Summary and Response Paper
The Ugly American (1958), a novel written by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, is based on the actual experiences and observations of the authors in Asia as employees of the U.S. Foreign Service. As such, it is vital to address two major questions: what makes The Ugly American ugly in the minds of Lederer and Burdick; and, do the authors have a point? The novel is a sequence of interrelated stories of actual individuals that Burdick, a scholar, and Lederer, a navy commander, met abroad in the midst of escalation to the Vietnam War. The novel takes place in the fictive Sarkhan, described by the authors as “a small country out toward Burma and Thailand” and has “border difficulty with the Communist country to the north”. It comprises a string of fabricated apocalyptic stories predicting destruction confronting the U.S. in Asian disputes with the Soviet Union. The authors depicted presumptuous overseas U.S. ambassadors and foreign aid agents as passive, indifferent, indecisive, and uneducated of the local languages and culture, gathering in their turfs taking pleasure in a convenient, well-off way of life of colonial advantage, exposed to the lures of the Asian culture.
Meanwhile, cunning and determined communists were roaming the communities of Southeast Asia acquiring new members and dominating the movement against colonialism. Redemption is in the hands of several dedicated, intelligent, and tough American individuals who, forgoing convenience and comfort, could defeat the communists. Lederer and Burdick explain that while the Foreign Service people of the Soviet Union are highly educated in the traditions, religious beliefs, cultures, and languages of the countries to which they are tasked to serve, U.S. representatives were not. This pattern is attributed to the fact that U.S. diplomats are assigned by means of political backing rather than through diplomatic qualifications and personal credentials. U.S. foreign service agents interact only with their White colleagues and behave in ways insulting to the local people, believing that their own culture is superior.
More specifically, they detest U.S. policy because its ways are inadequate or unable to attain its goals against communism. One of the key reasons why the authors label these Americans 'ugly' is the thoughtless indifference of the Americans to the local population. However, there is another point of view that must be taken into consideration. Homer Atkins, a considerate, kind character sincerely committed to serving Southeast Asian communities is the authors' Ugly American. Lederer and Burdick choose the word 'ugly' because Atkins is not pleasing to the eye, not because of his values or political motives. The authors argue that, unfortunately, there were only a handful of people like Atkins in Southeast Asia prior to and throughout U.S. intervention in the region. Instead, numerous individuals possessing the traits espoused by the authors' undesirable characters-- Major Cravath, Joe Bing, and Ambassador Sears-- betrayed the American nation with reckless, superior, and xenophobic behavior, speech, and attitudes, pushing the country to its eventual humiliation.
An in-depth analysis of The Ugly American reveals an unrelenting pattern of actions, beliefs, and attitudes of the American servicemen toward the local population. This 'ugliness' is generally represented by conceited, haughty American racism and a swollen sense of U.S. nationalism and superiority. Furthermore, through the unshakable patronage of the U.S. of a crooked, ultra-conservative South Vietnamese regime, this 'ugliness' has shaped and perpetuated the American nation's image as an undesirable savage intruder. The novel demonstrates the primary causes of the military frustration of the U.S., and in fact the nation's failure to gain the approval of the Vietnamese population could be the consequence of the Ugly American affliction. Regrettably, during the following decade, this 'ugliness' became a serious hurdle, forcefully and unintentionally disrupting U.S. operations in Asia.
The Ugly American has gained both acclaims and criticisms because of its straightforward depiction of American servicemen in Asia during the 1950s. Lederer and Burdick label these Americans 'ugly' because of their indifference and apathy toward the local population, refusing to give up their convenience and comfort for the sake of committed service. This 'ugliness' pertains to attitudes and behavior, and not physical aspects. The authors' arguments may have some merit because they personally witnessed and experienced these so-called 'ugly' dispositions of the American servicemen, but this may not be true today.
Lederer, William and Eugene Burdick. The Ugly American. New York: Tandem Library, 1999.