The Ugly American
by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer
On a bookshelf in the back room of my apartment, I came across a crumbling, yellowed paperback. It's older than I am: originally published in 1958, the title page shows that my copy is a third printing, from 1960. I can no longer remember where I got it. It has no price tag, so it's doubtful that I bought it. Most likely, I picked it up from a pile of books discarded in an alley somewhere. That, sadly, reflects not only the fate of my copy of the book, but of the ideas within. Its noble sentiments have been passed over and largely forgotten.
The Ugly American is a novel about Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country. Sarkhan is an amalgamation of many nations: Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand. It's is a poor nation hovering precariously close to revolution. A communist insurgency, skillfully aided by the Soviets, is gaining strength. America, meanwhile, seems determined to alienate the Sarkhanese. The American officials are overwhelmingly arrogant, rude, and incompetent.
In contrast to the officials, a few Americans are genuinely devoted to helping the Sarkhanese. A priest, a soldier, a chicken farmer... spurned by their own government, they work small miracles in their own ways. But who will the Sarkhanese see as America's true face: the career diplomats, or the chicken farmers? Between these two distinctly different groups is Gilbert MacWhite, the newly appointed American ambassador to Sarkhan. MacWhite is a decent man, but he's woefully unprepared for the realities of Southeast Asia. To his credit, however, he realizes his shortcomings, and he dedicates himself to the challenge.
The book's title is deliberately ironic. The "ugly American" is Homer Atkins, a smart, hard-working engineer with no patience for diplomats and other fools. "His hands were laced with prominent veins and spotted with big, liverish freckles. His fingernails were black with grease. His fingers bore nicks and tiny scars of a lifetime of engineering. The palms of his hands were calloused. Homer Atkins was worth three million dollars, every dime of which he had earned by his own efforts..." But who is really ugly here? Atkins is one of the book's heroes. It isn't the engineer's skin-deep ugliness that drives this story. It's the ugliness of short-sighted, conceited, self-important fools. To this day, more than forty years after its publication, the phrase "ugly American" is invoked to embody America's incompetent, heavy-handed foreign policy.
In the introduction, the authors assert that events similar to those described in the book have happened again and again in the developing world. Indeed, most of the book seems very authentic... authentic enough that any reader concerned with how America is perceived in the rest of the world will cringe again and again.
In the book's "factual epilogue" the authors again drive home their point: that the US was being consistently outmanuevered by communists throughout the third world. (The postscript, incidentally, notes that one of the few parts of the book which seemed implausible -- an incident in which the Soviet ambassador deceives a village into believing that rice provided by the US was donated by the Soviets -- was loosely based on an actual occurance in India: in that incident, local communists secretly painted a red hammer and sickle emblem on several tractors which had been donated by the US, leading the Indians to believe that the tractors had been a gift from the Soviet Union!)
The Ugly American received exemplary reviews. In 1963 it was made into a movie starring Marlon Brando. Its title has become part of our contemporary lexicon.
And yet America's foreign policy is still haunted by the same mistakes. The Cold War is long-finished, and communism discredited, but it hardly matters. Who needs an enemy like communism, when you are already your own worst enemy?