War in Southeast Asia.

  • American arrogance and failure in Southeast Asia: The book argues that arrogance has resulted in the United States’ failure to defeat the Communist Party in Southeast Asia.
  • How to win the Cold War in Southeast Asia: In the narrative, the characters who are actually able to effect change are those who respect and attempt to understand the local cultures.


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Last Updated on February 11, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1331

American Arrogance and Failure in Southeast Asia

The purpose of the novel is to point out the ways in which the United States is failing in its attempt to defeat communism in Southeast Asia and to explain the alternative methods that must be adopted in order to succeed. In brief, the United States is in danger of losing the cold war in this part of the world because it relies on a complacent political and bureaucratic establishment that fails to understand the local culture and relies on large-scale foreign aid programs that do not address the real needs of the people. Each story in the book illustrates some aspect of this or related themes, showing an American who is either part of the problem or part of the solution.

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First among those who put U.S. enterprise at risk is Ambassador Sears. Sears has no training for his position, which is handed to him by the leader of the Democratic Party merely out of political loyalty. Sears knows nothing about the country to which he is assigned and makes little attempt to find out. He spends his time at social events, entertaining visiting American politicians and military men, and never meets any of the local people. He also forbids any of his staff to go into the local villages. In spite of the fact that he is despised by the locals and outwitted by the Russians, he believes that his relations with the Sarkhanese "couldn't be better." He has no grasp of the seriousness of the communist threat in Sarkhan, and there is an unconscious irony in his letter to the U.S. State Department in which he dismisses the prospect of a communist takeover: "I get around at one hell of a lot of social functions, and official dinners out here, and I've never met a native Communist yet."

Similarly Joe Bing, the information officer, thinks the situation is positive. Americans in the region regard him as a charming man who knows everyone in Setkya, but he is viewed very differently by the locals. Ruth Jyoti says of him that far from knowing everyone, he acknowledges only those who are "European, Caucasian, western-educated, and decently dressed." Her description of him suggests the image of the "ugly American" that since the book's publication has come to symbolize the worst aspects of American behavior abroad: "He drives a big red convertible, which he slews around corners and over sidewalks. And he's got exactly the kind of loud silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear."

When Bing gives a lecture in Washington, D.C., he reveals a flaw in American recruiting strategies for foreign service. He emphasizes the easiness of the life—the perks of free housing and the availability of servants—not the challenges. Americans are not even required to learn the language of the country to which they are sent. Bing's statement reveals his ethnocentric view of the world: "Translators are a dime a dozen overseas. And besides, it's better to make the Asians learn English. Helps them too." The result of all this is that the Americans attract only mediocre people into foreign service.

Since few Americans bother to learn the local language most Americans end up staying in the cities, talking to others just like them—American and European diplomats, and cultured, English-speaking members of the Asian elite. This language insulation contrasts with the...

(The entire section contains 1331 words.)

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Chapter Summaries