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