Facts about Fiction

The Ugly American

William J. Lederer was a former Navy PIO and Admiralty adviser in Saigon. His coauthor Eugene Burdick, a political science professor at Berkeley, was also an ex-naval officer who served in Asia. They set out to write a non-fiction book about Americans they’d encountered but decided they’d attract more attention if they wrote a novel. A prefatory note from the authors informs the reader: “This book is written as fiction, but it is based on fact.” They go on to state that their intention in sketching real persons as fictional characters was not to embarrass them but to have us learn from them, and to stimulate thought and action on how America could do better.

John F. Kennedy was so taken with the novel’s indictment of America’s shortcomings in policy and diplomacy, he took an ad in The New York Times to recommend the book to the public, and sent a copy to every Senator, praising it as a blueprint for improving the Foreign Service. In establishing the Peace Corps, President Kennedy used the lessons learned from The Ugly American, envisioning that these volunteers representing the United States would “work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed – doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”

The Ugly American – A Lasting Impact

The 1958 bestseller The Ugly American changed the way readers and leaders looked at the conduct of American foreign policy and our nation’s ability to counter Communism in Asia.

Writing in The New York Times, Robert Trumbull described it as “a devastating indictment of American policy.” Some readers felt the authors were warning the United States not to get involved in Vietnam but I feel the authors are saying: “Do it but do it right. Clearly, the journalists turned novelists were drumming up public support to pressure the State Department, to not make the same mistakes the French made; and to stop sending self-interested, elitist twits to represent America against highly skilled Soviet and Chinese agents.

I remember being shocked to learn that American diplomats and advisers in key posts were strictly second-rate compared to their adversaries. It seems Soviet diplomats in Southeast Asia were better trained and far more knowledgeable about local language and culture.

I was not the only one alarmed by what I read in The Ugly American. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy was so taken with the novel’s indictment of America’s shortcomings in policy and diplomacy, he took an ad in The New York Times to recommend the book to the public, and sent a copy to every sitting Senator, praising it as a blueprint for improving the Foreign Service.

Campaigning for president, JFK said: “Many have been discouraged at the examples that we read of ‘the ugly American.’ And I think the United States is going to have to do much better in this area if we are going to defend freedom and peace in the 1960s.”

In establishing the Peace Corps a year later, President Kennedy expressed his vision that young people representing the United States would, like Atkins and Knox, “work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed – doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”

When the C.I.A, pushed President Bush the Second to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, all the world recoiled with disgust over the monumental failure of American diplomacy.

A decade later, following the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the Boston Globe interviewed Bill Lederer. The 89-year-old author said: “It pains me to say this. Our military leaders and C.I.A. agents and diplomats are still ignorant about the countries they’re assigned to. We’re still fighting poor, hungry, angry people with bombs and tanks when what they would really respond to is food and water, good roads, health care, and a little respect for their religion and culture.”

Sixty years after the publication of Lederer and Burdick’s shocking best-seller, the Ugly Americans are still out there only now they have an Ugly Leader with a bright orange face.

The Ugly American – Not Unlike Trump

In 2018, one sees similarities between Sears and the 45th President of the United States, who’s famous for calling Third World countries “shit-holes.” In a similar vein, Sears refers to the Sarkhanese people as “strange little monkeys.” He explains, “I’m not prejudiced but I just don’t work well with blacks.” When we first meet Sears, he is fixated on an unflattering portrayal of himself in an editorial cartoon. (Before cable news, newspaper cartoonists were the principal critics of presidents.) Sears could barely function because a native cartoonist had lampooned his portliness and red face. When informed that an American citizen had been beaten up for allegedly molesting local women, he brushed it off as a “boy-meets-girl affair” that was not as serious as his being laughed at in the local newspaper. When the situation starts to go south, he blames the Sarkhanese for being “tricky” and says he’s also not sure about the loyalty of some of the Americans. Very Trumpian!

The American ambassador decries news stories as “false” and criticizes a “girl” press attaché for bringing journalists to see him when she could handle them herself. He asks the Sarkhan Desk in Washington to send out some good-looking secretaries. “They’d be a good advertisement for America,” he says. At a recruiting session in Washington, a U.S. Information Service officer tells would-be Foreign Service employees they don’t have to learn a foreign language. “Translators are a dime a dozen overseas,” he says.

The Ugly American (film)

The film was shot in Thailand. Thai viewers would have instantly recognized Kukrit Pramoj, who played the part of the Sarkhanese Prime Minister. Kukrit was a novice actor but he was very familiar with Southeast Asian politics. A dozen years after playing the role of a prime minister, Kukrit was Prime Minister of Thailand, for real. He served as premier in 1975 and 1976 before and after his brother Seni.

The Quiet American

Like his cynical English character Thomas Fowler, Henry Graham Greene was a journalist in Saigon who roomed in Rue Catinat, enjoyed opium, frequented the bar at the Continental and watched from the quay as Americans unloaded armaments to bolster the flagging French Foreign Legion. Greene witnessed first-hand the bloody battle scenes and napalm bombing he describes in the book. In an interview, he said there was more rapportage in this novel than any of his others.

Like the American embassy aide Alden Pyle, Greene was an intelligence officer. In the early 1940s he served with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service MI6 in Sierra Leone. Pyle’s nemesis Thomas Fowler refers to his own experience as a Colonial in Africa. Describing a scrum of bicycles in front of Saigon’s Continental Hotel he says “a zareba of bicycles,” using the African word for an enclosure like a cattle corral.

\When the book was published in 1955, Greene was already certain France would be forced out of its former colony and America would take up the fight against Communism in Indochina. Though briefly taken with Communism as a student, Greene was a Catholic who was concerned with Hanoi’s expulsion of Vietnamese Catholic. In the 1950s, he wasn’t pro-Communist but he was loathe to defend the God Is On Our Side crusade of anti-Communists. He wasn’t wholly anti-American but he was decidedly against American intervention in Southeast Asia.

The Ambassador

Maxwell Gordon Amberley was the fictional U.S. ambassador in South Vietnam. Who was the real ambassador in 1963 when the U.S. envoy was deeply involved in Vietnamese politics and palace intrigues? It was Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the patrician politician from Massachusetts, who twice served in the U.S. Senate. He not only encouraged Dwight Eisenhower to run for president, he ran Eisenhower’s campaign.

When the upstart politician John F. Kennedy defeated Lodge’s bid for reelection to the Senate, Eisenhower appointed Lodge to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In 1960, Ambassador Lodge ran for vice president with the incumbent Richard Nixon when Nixon lost to none other than JFK. Even so, in a world that was not nearly as politically partisan as it is today, President Kennedy named Lodge as his ambassador to South Vietnam. During his tenure, Lodge demanded that the corrupt, nepotistic prime minister Ngo Dinh Diem reform his regime — or else. Kennedy’s best and brightest advisers were opposed to forcing Diem out  but Lodge insisted on the option that led to Diem’s assassination. According to war historian Max Boot, Kennedy was afraid to overrule Lodge and suffer domestic political consequences that could lead Lodge to run for president.

One of Lodge’s successors as Washington’s envoy to Saigon was named Maxwell. Appointed by Lyndon Johnson, Maxwell Taylor was a Korean War general who became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Kennedy.

The Ambassador – Dramatic arrival

In the book, Ambassador Amberley arrives in Saigon on the very day that a 73-year-old Buddhist monk sitting in the lotus position sets himself on fire on a busy street. In real life, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge arrived two months later.

Saint Jack – How Flowers Blossomed

A master of flowery prose, author Paul Theroux packs his paragraphs with adjectives, action verbs and surprises the way a traveler overstuffs a suitcase. Here’s a description of Jack Flowers at the helm of a launch towing a 40-foot lighter:

“Chinese decorations were painted on the bow, evil black and white eyes, green whiskers and a red dragon-fanged mouth. The painted face with its scabrous complexion of barnacles, rose and fell, gulping ocean, and the canvas cover, a vast pup tent pitched over the lighter, was being lashed by the wind; our tow rope, now loose as the lighter leaped at us, now tight as it plunged and dragged, was periodically wrung of water, which shot out in a twist of bubbly spray as it stretched tight.”

When the tarp tears off, we discover 23 Chinese and Malay party girls ready to mix it up on a freighter moored out in the Straits. Having delivered the goods, Flowers says: “I had the satisfaction of seeing my girls hoisted up, three at a time, in the hefty cargo net, all of them soaked to the skin, fumbling with collapsed umbrellas and shrieking at the gale.” He adds: “The storm made me.”

The Consul’s File – In Maugham’s shadow

The British literary lion W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) traveled in British Malaya in the 1920s. Wherever he went, he was a prolific profiler of the Colonials who kept the lights of Empire burning.

In the mid-1950s the British novelist Anthony Burgess was a teacher in the British Colonial Service in Malaya. Burgess wrote three novels based on the experience. The American anglophile Paul Theroux taught at the University of Singapore soon after the island state became independent, having been shunted out federation with Malaya. Theroux wrote two works based on the experience.

Both Burgess and Theroux were fascinated with Maugham’s Colonial-era heroes and “time-servers.” Theroux sprinkles references to Maugham throughout The Consul’s File.  In fictional Ayer Hitam, contemporary players strive to channel the eccentricities of Maugham’s play “The Letter,” and tales out of Maugham are repeated as if they had actually happened in the town.

As a veteran Malaysian hand, Burgess wrote Forewords to books by both Maugham and Theroux. In his New York Times review of The Consul’s File, Burgess wrote:

Maugham is always around somewhere, even in the post-Vietnam age, sardonically sipping gin pahits on the club veranda, observing exilic adulteries…”

See Maugham’s Malaysian Stories with a Forward by Burgess, and Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy — but don’t expect to find many Americans mucking about in Malaya. 



Miss Saigon – A Lesson from the French

For my money, the librettist Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg are the unchallenged geniuses of the modern sung-through musical (Sorry, Lin-Manuel). There’s historical irony in that two Frenchmen are behind Broadway’s portrayal of America’s painful lessons from Vietnam. It was Charles de Gaulle who begged U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to back France’s pitiful last-ditch effort to retain control over its colony Vietnam. Despite initial reluctance to commit U.S. troops, Eisenhower and his successors got bogged down deeper and deeper in the quagmire the French left behind.

Coming off the enormous success of Les Misérables, an all-French story, Schönberg was drawn to the subject of America’s catastrophe in Vietnam by a photo he saw in a newsmagazine. The photo caught a Vietnamese mother at Tan Son Nhut airport sending her baby off to be raised by the child’s ex-G.I. father in the U.S.A. This, said the French recording artist and record producer, was a mother’s ultimate sacrifice. Schönberg’s collaborator Boublil caught the mother’s heartbreaking determination to provide for her little snip of a son, with the song “I’d Give My Life for You.”

In “The American Dream” the half-French, half-Vietnamese Engineer says what he learned from the French was: “Perfume can cover a stench.” And what has the pimp learned from the Yanks? “Businessmen never rob banks; you can sell shit and get thanks.” The Engineer’s grandiloquent description of the American Dream is a boisterous, humorous, perverted view of how Asians perceive the crassness and corruption of America.

How did a pair of Frenchmen capture the Americanness that’s laid on so thick in the story of Miss Saigon? The answer is that they had an American collaborator, the seldom-sung lyricist Richard Maltby, Jr., who previously provided lyrics for the very American musical revues Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Fosse.

Miss Saigon — A Repurposed Story

The plot about an American soldier recklessly marrying a local girl and leaving Asia , only to return three years later to find he had fathered a child, was not new to this play. Miss Saigon is a 1970s retelling of the 70-year-old Puccini opera Madama Butterfly.

Puccini’s opera tells the tragic tale of Cio-cio-san, a teenaged geisha who has an affair with an American naval officer in Nagasaki and gives birth to a boy after he departs. She turns down a marriage proposal from a Japanese nobleman to await her American’s return.  When the U.S. Navy lieutenant returns three years later with his American wife, they offer to adopt the boy. Sadly Cio-cio-san takes her own life, leaving her son clutching an American flag.

The opera, which premiered in 1904, was itself based on an American play of the previous century called Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan. Puccini saw the one-act play in London and set his librettists to work on an Italian version. But that’s not the whole story because before there was a play there was a short story by an American author who heard the sorry tale from his sister. And she, chère Madame, was merely retelling the plot of an 1887 book by a Frenchman!

Pierre Loti was the pen name of a French naval officer who served in Tahiti and Senegal, where he took up the pastime of spinning yarns about Frenchmen serving in exotic places like himself. It was Loti who first told the supposedly true story of a teenaged Japanese girl abandoned by an American military man in his 1887 book, Madame Chrysanthème. 

Miss Saigon – Not the Same Old Song

After more than 4,000 performances in London, Miss Saigon opened on Broadway in 1991 and enjoyed a blockbuster run of 10 years. A limited-engagement Broadway revival opened in March 2017 and closed in January 2018. As noted in my post, the revamped 2017 production was arguably raunchier. That didn’t bother me much. What bothered me about the revival was the disappearance of one of my favorite songs and its replacement with a longer less impactful song. I’m not talking about musicality, I’m talking about sentimentality.

Of course our hero Chris Scott never bothered to tell his American wife that he’d had a fling with a Vietnamese girl in Saigon. And there was a silly little wedding ceremony back in 1975. Why bother his wife of three years about things that don’t concern her?

Unfortunately life’s not as simple as some Marines think. Informed that Chris has a son in Saigon by a Vietnamese woman, the couple rushes off to Saigon. Chris is not in the hotel room when Kim comes to see him. Instead Kim, who has no idea that Ellen exists, confronts Ellen, who has only recently learned that Kim exists. The confused meeting laced with miscues lasts only a few minutes. In the original West End and Broadway shows, Ellen is alone again and sings “Now That I’ve Seen Her.”

To me, this beautiful song perfectly encapsulates what a bewildered, apprehensive, possibly jealous American wife would think after confronting The Other Woman, who happens to be Asian and very different from her. Ellen begins in denial. She wishes that Kim’s not real but she was there in the flesh.

“Now that I’ve seen her
there’s no way to hide
she is not some fling
from long ago
Now that I’ve seen her
I know why he lied
and I think it was better when I didn’t know”

This song is about gut-wrenching inner conflict. Ellen empathizes with Kim but wants to keep Chris for herself. She ends with acceptance of the awkward situation, vowing that she will fight for him.

The replacement song is called “Maybe.” Some think it was meant to make Ellen less of a villain, a more sensitive woman, keenly aware of what she, Chris, and Kim are up against. She analyses scenarios that include setting Chris free. Maybe she goes too far.

 “Am I fooling myself?  If I’ve lost you? Nothing’s changed. You’re still mine. We can try to ignore this. But if she has come back in your life. Well then maybe, you were never mine.already.”

Some critics liked the new song better, For me, no contest.

South Pacific (musical and film)

The unsung hero of “South Pacific” is James A. Michener, who was a lieutenant colonel when he shipped out to the Solomon Islands as a naval historian. It’s there he wrote Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of short stories that was the first of his 40 books. First published at age 40, Michener won a Pulitzer Prize for “Tales” but the book only became a bestseller after Rodgers and Hammerstein produced “South Pacific” on Broadway.

Perhaps because of his Quaker upbringing, Michener was ahead of his time in dramatizing racial prejudice as an American cultural phenomenon. He said he was bothered by what he saw in his travels around the country and the world.

In 1949, he moved to Hawaii. One of the themes of his first encyclopedic historical saga, the 1959 novel Hawaii, was that the Islands were a bastion of racial harmony and tolerance, and then as now, home to a high percentage of mixed-race residents. However, in his private life, Michener did not find the harmony he’d written about. A Mainlander married to a second-generation Japanese-American, the author said: ”On the day-to-day operating level at which my wife and I lived, we met with more racial discrimination in Hawaii than we did in eastern Pennsylvania, where we had previously lived.” Two years after Hawaii was published, the Micheners moved back to the Mainland.

Vietnam War movies – Platoon and Apocalypse Now

New York City boy Oliver Stone enlisted in the U.S. Army, and asked to be sent to fight in Vietnam. Attached to a platoon in the 3rd Battalion of the 25th Infantry Division and later the 1st Cavalry Division, he was wounded in battle and awarded multiple honors for his service in 1967 and 1968. As a film student at New York University, Stone studied under Martin Scorsese. Stone was apparently the first Vietnam Vet to make a major feature film about the war.

According to a chart in Wikipedia, more than 70 theatrical films have been made about the Vietnam War, including movies made in Vietnam, Korea, Australia and Italy. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_in_film)

The French director Francois Truffaut observed that a war movie couldn’t be an anti-war movie. His notion was that the adventure, heroism and camaraderie that go into a good war movie make combat look like good fun. But the film critic Roger Ebert suggests that Oliver Stone’s Platoon might have changed Truffaut’s mind: “Here is a movie that regards combat from ground level, from the infantryman’s point of view, and it does not make war look like fun.”

Like Platoon, Apocalypse Now was filmed in the Philippines, where my friend assisted with locations. Unlike Platoon, which was filmed in two months, Commander F.F. Coppola kept the cameras of Apocalypse rolling in Pagsanjan, Laguna, and other Philippine locations for an astounding, possibly unparalleled 16 months.