Hustle the East – by Mark Tawen, 2018

Black Rose Writing, November 2018

Hustle the East is a new novel that tells a touching story of love and loss while touching all bases of Ugly Americanness. Three narrators trace the tragic history of Laos as a pawn in the Cold War, shedding light on America’s immoral and inhumane bombing campaign.

In what the author calls “faux memoirs,” we witness the turbulent downfall of a centuries-old monarchy through the eyes of an American teacher and two Laotians of starkly different backgrounds. The future of the Kingdom of Laos and the lives of the narrators come under the shadow of reckless Americans back when America thought it was invincible. The repercussions of what happened in the Seventies last for decades, into the new Millennium.

The American narrator Paul “Benny” Bendit is a straight-arrow straight out of college in Illinois. As a newbie, he naively imagines he can help erase the image of the Ugly American in Southeast Asia. On his first day in Laos, Bendit glimpses Henry Kissinger on a historic peace mission that has dark implications for the 600-year-old Kingdom. Bendit also meets Jack Gaines, a feckless fellow teacher who’s siphoning money out of hopeless situations. From the get-go, Bendit marks Gaines as a charlatan. But seen through other eyes, Gaines is a complex con artist, a loathsome and lovable bad guy. In retrospect, Bendit recalls: “… It took me a while to figure out that in Laos the good guys were the bad guys.”

The second narrator is an orphan of colonialism who became a monk and a gravedigger. Sangkhom notes wryly that he and Gaines were born on opposite sides of the world and they started out on opposite side of the war. When East twains with West, their fates become entwined — but only as far as the next plot twist.

In the opinion of the third narrator, the enigmatic Lao ingénue Chansamone, Gaines is like a centipede: “The first two legs don’t tell the whole story.” A complicated love triangle arises out of chaos but the course of love doesn’t run true in a country on the verge of collapse.

Borrowing pages from The Ugly American, this new novel is like a Who’s Who of (Fictional) Americans Mucking About in Southeast Asia. Apart from Bendit and Gaines, we meet half a dozen Americans attempting to influence history or hustle the East. Tommy Mangold was a helicopter pilot and bona fide war hero in Vietnam before giving up his Air Force wings to work as a civilian in Laos. As an aid worker, he worked behind the scenes and below the radar to defend democracy in Asia. On the day Kissinger comes to Vientiane, Mangold curses all he’s done in the name of the democracy, and does a 180.

Mohawk Jones was born to missionaries in the mountains that merge northern Thailand with Laos. His knowledge of highlands culture and languages made him invaluable to America’s efforts to win the hearts and minds and military service of the Hmong and other mountain dwellers. Recruited by the C.I.A., Jones abandons the Gospel and trains the highlanders to kill for Freedom and Uncle Sam.

Ernest Leitner is a widower who landed in Laos after selling his farm. If he wasn’t so short, Leitner could have stood in for the pitchfork-wielding Iowa farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Obviously patterned after one of the good guys in The Ugly American, Leitner is an agricultural adviser who’s spending his life savings to lift Hmong farmers out of poverty. A saint among the scoundrels sent by USAID, Letiner makes personal sacrifices to improve the lives of Laotians displaced by bombs.

Warren Rippington delivers the milk and hard rice (ammo) for the C.I.A.’s Air America. The fearless mercenary pilot admires President Nixon’s anti-Communist gumption. But when the course of history takes a wrong turn, even a gung-ho guy like Rippington can shed a tear. Unbelievably it’s not the Communists but Congress that brings Humpty Dumpty down.

Stanford Oh is a Korean-American Vietnam War veteran who serves as a Consular Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. When a fellow American is arrested by Lao Communists, Consul Oh advises him to confess to everything. In a newly Communist country, the diplomat doesn’t know if it’s worse for an American to be charged with murder, espionage or anti-social behavior.

The author rejected the standard Disclosure Statement that states: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” That’s because the fictional sweep of Hustle The East takes place against a backdrop of actual historical events. It’s no coincidence that readers learn more about the actual persons named Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Dr. Tom Dooley and a pair of American ambassadors who directed the bombing of Laos.

How many Ugly Americans can you count?

 

NOW AVAILABLE AT AMAZON.COM and BARNES & NOBLE

 

The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam – by Max Boot, 2018


Anyone who investigates the behavior of Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia (what my friend Jim calls Ugly Americanity) in fiction or fact, will stumble upon Edward Lansdale. Every major work on the C.I.A. has had to deal with Lansdale’s personality, professionalism and impact on the intelligence organization; some praising him as a Good Guy in the idealistic Kennedy mold and a genius at anti-guerrilla tactics; others deriding him as a lightweight ad man, if not a madman, who loved to gab with Asians but did not grab the complexity of their cultures. President Kennedy teased Lansdale that he was America’s James Bond but Lansdale demurred. saying he was not the 007 type.

I’ve been hearing about this larger-than-life intelligence operative psy-war guru for 50 years and now, thanks to military historian Max Boot, I know a great deal about him, about 600 pages of novelistic non-fiction about him.

Followers of the Ugly American Book Club will recall that the real-life Brigadier General Edward Lansdale, who was U.S.A.F. and C.I.A., was the model for Air Force Col. Edwin Barnum Hillandale, a hero of The Ugly American. They both played the harmonica and ate in panciterias to make friends with Filipinos. William J. Lederer, author of The Ugly American, was a friend of Lansdale’s and an unabashed admirer of the undercover agent’s uncommon approach to patriotism and quashing Communism.

Lansdale also has a connection to The Quiet American. Both he and Graham Greene lived in Saigon in 1954. When the book came out in 1956, Lansdale told his wife that Greene’s undercover intelligence agent Alden Pyle was “supposedly based upon me.” For his part Greene denied it, saying Pyle was “younger and more innocent” than Lansdale and besides the book was written before Lansdale arrived in Saigon. When he finally read the book, Lansdale complained that Greene got the politics wrong as well as his description of plastic explosives.

In 1956, Lansdale invited the Hollywood director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to his home in Saigon to discuss a film version of Greene’s best-seller. The Hollywood producer had acquired the film rights to prevent Europeans from making an “anti-U.S.” movie. The two witty conversationalists hit it off, and it was Lansdale who came up with a plot twist that made the movie anti-Communist and infuriated the English author. Boot describes the plot inversion as an example of Lansdale’s touch for psychological warfare.

In fact, Lansdale already had some experience in spinning yarns to paint the Vietnamese Communists as Evil Incarnate in the eyes of the American public. In 1954, a flotilla of U.S. Navy vessels transported tens of thousands of Catholics from North to South Vietnam in what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom. The most influential, hair-raising account of the exodus came in the form of Dr. Tom Dooley’s 1960 book, Deliver Us from Evil. The handsome young American doctor vividly describes accounts of Vietminh persecuting Catholics and using chopsticks as instruments of torture. A USIS official, who believed Vietnamese would never waste chopsticks, said he first heard the chopstick torture stories from none other than that wild and crazy psy-ops guy Lansdale.

Boot describes Lansdale as an early purveyor of fake news with a political purpose. Lansdale was very proud of “black psywar” leaflets he penned purporting to be Vietminh leadership preparing an attack on Hanoi, and instructions he distributed on how to inventory prospective war booty, and fake charts showing how U.S. atomic bombs would annihilate the North.

Though Lansdale was not present when the South Vietnamese President Ngo DInh Diem was ousted and assassinated (the turning point of Morris West’s The Ambassador), he served as an adviser to Diem during the Geneva Convention that split Vietnam in half.

Boot’s bountiful new book is a superbly researched biography of Lansdale that covers more than a century of American military intervention in Asia, beginning with the Filipino-American war. Through Lansdale’s letters and author interviews, the biographer lovingly recreates Lansdale’s family tree and the tricky relationship he had with his American wife and his Filipina mistress. But more tellingly, Boot traces Lansdale’s path from ad copywriter for Levi’s to psywar expert and nation-builder. We follow his secret exploits in the jungles of the Philippines, his friendship and mentorship of the Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay, and the brilliant unorthodox strategies he employed to undermine and eventually disarm the Huk Rebellion of Filipino Communists.

Based on his success countering insurgency in the Philippines, and despite his lack of knowledge about Cuba, Lansdale was put in charge of America’s campaign to counter Fidel Castro. Though Lansdale was one of the few C.I.A. men who opposed the Bay of Pigs invasion, he bore the brunt of blame for the Agency when the invasion failed. Before long, Lansdale was back in Vietnam.

The second half of the book sets out on the road to war in Vietnam before it steers us toward an analysis of the road not taken. Some Monday Morning armchair generals say American presidents should have authorized the use of even greater force against North Vietnam, sooner and spread wider, to nip the Communist insurgency in the bud. But what if Uncle Sam had used less force? It should have been obvious to the Joint Chiefs of Staff as it apparently was to Lansdale, that Vietnam was not a conventional battlefield that could be won by artillery and air power. What if Washington had focused its massive economic and political power on how to best serve the Vietnamese people and make them prosper? Could a lighter military hand guided by a more enlightened nation-building brain have succeeded where tons of bombs and Napalm failed?

 

 

Insurrecto – by Gina Apostol, 2018

Here’s a new book I haven’t read. I’m writing about it now to give the author a boost and reward her for writing a novel that tackles the complex relationship between the United States and the Philippines on many levels.

The publisher Soho Press describes the book as a military history but according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Apostol’s fourth novel is “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta, plunging us into the vortex of memory, history, and war where we can feel what it means to be forgotten, and what it takes to be remembered.”

Wow, that’s what I call heavy meta!

From the author’s website, https://www.ginaapostol.com/praxino-org, I’ve learned a little about the plot: It begins in the present, with Chiara, an American woman filmmaker, heading to Samar Province to work on a film. Balangiga, Samar, was the site of a 1901 attack by Filipino insurrectos on an American battalion. In retaliation, Americans massacred the insurrectionists, or as Apostol says, “Soldiers created a howling wilderness of the surrounding countryside.” Sounds like Vietnam to me.

Few Americans have heard of the Philippine-American War, which was a bloody awful practice run for the even bloodier American War in Vietnam. Beginning in 1898, U.S. Army volunteers fresh off the farm found themselves in Southeast Asia using an early version of the submachine gun and an early version of waterboarding, against an enemy they called niggers and goo-goos. It was a war fueled by jingoist American nationalism and latter-day imperialism. Don’t tell a Filipino that America never had any colonies.

The plot takes a few turns when the filmmaker’s translator, a Filipina mystery writer named Magsalin, reads the film script and decides to write about the massacre from a Filipina’s perspective. If Google Translate is not mistaken, the Tagalog word magsalin can mean “translate,” “transfer,” or “transfuse.” I suppose Ms. Magsalin can be seen as an artistic insurgent in a cultural war.

We’ve all heard the quote “History is written by the victors” but in modern literature we find that history is also written by the survivors, and by professors and students of history inspired by them.

According to the website blurb,

“Within the spiraling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women — artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters — finding their way to their own truths and histories. Using interlocking voices and a kaleidoscopic structure, the novel is startlingly innovative, meditative, and playful.”

Let’s listen to these spiraling, interlocking, innovative, meditative and playful voices and learn from them.

With Hearts Aflame – by Victor M. Ordonez, 2002

While you’re focused on the Philippine-American War, I’ll discuss With Hearts Aflame, A Historical Novel.

Full disclosure: I have history with this novel. Over several years of envisioning this project in the 1990s, originally as a screenplay and later as a novel, I helped the author shape the American character. However the novel – with all the Filipino nuances – was masterfully written by a dear friend of mine while he was battling cancer. Dr. Victor Ordonez was a Renaissance man who served the Philippines and later the United Nations Organization with distinction and sophistication. Everyone who knew him misses his intellect, his wit, his warmth and his loving ways.

The American hero Lt. Tom Wilcox arrives in the Philippines on a scouting mission in 1886, while the archipelago is still a Spanish possession. A keen and passionate observer, Wilcox sends periodic reports to Army General Wesley Merritt in San Francisco, analyzing Manila’s potential as a regional trading post. But Merritt wants more. As America is rattling sabers in preparation for war with Spain, Merritt asks Wilcox for military intelligence on the strength of Spanish forces and their armaments, and the loyalty of their locally recruited troops.

During his reconnaissance, Wilcox falls in love with the Philippines, and with a fiery Filipina named Coring. It’s no surprise that he also falls in with the brave Filipinos secretly plotting to oust Spanish overlords after three centuries of oppressive and cruel colonial rule. Wilcox vows his love for Coring and his devotion to the cause of Filipino self-rule ignited by the patriot Dr. Jose Rizal, who is then awaiting execution. In this fictional retelling of the martyr’s death, Wilcox smuggles Rizal’s last poem, Utilmo Adios, out of prison in his boot. The book’s title comes from a line in the poem that speaks of Filipinos who fight in their country’s name “with hearts aflame.”

Unfortunately, President Grover Cleveland and Governor William McKinley are not dancing to the merry tune Wilcox is playing. After Commodore George Dewey vanquishes Spain’s Asiatic fleet in Manila Bay, General Merritt arrives with the U.S. Volunteers of the Philippine Expeditionary Force to wrest control of the country from the remaining Spaniards.

The proud Castilians won’t give up without a fight but the Battle of Manila in August 1898 is a sham, its outcome predetermined. The Spaniards agree to surrender and the Philippines (named after their King Philip) is nominally free of a European power. They surrender to the Americans, not the Filipinos, and under the terms of the surrender, no armed Filipino may enter the capital. In other words, the Americans, who were supposed to be helping the Filipinos, are taking control of Manila, and snatching victory from away Emilio Aguinaldo’s Katipunan revolutionaries down in Cavite.

When Coring learns that Wilcox was with General Merritt at the surrender ceremony aboard the ship Ayuntiamento, she’s confused.

“Her mind could not wrap itself around the Americans’ betrayal and Tom’s possible role in it. She thought she knew Tom so well, but now with this turn of events, she felt maybe she did not know him at all.”

A few months later, with the Filipino independence movement in utter disarray, Coring has even more reason to doubt Wilcox’s love for her and the dream of a free Philippines. It is with an aching heart that Wilcox sends her a letter describing the events of February1899 at San Juan Bridge, the first bloody skirmish between American soldiers and Filipinos. (Spoiler alert: the battle does not go well for Wilcox’s Filipino friends and their cause.)

Wilcox writes to Coring:

“My dear Heart, The last few days have been tragic… General Otis has declared outright war against the Aguinaldo forces… I am lost. I joined the military of my country as a young man full of ideals and principles, ready to lay my life down in the fight against evil and injustice. Now these armed forces have become instruments of evil and injustice.”

The U.S. Army hunted down the originally anti-Spanish, then anti-American revolutionary leader Aguinaldo and captured him in 1901, effectively ending his term as the first President of the First Philippine Republic.

Celebrating America’s first counterinsurgency victory in Southeast Asia, President William McKinley put the archipelago of 7,100 islands under the American flag. William Howard Taft, the first U.S. Governor General in Manila, and later 27th President of the United States, said Filipinos – whom he called “our little brown brothers” – would need America’s assistance for 50 or 100 years before acquiring the requisite Anglo-Saxon skills for self-rule. It would be half a century before the Philippines achieved full independence.

The cover art featured on both this book and Insurrecto by Gina Apostol are works by Ben Cabrera. Learn more about this renowned Filipino artist at:

http://www.bencabmuseum.org/national-artist/

 

 

 

The Consul’s File – by Paul Theroux, 1977

In a New York Times review, British novelist Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) muses that when Britain’s professional meddlers retreated from The East, Americans filled the vacuum. More recently, I’ve observed that when Americans left a void in Southeast Asia, Australians eagerly took up diplomatic, economic and cultural initiatives. Life goes on ob-la-di, ob-la-da.

In The Consul’s File, a youthful American diplomat who remains nameless narrates the comings and goings of Americans and British expats in the fictional town of Ayer Hitam. Never important, the tiny town is languishing as its rubber plantations, a symbol of British colonialism, shut down to make way for oil palm estates.

In 20 stand-alone stories, Theroux is at his best describing “the Empire’s orphans” – quixotic Malay, Chinese, Tamil and mixed-race characters – as they interact clumsily and cannily with each other and the expatriates who play fateful roles in their lives.

The polyglot locals are engaged in Chinese clans and secret societies, Communist cells and Indian sports clubs while the expats wile away their time smoking, drinking and playing tennis at the Club, where it’s perennially 1938.

Here and there, Theroux tosses in details of the ex-pat lifestyle: dealing with amahs and jagas, drinking Tiger Beer, smoking mentholated cigarettes, taking malaria-suppression tablets like Communion, and serving a 16-pound holiday turkey brought up from Singapore’s Cold Storage company.

Four women are notable among the Americans in the file. A shapeless, graceless teacher of English claims she was raped by an oily attacker, who may be a spirit. An anthropologist goes native in the jungle and marries an aboriginal chief. A skinflint travel writer’s shtick includes never paying for anything. An older-wiser U.S. embassy secretary, who had a fling with the consul in Kampala, invites him to the Raffles Hotel to discuss “diplomatic relations.”

Sadly, the “moderate and dependable” consul is a cheese sandwich in a land of sambal and spicy food. He makes a few tricky decisions but doesn’t embark on any real adventures. He’s nothing like Jack Flowers, who wheels and deals down in Singapore in Theroux’s Saint Jack. From the outset, the uninvolved consul senses that Americans won’t last as the professionals who pulling the strings in Southeast Asia. He begins by describing his assignment:

“It was my job to phase out the Consulate. In other places the consular task was, in the State Department phrase, bridge-building; in Ayer Hitam I was dismantling a bridge not a difficult job: we had never been very popular with the Malays.”

This collection was published in 1977 although some of the stories seem to have been written years earlier. There is an early reference to being in the Federation of Malaysia, which melded Malay sultanates with Singapore and Borneo into one country until it broke up in 1963. Theroux taught at the University of Singapore for four years beginning in 1968, the timeframe of these stories.  Mixed with his memories of Malaysia, Theroux shoots a few darts at the State Department for its failures and ignominious 1975 retreat from Vietnam.

A flinty U.S. diplomat named Flint complains that mollycoddled, malcontent Foreign Service wives in Saigon supported the Viet Cong by nagging and nagging.

“They talked about ‘our struggle’ as if there were some connection between the guerrillas shelling Nha Trang and a lot of old hens in the embassy compound refusing to make peanut butter sandwiches. It’s not funny. I knew lots of officers who were shipped home – their wives were a security risk.”

When a polo-playing American planter is hacked to death in Ayer Hitam, the Consul notes that a resurgence of revolutionary zeal is to be expected as “a natural result” of America’s collapse in Vietnam.

The consul’s ex-lover, who enjoyed a Saigon posting in an air-conditioned embassy compound, envisions a day when both she and the Consul are posted to Hanoi. “It won’t be long,” she prophesies.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ugly American – by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, 1958

Mass-market paperback, 1962

The Ugly American is paramount in my pantheon of novels about Americans bungling about in Southeast Asia. As literature, The Ugly American is not a great novel or even a good novel. A New York Times book reviewer opined that it was “neither subtle as art nor altogether convincing as fiction.” But it touched a nerve, and half a century after its publication, the book’s title remains a catch-phrase for incompetent and insensitive U.S. diplomats, arrogant entrepreneurs, and even travelers and tourists from the States who act badly abroad.

The novel is clumsily episodic, consisting of loosely intertwined sketches. On the plus side, the authors serve up engaging descriptions of what it’s like to live and work as an American in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, some of the sketches read like a CV.

What stands out most about the American miscreants Lederer and Burdick found mucking about in Southeast Asia is their ineptitude — but that’s the whole point of the exercise.

The authors set their story in Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country “out toward Burma and Thailand.” The trouble brewing in Sarkhan serves as a snapshot of the mid-1950s when America was wading into the quagmire the French left behind in Indochina.

Perhaps the ugliest American in the book is “Lucky” Lou Sears, a three-term U.S. Senator. When Lucky Lou loses his bid for re-election, he appeals to the White House for a post-Senate sinecure. Alas there are no federal judgeships available so they offer him an ambassadorship in Sarkhan. “Where the hell’s Sarkhan?” the future envoy asks. When Lucky Lou learns that the ambassador’s mansion comes rent-free with an entertainment allowance, and diplomats can buy alcohol tax-free, he agrees to represent the United States in Sarkhan.

In stark contrast to Lucky Lou Sears, we meet another Lucky Lou, the Soviet ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitsyn. Unlike his American opposite number, Lucky Lou 2 can read and write Sarkhanese. Moscow’s man in Sarkhan spent months preparing for the assignment with conscious efforts to appeal to the local people; he lost 40 pounds; he took ballet and nose-flute lessons to better appreciate Sarkhanese music and dance; he read Sarkhanese literature and attended lessons on Buddhism. Upon his arrival in the country, he humbly presents himself, bowing low, to the Prime Minister and the Chief Abbot of Sarkhanese Buddhism. While the American ambassador gleans information from lavish cocktail parties where Asians are not invited, the Soviet ambassador gets his information from Sarkhanese drivers and translators working for the Americans.

Nearly halfway through the book, Lou Sears gets his judgeship. He is succeeded in Sarkhan by Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite, a professional Foreign Service officer. MacWhite has taken the trouble to learn a lot about the country and learn a little of the language. MacWhite considers his appointment a capstone to his career, and readily accepts the mantle of crusader against creeping Communism. He travels to the Philippines, Vietnam and Burma to learn about Communist atrocities and counter-insurgency tactics to quell the tide. Though well intentioned MacWhite makes mistakes that will cost him dearly. Meanwhile the chapters of his fact-finding tour provide entrée for the authors to fictionalize a several Americans who were well-known in Southeast Asia, among them a Cold War warrior who closely resembles the C.I.A. operative Edward Lansdale, a pioneer in psychological warfare and counter-terrorism.

A few of the heroes are unselfish technical specialists who chose to live among the people they’re there to help. In Cambodia, we meet Tom Knox, a poultry expert from Iowa, who strives to improve food security among impoverished farmers. Knox suggests to the U.S. aid mission that for very little money, he could import hens and roosters from America to strengthen the local breeding stock, and increase Cambodian annual egg production from 30 eggs per hen to 200. But enamored of big military-industrial type development projects, Uncle Sam turns him down.

In Vietnam, we meet Homer Atkins, the Ugly American of the title. The irony is that Atkins, who describes himself as ugly, is the antipathy of the ugly actors who give Americans a bad name. Atkins prefers to live outside the capital without the creature comforts so crucial to top American officials. Atkins is a doer. He’s not comfortable taking meetings with misguided U.S. officials. Rather than look them in the eye, he looks down at his thick-veined, liver spot-freckled, grease-stained hands. His hands remind him he’s an ugly man but Atkins takes courage knowing he can always earn a good living with his ugly hands.

Atkins is a self-made millionaire who felt a calling to help people in developing Asia. He travels around Vietnam, talking to all kinds of people, and assessing the need for the dams and military roads the Americans are advocating. In his final report, Atkins tells the American aid apparatus that the Vietnamese people don’t need roads designed for tanks; they need the building blocks of development, like quarries and brick factories. Scorned in Saigon, the Ugly American is invited to Sarkhan, where Ambassador MacWhite challenges him to build sustainable water systems in the boonies, an assignment Atkins relishes. (Atkins plays a major role as a highway engineer in the movie version of “The Ugly American” as discussed below.)

The Ugly American (film) – directed by George Englund

 

The Ugly American directed by George Englund

Universal International, 1963

Seen on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRC2E46fFs0

Moviegoers who flocked to the screen adaptation of The Ugly American in 1963 were familiar with the best-selling novel’s celebrated cause, calling out American diplomats and aid workers for their ineffectiveness in the face of Communist aggression. If they’d read the book, they were probably as pleasantly surprised as I was to find that screenwriter Stewart Stern had turned clunky journalistic chapters into an action movie that still had a bit of whistleblower’s outrage. Rather than overload filmgoers with background as Lederer and Burdick had done to armchair readers, director Arthur Hill skimped on details, leaving critics and many viewers in the dark about the politics behind the action.

Variety put it this way: “Some of the ambiguities, hypocrisies and perplexities of Cold War politics are observed, dramatized and, to a degree, analyzed in The Ugly American. It is a thought-provoking but uneven screen translation taken from, but not in a literal sense based upon, the popular novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.”

After seeing the movie, Burdick wrote a newspaper column noting that the movie possessed “only the most passing resemblance” to his bestseller. But the professor conceded the movie was in many ways better than the book, crediting the filmmakers with doing a fine job of fleshing out the characters and creating drama without diluting the book’s political impact.

In his first post-“Mutiny on the Bounty” role, Marlon Brando stars as Ambassador Harrison MacWhite (rebranded from the original Gilbert MacWhite). Brando arrives in Sarkhan with a pencil-thin mustache, looking every bit as macho as Clark Gable. He’s no bumbling Lou Sears. He’s a savvy scholar who’s got wise-ass answers for everything, and in the movie version, he’s no newcomer to Sarkhan. Highjacking the backstory of another character in the source material, MacWhite was an O.S.S. officer who parachuted into Sarkhan during a secret mission in 1943. Back then he teamed up with a Sarkhanese named Deong to help liberate the country from Japanese occupation. Now as the new ambassador MacWhite wants to brush up on his Sarkhanese language skills and rekindle his friendship with Deong after a ten-year absence. As in the book, Deong has changed a lot since the Old Days. He is critical of American imperialism and spouts Communist ideology.

MacWhite is perceptive and well-meaning but blinded by naivete and stymied by pig-headedness. This keeps him from seeing and understanding what the Sarkhanese people really want and need. Homer Atkins is back, played by Pat Hingle, who later played the Commissioner in “Batman” movies. Living as he does in the boondocks, Atkins understands that the military highway MacWhite insists on completing is the wrong project at the wrong time.

When tensions explode in ugly, violent and realistically frightening riots, MacWhite begins to comprehend that America’s goals are not Sarkhan’s goals. He observes: “We can’t hope to win the Cold War unless we remember what we’re for, as well as what we’re against.”

 

 

 

The Ambassador – by Morris West, 1965

Mass-market paperback cover

Like The Ugly American, The Ambassador begins with a prefatory note: “This is a work of fiction, built by the time-honored literary method of peopling an historic situation with characters construed out of the imagination of the author.”

In the novel, an embattled Prime Minister of South Vietnam, under intense political pressure from the United States to resign, grants an interview to a visiting Australian novelist. In real life, Morris West was Australia’s best-selling novelist (The Devil’s Advocate, The Shoes of the Fisherman) when he interviewed South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem in October 1963. West felt compelled to report Diem’s views to Australia’s ambassador and notes of the interview were passed along to the American ambassador. A month later, on November 2, 1963, Diem was ousted by his Army generals and assassinated after attending morning Mass. A fellow Catholic like Diem and West, President John F. Kennedy approved the C.I.A.’s decision to support the generals over Diem.

In the year following the assassination, West plumbed his imagination to create American characters and portray inside-the-Embassy conversations and gut-wrenching rationalizations. The characters peel away layers of religious, spiritual, pragmatic and patriotic reasoning as they explore the morality, practicality and military options of dealing with a despotic but democratically elected South Vietnamese leader.

A guilt-ridden West delves into what right America and its anti-Communist allies, including Australia, had to interfere in the politics of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. What right did Westerners have to choose sides, employing massive economic and military might – and ultimately resorting to war – to stand in the way of self-determination in Southeast Asia?

Though the author has construed a dozen American characters in the Saigon embassy and the halls of power in Washington, three well-drawn, highly complex characters stand in the crux of the morality play.

The ambassador of the title, Maxwell Gordon Amberley, is the newly arrived U.S. envoy in Saigon. Modest, mature, elegantly mannered, and measured in his approach to his awesome responsibility, the erudite Amberley appears to be the embodiment of what a U.S. ambassador should be.

Like Amberley, the dapper CIA Director Harry Yaffa is a true professional. But as the top CIA agent for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Yaffa is amoral. Without moral scruples, he takes on the Agency’s most sordid chores with efficiency and a near-sexual excitement. On Amberley’s first day on the job, Yaffa hands him an automatic pistol and warns, “This is an assassin’s town.”

The embassy’s First Secretary, Melville Adams, is intended as a study in contrast, reserving to himself the right to question and even refuse his Government’s bidding when it runs counter to his own beliefs. Like Amberley, Mel Adams must make difficult decisions in a morass of multicultural and morally ambivalent situations.

Reflecting West’s fervid Catholicism and intellectual interest in Buddhist philosophy, Amberley veers between the yin and yang of Yaffa and Adams. He cannot function in Saigon without Yaffa. He cannot live in a diplomatic bubble without Adams, the cloying conscience of well-meaning Americans.

In the end, Amberley acts as he must, as the instrument of United States policy.. “…(W)hat else was left to me?” the ambassador asks himself. “My small inheritance of good manners, polite custom and traditional morality had been laid waste by the processional march of history. My action, any action, was a futile gesture against the trampling might of elephants.”

The CIA-backed coup that led to Diem’s assassination continues to haunt U.S. policy around the world and the lessons, artfully illustrated by West in a beautifully written novel, go unheeded. As I write this, The New York Times reports that the United States is being accused of plotting with Army generals who oppose embattled Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.

Deliver Us From Evil and The Edge of Tomorrrow – by Dr. Tom Dooley, 1956, 1958

Author-signed bookplate in my 1956 hardcover edition of Deliver Us From Evil

Mass-market paperbacks

Dr. Tom Dooley’s acclaimed books recount the medical and humanitarian miracles he wrought as a Navy medic in North Vietnam. His rousing descriptions of how he witnessed Communist atrocities, healed the sick, and aided legions of Catholic Vietnamese refugees, made Americans swell with patriotic pride and resolve to put an end to the evil. As the Cold War heated up, Dr. Dooley’s hair-raising anti-Communist vitriol was raising the curtain on expanding U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Vietnam.

As a fifth grader in 1958, I was amused that there was a song on the radio called “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley” that was not about the bestselling author. But more to the point, as an impressionable young American and a Cub Scout for several months, I was horrified at how atheist Viet Minh Communists were torturing innocent Vietnamese Catholics seeking religious freedom. Dr. Dooley described in gory detail how Communists shoved chopsticks in children’s ears to keep them from hearing prayers, how they tortured priests by pounding nails into heads, and how they punished hundreds of Vietnamese women by disemboweling them for being Catholic. These indignities were akin to what we kids paid to see in the Medieval Torture Section of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in Times Square. But being that this was happening in real time, and not in the Middle Ages, the Communists’ torture of Vietnam’s Catholics seemed even more egregious.

Although Dooley’s books are found on non-fiction and history shelves, it’s now known that some of his purplest prose, including his descriptions of wholesale torture techniques, was pure fiction. There’s a body of research illustrating that a lot of what Dooley wrote was exaggerated or fictionalized. In a post-Vietnam War light, one now sees Dooley’s tales of his own awe-inspiring exploits as propaganda, a literary form in its own right. The Pentagon Papers notes that Dooley was not only a doctor; he was an intelligence operative.

In fact the author William J. Lederer was in Saigon working for the C.I,A, when he first heard about Dooley’s work with refugees from Communism in Haiphong. Lederer encouraged Dooley to popularize his experience in books and actually helped edit some chapters. It is no mere coincidence that the harmonica-playing character of Colonel Hillandale in The Ugly American is based on Air Force Lt. Col. Edwin Lansdale, the C.I.A. chief in Saigon who recruited both Lederer and Dooley as propagandists for the anti-Communist cause. In The Ugly American, Lederer fictionalized Dooley as the good-guy hero Father John Finian, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Dooley the author did a good job of portraying himself as a selfless hero. Imagine that a handsome Navy medic from Missouri, scarcely 30 years old, could do so much to counter the scourge of Communism! It all seemed too good to be true and in fact, U.S. diplomats in Hanoi sent an alarm to the U.S.I.S., signaling their doubts that Dooley had done in real life what his character did in his bestselling books. The diplomatic report that doused water on Dooley’s doings was kept classified for decades, until after the Vietnam War.

After leaving the Navy, Dooley remained an icon of anti-Communism and American do-goodism, raising funds for hospitals and orphanages in Laos and Vietnam, appearing on TV frequently while bound to a contract with The Reader’s Digest that made him ubiquitous in that publication celebrating American values.

Dooley died of cancer on his 33rd birthday. Despite the falsehoods in his non-fiction, he left a true legacy in the form of the Thomas A. Dooley Foundation, which set up clinics and hospitals in rural and remote parts of Laos. A New York Times article published in 1964 eulogized him in this way: “Tom Dooley continues to live in the hearts of the deprived people of Asia. His life and the continuing program of the Dooley foundation stand for the best in American traditions.” Thankfully, there is some truth to his fiction.

 

 

 

 

Crazy Rich Asians – (book and film)

Crazy Rich Asians (novel) by Kevin Kwan, 2013 

Crazy Rich Asians (film) directed by Jon M. Chu, SK Global, 2018

I was no stranger to Singapore’s perks and quirks when I first heard of Kevin Kwan’s hilarious novel. I learned about the book from a friend who like me, had lived in Singapore in the 1980s and returned decades later to gawk at the Disneyesque additions to the island city-state.

In Singapore, I worked with 40 Singaporean journalists in a no-frills newsroom that resembled a factory floor. My coworkers were earnest, down-to-earth intellectuals, who slaved away at their desks while dreaming about getting away from Singapore on holiday. We had a couple of crazies in the newsroom but I doubt that any of my coworkers were crazy rich.

Author Kevin Kwan is an American citizen as well as a Singaporean. His engineer father relocated the family to Houston when he was a boy. Singapore apparently wants him back to serve the compulsory military service stint he has not served. Facing possible legal jeopardy, Kwan did not attend the Singapore premiere of the film.

Kwan’s first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, gives outsiders an amusingly encyclopedic insider’s look at the Republic of Singapore, a buckled-down single-party state smaller than New York City. While spinning a soap-opera love story, Kwan’s spot-on narrative tackles such topics as the richness of Singaporean cuisine, the challenge of adhering to ancient Chinese tradition in the 21st Century, and the fine art of cursing in surreptitiously spoken Chinese dialects.

At two hours’ running time, the movie can’t touch the book’s ability to serve up delicious detail about food and foibles, families and friendships.

CRA is primarily about Singaporeans, Americans are conspicuous by comparison. The movie’s rom-com plot hinges on whether a quintessentially American girl will be accepted by her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s ultra-rich social circle. Unlike Chinese Singaporeans, whose worldview is Confucian and class-conscious, the Chinese American interloper and potential wife (Oh my God!) embodies the openness and disdain for class distinction that most of the world admires in Americans.

Rachel Chu is no Ugly American.  I believe the author and the film’s director made a conscious effort to show Rachel as a natural beauty, confident and capable in her own skin. Early on, she is dining in a cafe with her Singaporean boyfriend Nicholas Young in New York City. The two are casual, carefree and spontaneous. With eyes only for each other, the cool couple is unaware that gossip-hungry Singaporeans have spotted them in a cafe and outed them in social media posts. When Rachel agrees to join Nick at a wedding in Singapore, she has no idea that her boyfriend’s uppity family has been tipped off about their relationship, and no idea that they’re so unlike Nick. They’re frighteningly stiff, extremely formal and tightly culture-bound.

Inside the palatial villas of the Young Family, Rachel is a Cinderella surrounded by ugly stepsisters – her boyfriend’s cousins and friends -who are not ugly but outwardly gorgeous. A wag at a posh party observes that Rachel is the odd-woman out in that she hasn’t had plastic surgery. Among wealthy Asians, eye jobs and boob jobs are as common as BMWs and Benzes. In one scene at a bachelorette party on a private resort island, Rachel reveals how un-Singaporean she is when she’s reluctant to join the rich but opportunistic women invited by their host to scoop up designer clothes and accessories for free!

Commenting on NPR, the Malaysian Chinese author Tash Aw put it this way: “Rachel’s squeaky-clean naivete is a clever foil to the intricate workings of the high-glamour Asian set around her. Chinese on the outside but all-American on the inside, she allows us to see the myriad nuances of intra-Asian culture that the novel goes to great lengths to show.”

Rachel is an economics professor at NYU. By Singaporean standards, Economics is a perfectly respectable field of academia, except that trickster Kwan has made Rachel a teacher of Game Theory. Being a Professor of Game Theory strikes conservative Chinese as an inconsequential and very American calling. I checked the NYU Course Catalogue to see if there is such a course. Sure enough, Economics 309 Game Theory and Strategy is “an applied overview of game theoretical concepts that emphasizes their use in real-world situations.” Though Rachel is mocked for being an expert at Game Theory it pays off in one of the film’s most dramatic scenes when Rachel is pitted against Nick’s mother, the imperious Eleanor Young, in a culturally loaded game of mahjong. Played to perfection by Michelle Yeoh, a former Miss Malaysia and a Bond Girl, Eleanor is obsessed by ancestral lineage. She is not alone. Alll the snoops in her social circle want to know if Rachel is a scion of the Taiwanese Chus, the Malaysian Chus, or some other fabulously financially successful Chus. Eleanor  is so desperate to learn the Chinese pedigree of her potential daughter-in-law, she hires a detective to trace Rachel’s Chinese roots.

Rachel is a luscious slice of apple pie as played by Constance Tianming Wu, an American comedic actress of Chinese descent who appeared in the ABC-TV series “Fresh Off The Boat.” Born in Richmond, Va., raised in the Bay Area and educated at Stanford, Wu is as American as chop suey and fortune cookies.

Rachel’s mother, the hard-working, self-made real estate saleswoman Kerry Chu, is played by Tan Kheng Hua, a Singapore-born actress who earned her American chops as a student at the University of Indiana. And while a Chinese Singaporean plays Rachel’s Chinese American mother, a Korean American plays her Singaporean best friend who has returned home to resume her crazy rich life. Singapore’s wackiest returnee from America is brought to life by Queens-born comedian and rapper Nora Lum (a.k.a Awkwafina), who was last seen in “Ocean’s 8.”

When the ancestry-obsessed Youngs learn the unhappy truth about Rachel’s lineage, a happy ending seems unlikely. Then again, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a romantic comedy about two kids who are crazy about each other, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.

Both the writer and the film’s director are Singaporeans who choose to live in the United States for reasons that may be obvious to Singaporeans.

In case you’ve been living on a planet where there are no crazy rich Asians, be advised that there is now a Crazy Rich Asians trilogy.

 

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