Book #1: The Ugly American

The Ugly American, 1958. By William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.
The Ugly American (1958) by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick

Again and again while reading this book I found myself flipping to the copyright page to check the publication date: 1958. How it is possible that something so pressing and relevant to contemporary America appeared over 50 years ago?

From 1958 to 2014, few things, it seems, have changed.

The Ugly American is a tale of American foreign policy gone wrong. It’s a series of vignettes about dumb and dumber statesmen who are propped up in relative luxury overseas, inadvertently causing massive harm to smaller and weaker countries. Its fictional, though based-on-real-life characters, can be neatly classified into two categories: those who are idiots, and those who are not.

Among the idiots are Joe Bing, a public relations man who manages to recruit all of the wrong type of people into duty overseas. He waxed lyrical about the “conditions” one can expect–a description that caused me to uncomfortably remember the 3 years I spent in Okinawa, Japan when I was a kid:

“Foreign affairs is a big business and it’s important business. You all know that. Now maybe I can tell you a few things about working abroad for Uncle Sammy that you won’t read in the handouts. After all, even when you’re doing big work and important work, you still have to relax, and I know you’d like to know about the informal side of living and working abroad…You’ll have to work among foreigners, but we don’t expect you to love ’em just because you work among ’em. I don’t care where you work for Uncle Sammy, you’ll be living with a gang of clean-cut Americans…You can buy the same food in Asia that you can in Peoria…When you live overseas it’s still on the high American standard.” (79-80).

So, how does this measure up to my experience as a 7-10 year old kid living on Kadena Air Force Base? Unfortunately, it’s pretty accurate. I spent probably 90% of my time on the base, interacting with “clean-cut” American kids and attending an international, all-English speaking school. I learned about a dozen phrases in Japanese; that’s it. My family shopped at the PX and the BX and the Commissary. The times we did venture off base–usually on the weekends to go to the beach–we considered the atmosphere “exotic” and treated each excursion like a vacation. Now, did living in Okinawa for 3 years change me as a person? To some extent, sure. But it definitely wasn’t the rich cultural immersion that it could have been.

Back to the idiots.

The bulk of The Ugly American is set in the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Sarkhan, a thinly-veiled allusion to Vietnam. The subject: America’s ineffective efforts to curb the spread of Russian Communism. But if the idea of reading Cold War propaganda makes you sick to your stomach, don’t worry: It’s less an indictment of Communism than it is of American stupidity. The book will make you groan and guffaw and wonder how we even managed to become a country in the first place.

But for each idiot the book presents, there is a well-meaning, hardworking, and intelligent foil. Homer Atkins, a.k.a. the Ugly American after whom the book takes its name, is an engineer fluent in Sarkhanese and determined to improve the lives of the people in the country through simple, effective technology. Atkins is, indeed, ugly in the conventional sense: he doesn’t dress well, his hands are perpetually dirty, and his manner of speaking is course rather than refined. This ugliness sets him apart in a world where appearance is considered more important than common sense:

‘”Dammit,’ said Homer Atkins to himself as he looked around the room at the fashionably dressed men. The princes of bureaucracy were the same all over the world. They sat in their freshly pressed clothes, ran their clean fingers over their smooth cheeks, smiled knowingly at one another, and asked engineers like Atkins silly questions.” (205)

Atkins’ ugliness is a metaphor for many things, including honesty, pragmatism, sincerity, and discernment. The bureaucrats described in the above paragraph are none of these things, but are nevertheless bestowed with more power than Atkins has. I’ve found myself in many situations where I feel I’m the only person in the room with anything genuine to say, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s experienced this. Especially when you can just watch a Ted Talk anytime, a pseudo-intellectual, self-congratulating phenomenon that never fails to make me feel nauseated.

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick were smart enough to write a book that pretty much anyone can understand. In terms of prose, it’s clear and precise, with few chances for misinterpretation. This helps to explain, no doubt, why it became a huge bestseller in the late 50s/early 60s and is  still a linchpin in many Political Science classrooms today. I dearly wish I had read this book in high school; not only would it have helped me enormously with debate — I could have started to cast off the mantle of the Western-centric, neoliberal, and semi-colonialist education that I received in the American public school system much, much earlier.

This book flies in the face of adages accepted as “common knowledge,” e.g., “You can’t fight an ideology.” I’ve heard that phrase used many times to explain America’s defeat in Vietnam and our long-winded sashay in the Middle East–“We can’t fight those guys; they fall prey to a dangerous ideology and after that they can’t be rescued.” Incidentally, in 1958 Lederer and Burdick demonstrated that this is a flimsy excuse. The fictional Father Finnian, again based on a real-life persona, cunningly crafts an effective stratagem against Communism in Burma.

After an exhaustive study of Communism, including reading the prophecies of Lenin, Stalin, Engels, and Marx, and becoming fluent in the local language, Father Finnian recruits 9 anti-Communist Burmese to devise a way to demonstrate to everyone else that Communism is not in their best interests. In the course of their conversations, Finnian and the Burmese demonstrate why Communism is inherently anti-Democratic:

“‘the Communists have made all worship impossible except the worship of Stalin, Lenin, Mao. In the areas the Communists control everyone must believe in one single thing: Communism…I too am a Catholic, but I do not require that all of us be Catholics. What this means, I think, is that the thing we want is a country where any man can worship any god he wishes; where he can live the way his heart says. That, I think, is the final big thing.” (55)

This conversation, however, is ironic in the wider context of The Ugly American.  Americans who travel abroad and insist on replicating American lifestyles in vastly different circumstances, who are convinced that traditional warfare will eventually surmount guerrilla tactics, who assert that large construction projects are more prestigious and more useful than small, everyday technological improvements, who interact only with other Americans and are incapable of detecting the disdain in which they are held by foreigners, and furthermore, who do all of this in the name of DEMOCRACY? Well, frankly, that’s idiocracy.

4.5/5 stars


22 thoughts on “Book #1: The Ugly American

  1. I read this book when I was in high school (not for school, of course). I loved it and agree that it is still quite relevant.

  2. Fascinating post, book, and comments. I haven’t heard of the book but I will definitely look it up and put it on my to-read list. I spent almost a decade in Japan as an American expat, but I very much blended in with the local culture, marrying into a Japanese family, etc. But I did vaguely know of the wealthy expat community that lived above and beyond the normal Japanese citizen, in $20,000/month apartments in the swankiest part of Tokyo, etc. Sadly I do see the power and entitlement that come with being American sometimes, even in small things. A girlfriend of mine uses her American assertiveness to her advantage in Japan, knowing that the Japanese are unlikely to protest or fight back.

    Anyway, I didn’t know you had lived in Okinawa!

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, and I am glad you enjoyed the post! I do highly recommend the book – it’s also a pretty quick read, though it did take me longer than it should have to finish it.

      I do know what you mean about Americanness being an advantage abroad, sometimes in ways you don’t even realize. When I was in South Africa doing research, it was relatively easy for me to find people who agreed to be interviewed for my project. I suspect that had something to do with the perceived power differential. But $20,000/month for an apartment?! That is an entirely different level of crazy! I’ve seen you mention your time in Japan a couple of times on your blog, and I looks forward to hearing more about your experiences there.

  3. I believe the reason this book speaks so accurately about the world and America’s place in it is that the ideals never really change; we just find new ways in each generation to pervert the process. I’ll try to make up for the Ugly American when I travel, but it’s only once a year, to tropical resorts, and what progress can be made there more than surface-level goodwill?

    I’ll still try … and I appreciate this excellent review.

    1. I suspect that you are right. But if you’re a decent person at those tropical resorts, and you’re polite and kind to the wait staff, I think that does help to make a small difference in the way we are perceived.

      As for me, one of my proudest moments was when a friend of mine from Italy told me: “In general I don’t really like Americans. But it’s ok, I like you—you’re one of the good ones.” Haha. A small compliment, but it made me ridiculously happy!

      Thanks for stopping by and taking a moment to share your thoughts. 🙂

  4. “How it is possible that something so pressing and relevant to contemporary America appeared over 50 years ago?”

    I’m curious to know whether you’ve read Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American.” As you may know, it was published about a year after Dien Bien Phu, but was loosely based on Greene’s experiences as a reporter in Southeast Asia during the French colonial war. While there are many levels at which the book can (and probably should) be read, and it’s ultimately infused with Greene’s trademark ambivalence, it could easily have been written several decades hence, and it can certainly be read (at least in my view) as a prescient warning that extends far beyond Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Change a few details and Saigon could easily be Baghdad.

    1. No, I haven’t read Greene’s book! But it sounds like I would certainly enjoy it. I admit to being biased when it comes to literature; i.e., I usually *think* I prefer stuff published more recently. But it seems that many of the foreign policy gems appeared years ago – now we just have fluff novels like “The Post-American World” by Fareed Zakaria. Thanks again for stopping by and commenting, and for the recommendation!

      1. “I admit to being biased when it comes to literature; i.e., I usually *think* I prefer stuff published more recently.”

        That’s interesting; if anything, I have the exact opposite bias. 🙂

        I think “The Quiet American” popped into my head, at least in part, because I recently re-read Greene’s magnum opus (“The Power and the Glory”–I heartily recommend that as well, not incidentally, though it’s very different from “The Quiet American”).

        In any case, if you’re into the ex-pat-who–can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees thing, I’ll also recommend E.M Forster’s “A Passage to India,” if you haven’t already read it. It’s in my personal all-time Top 5.

        1. E.M. Forster! Now how have I not read one of his books?! Onto my reading list it goes 🙂

          I think I prefer “newer” literature mostly because of the writing style, and not always because of the content or the strength of the characters, plot, and/or argumentation Which I realize might sound strange, but then I’ve sort of always distinguished between stylistic flair and storytelling ability. It’s not often that they merge, in my opinion. “The Master and Margarita” is one of the exceptions, I think.

  5. We have a huge US military presence here in Seoul, and it’s unfortunately just as you describe. A big separation between the 2 cultures and little attempt at understanding Korean culture. Most Koreans are not very happy about the US military presence here (though it’s required I guess). They do get demonized of course (because they stand out), but when you hear about a soldier breaking into a girls apartment, stealing her laptop, and raping her for 18 hours, and then basically not getting prosecuted (due to SOFA regulations), it’s pretty upsetting. Or…the yahoos that started randomly shooting bb guns at people for fun in broad daylight, started a high speed car chase and then tried to get out of it by blaming it on some Arabs. Never mind all the fights and drunkenness on the weekends. I mean they had to implement curfew for the US military here!

    Hard to stomach that kind of behaviour when Seoul is overall a very peaceful and safe place. I mean my husband has left his scooter with the keys not he street for HOURS and it nobody steals it. People don’t lock up their bikes on the street, and I can walk around at any time of the day and night and feel totally safe. It’s frustrating.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I most expats can relate in some way to the points raised in this book, unfortunately. The stories you shared are shocking – I remember, very vaguely, that similar things would happen in Okinawa and no one would be prosecuted. The degree of cognitive dissonance that Americans can maintain is astounding – move to another country, purportedly try to “help” it, then refuse to abide by the local rules/regulations/norms. Or hell, refusing to abide by any norms!

      I did get the chance to spend about a week in Seoul once. I remember really enjoying it, especially Lotte World, but I was distracted by the army tents and tanks scattered sporadically throughout the city. But I would love to know more about your experiences in Seoul – I checked your website, but either WordPress is malfunctioning or you haven’t posted much about it yet! Thanks again for stopping by & commenting. 🙂

      1. That’s funny! I live very close to Lotte World – about a 15 minute walk away. When were you here? It has changed A LOT in the last 5 years, even. I think it might even be unrecognizable to you if it was long ago. 🙂

        Yes, I’ve got to write more about Korea life – but seriously, I’m so behind on writing about our RTW trip (still 9 months to write about! Gulp) I don’t understand how people keep up while they’re traveling. How do they see anything?

        Anyhow, if you look under the Asia Category, you’ll see Korea, and there’s some stuff there. I just added the Life in Seoul category and have to do a bit of re-categorizing.

        1. I did keep up a blog when I was traveling in South Africa & Argentina, but my trips weren’t nearly as fast-paced as yours! And I didn’t have a regular blogging schedule; I just posted about every 3 days and it was fine. And sometimes slow Internet would delay me.

          Yes, I was in Seoul over a decade ago, so I probably wouldn’t recognize any of it!

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