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

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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.)