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The Ugly American

the ugly american, the ugly american film 1963
The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer which depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia

The book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles, and had major political implications The Peace Corps was established during the Kennedy administration partly as a result of the book It was one of the biggest bestsellers in the country, has been in print continuously since it appeared and is one of the most politically influential novels in all of American literature


  • 1 Background
    • 11 Authors
    • 12 Historical and political
  • 2 1958 novel
    • 21 Literary structure
      • 211 Title
      • 212 Setting
      • 213 Category and structure
    • 22 Plot summary
    • 23 Characters in real life
    • 24 Popularity
    • 25 Reviews
    • 26 Impact
      • 261 Contemporary reaction
      • 262 Presidential politics
      • 263 Peace Corps
      • 264 Criticism
      • 265 Long-term impact
  • 3 Related works
  • 4 1963 film
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Notes
  • 7 References



William Lederer was an American author and captain in the US Navy who served as special assistant to the commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific and Asian theater

Eugene Burdick was an American political scientist, novelist, and non-fiction writer, and served in the Navy during World War II The two met in the buildup to the War in Vietnam

The authors were disillusioned with the style and substance of US diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia They sought to demonstrate through their writings their belief that American officials and civilians could make a substantial difference in Southeast Asian politics if they were willing to learn local languages, follow local customs and employ regional military tactics

Historical and political

The book was very much a product of its times and historical context

In 1958 the Cold War was in full force, pitting the two geopolitical giants, the United States and the Soviet Union, against each other for military and geopolitical influence and dominance NATO and the Warsaw Pact divided Europe into two competing visions of the world, with the Western world viewing countries in the Eastern Bloc as behind an Iron Curtain with the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956 confirming this The nuclear arms race was underway with the US well ahead initially, but by 1955, the Soviets had exploded a hydrogen bomb and were beginning to catch up, sparking fears of nuclear armageddon The Soviet launching of Sputnik into orbit in 1957 gave the Soviets a huge technological and propaganda victory and sparked a crisis of confidence in the United States and worries about falling behind technologically and militarily and concerns whether its education system was up to the job of competing with the Soviets In Asia, the French had left Indochina in 1954 after their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and this marked the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam The US and the Soviets struggled for preeminence in the Third World through proxies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia In the Middle East, the US feared the spread of Communism starting in Egypt and attempted to secure the region's most populous and politically powerful country for the West by guarantees of funding for construction of the Aswan Dam but it was eventually the Soviets who prevailed Soviet diplomatic and political successes in the Third World left the West worried about losing one country after another to Communism according to the domino theory evoked by President Dwight D Eisenhower

It was in this atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and uncertainty in the United States about Soviet military and technological might, and Communist Cold War political success in unaligned nations of the Third World that the novel was published in 1958, with immediate impact

1958 novel

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer The Ugly American depicts the failures of the US diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc primarily Soviet diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas The book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles John F Kennedy was so impressed with the book that he sent a copy to each of his colleagues in the United States Senate The book was one of the biggest bestsellers in the country, has been in print continuously since it appeared and is one of the most politically influential novels in all of American literature

Literary structure


The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American:17 and was sometimes confused with it

The "Ugly American" of the book title refers to the book's hero, plain-looking engineer Homer Atkins, whose "calloused and grease-blackened hands always reminded him that he was an ugly man" Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump


The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma or Thailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed The book describes the United States' losing struggle against Communism due to the ineptness and bungling of the US diplomatic corps stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture The book implies that the Communists were successful because they practiced tactics similar to those of protagonist Homer Atkins

Category and structure

The book is categorized as fiction, and is written as a series of interrelated vignettes It was originally commissioned by the publisher as a work of nonfiction, but was changed to a fictionalized novel at an editor's suggestion The authors say in the introduction that the work represents "the rendering of fact into fiction"

Plot summary

In one vignette, a Burmese journalist says "For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land They isolate themselves socially They live pretentiously They are loud and ostentatious"

The American Ambassador “Lucky” Lou Sears confines himself to his comfortable diplomatic compound in the capital The Soviet ambassador speaks the local language and understands the local culture He informs his Moscow superiors that Sears “keeps his people tied up with meetings, social events, and greeting and briefing the scores of senators, congressmen, generals, admirals, under secretaries of state and defense, and so on, who come pouring through here to ‘look for themselves’” Sears undermines creative efforts to head off communist insurgency

Characters in real life

According to an article published in Newsweek in May, 1959, the "real" "Ugly American" was identified as an International Cooperation Administration technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952 They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques, and helped to start home canning industries

Another of the book's heroes, Colonel Hillandale, appears to have been modeled on the real-life US Air Force Lieutenant General Edward Lansdale, who was an expert in counter-guerrilla operations


The book was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in the Fall of 1958, and came out as a Book of the Month Club selection in October

The book became an instant bestseller, going through twenty printings from July to November 1958, remaining on the bestseller list for a year and a half, and ultimately selling four million copies

After the book had gained wide readership, the term "Ugly American" came to be used to refer to the "loud and ostentatious" type of visitor in another country, rather than the "plain looking folks, who are not afraid to 'get their hands dirty' like Homer Atkins" to whom the book itself referred


Given the mood of fear and uncertainty in the country at the time due to Sputnik and other perceived failures in the struggles of the Cold War, a book about diplomatic failures in Southeast Asia was well-aligned with the Zeitgeist and primed to catch attention The book was lavishly praised in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, and the Chicago Tribune, with reviewers adding their own anecdotes about boorish behavior on the part of Americans abroad A reviewer in Catholic World linked it to The Quiet American and said that the book was trying to answer some of the questions raised by Greene's book

Reviews in some news or opinion publications reflected the varying opinions extant during the Cold War public debate A reviewer in Time called it a "crude series of black-and-white-cartoons" while the Saturday Review, and The Nation also disapproved of overly simplistic characters:16


Contemporary reaction

The book was published in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration Reportedly as a result of the book, Eisenhower ordered an investigation of the US foreign aid program As the presidential campaign of 1960 heated up, the issues raised in the book became a campaign issue for the Democratic Party:17

Presidential politics

Lasting impacts in the Kennedy administration included President Kennedy's national physical fitness program, his statement of America's willingness to "bear any burden" in the Third World, the founding of the Peace Corps, the build-up of American Special Forces, and emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics in fighting communists in South Vietnam According to British documentary film maker Adam Curtis, Senator and future US President "John F Kennedy was gripped by The Ugly American In 1960, he and five other opinion leaders bought a large advertisement in The New York Times, saying that they had sent copies of the novel to every US Senator, because its message was so important"

President Lyndon Baines Johnson made reference to the term Ugly American in his Great Society speech to a 1964 university graduating class, and it was by then used as a pejorative expression for generally offensive behavior by Americans abroad

Peace Corps

Senator Hubert Humphrey first introduced a bill in Congress in 1957 for the formation of a Peace Corps aimed primarily at development in the Third World, but "it did not meet with much enthusiasm" and the effort failed The Ugly American was published the following year Senator Kennedy first mentioned the idea of creating a Peace Corps during his campaign for President in 1960 and in March 1961, two months after his inauguration, Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps


Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen alluded to the book or quoted from it, either as commentary or to further their objectives, or to criticize it Senator J William Fulbright, powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the book from the Senate floor, declaring that it contained "phony" claims of incompetence, and that it was a follow-up to McCarthy era treason charges:17–18

Long-term impact

The title entered the English language for a type of character portrayed in the book The book is one of the leading best-sellers in the nation's history, and one of a very few works of fiction that had a profound effect on American political debate and have had a lasting impact ; as such, it is in the same league as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle:15

The impact of the novel was long-lasting Half a century after publication, the novel still appeared as a subject in major publications

In 2009 an article appeared in The New York Times Book Review about the book's impact in the intervening decades since it was first published The reviewer said, "he book’s enduring resonance may say less about its literary merits than about its failure to change American attitudes Today, as the battle for hearts and minds has shifted to the Middle East, we still can’t speak Sarkhanese"

A 2011 book on Arab–American relations took its title in part from the book, recalled the sense of diplomatic bungling in Southeast Asia portrayed in the book, and pointed out that many Arab commentators likened American mistakes in Iraq to those in Southeast Asia

Related works

Lederer and Burdick later published a 1965 novel called Sarkhan, about the Communist threat and Washington politics in Southeast Asia After thousands of copies which had been available in bookstores seemed to disappear from the shelves, the authors became convinced that government agencies were behind an attempt to suppress the book After a decade of unavailability, it was republished in 1977 under the title The Deceptive American

1963 film

Main article: The Ugly American film

The film version of the novel was made in 1963 and starred Marlon Brando as Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite The Ugly American received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office

See also

  • Ugly American pejorative


  1. ^ "Published in 1958, the book is often confused with another cold-war-era novel set in Southeast Asia, 'The Quiet American,' which appeared in 1955"


  1. ^ a b c d e Hellmann, John July 1983 "Vietnam as Symbolic Landscape: The Ugly American and the New Frontier" Peace & Change Conference on Peace Research in History 9 2-3: 40–54 doi:101111/j1468-01301983tb00494 ISSN 1468-0130 Archived from the original on 6 January 2016 Retrieved 17 May 2015 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Meyer, Michael 12 July 2009 "Still 'Ugly' After All These Years" Sunday Book Review New York Times Archived from the original on 2015-10-24 Retrieved 2015-05-27 
  3. ^ Johnson, Claudia Durst; Johnson, Vernon Elso 2002 The Social Impact of the Novel: A Reference Guide Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group p 308 ISBN 978-0-313-31818-4 LCCN 2001055624 OCLC 144683798 Retrieved 14 June 2016 
  4. ^ a b c d e Hellman, John 1986 American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam New York: Columbia University Press ISBN 978-0-231-05878-0 OCLC 12052089 Retrieved 14 June 2016 
  5. ^ Paul Hollander 1995 Anti-Americanism: Irrational and Rational New Brunswick, NJ USA: Transaction Publishers p 399 ISBN 978-1-4128-1734-9 OCLC 30701897 It was the highly popular message of the book that Americans abroad, and officials in particular, were both totally ignorant of local customs, social norms, and culture and cheerfully insensitive to the feelings and beliefs of the peoples they were seeking to patronize and defend from the communist threat "The Ugly American" became a stereotype of the American abroad universally disliked The novel also conveyed that the few Americans who were knowledgeable of and interested in foreign countries are systematically weeded out from foreign service The novel's Ambassador Sears thinks of the natives as "little monkeys" and had no idea where the country was located in which he was given the job as a political reward He was among the American officials described by one of the articulate natives as people who cannot grasp the power of ideas unlike the communists and who were sent over to "try to buy us like cattle" 
  6. ^ Lederer, William J; Burdick, Eugene 1958 The Ugly American The Norton library Norton ISBN 9780393318678 LCCN 58007388 Retrieved 17 May 2015  p 145
  7. ^ Clifford, Robert L; Hunerwadel, Helen B 1996 "Chapter 1: Burma Beginnings and Point Four" In Arndt, Richard T; David Lee, Rubin The Fulbright Difference Fulbright Association series New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers pp 20–24 ISBN 1-56000-085-6 Retrieved 18 July 2011 
  8. ^ Blum, William 2003 Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II London: Zed Books p 125 ISBN 1-84277-368-2 OCLC 53391104 Retrieved 5 May 2016 By August, only days after the close of the conference, the team was in place Under the direction of CIA leading-light Edward Lansdale, fresh from his success in the Philippines, a campaign of military and psychological warfare was carried out against the Vietminh Lansdale's activities in Vietnam were later enshrined in two semi-fictional works, The Ugly American and The Quiet American 
  9. ^ How to kill a rational peasant
  10. ^ Wikisource:The Great Society
  11. ^ "Ugly American: Definition of Ugly American by Merriam-Webster" Merriam-Webster Merriam-Webster Retrieved 2015-05-18 an American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country 
  12. ^ Humphrey, Hubert H 1991 The Education of a Public Man p 184 ISBN 9780816618972 
  13. ^ "Remarks of Senator John F Kennedy" Peace Corps November 20, 2013 Retrieved 2015-08-03 
  14. ^ "Executive Order 10924: Establishment of the Peace Corps 1961" Ourdocumentsgov Archived from the original on 2004-03-18 Retrieved October 16, 2011 
  15. ^ El-Bendary, Mohamed 2011 The "ugly American" in the Arab Mind: Why Do Arabs Resent America Potomac Books, Inc p 9 ISBN 978-1-59797-673-2 OCLC 764650565 Retrieved 26 June 2016 
  16. ^ Lederer, William J; Burdick, Eugene 1965 Sarkhan McGraw-Hill OCLC 1061482 
  17. ^ Lederer, William J; Burdick, Eugene November 1977 The Deceptive American W W Norton ISBN 978-0-393-08802-1 OCLC 3203901 
  18. ^ "Top Grossing Films of 1963" 2013-09-06 Retrieved 2015-05-18 

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