There’s a reason for two book reviews in one week. We’ll get to that later. But The Ugly American is a seminal and hugely influential work of fictionalized reporting that still deserves your attention fifty-one years after its publication.
Co-written by by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer it tells the story, in a series of linked vignettes, of the dimplomatic efforts of the United States in the fictional southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. In the Cold War settng of the times, it contrasts the smooth and effective diplomatic efforts of the Soviet Union with the ham-handed, ineffective diplomacy of the United States. The self-described “Ugly American” of the title is a homely, calloused volunteer engineer living and working with the villagers of Sarkhan, the only American doing any good. The handsome, suave and stupidly counter-productive American ambassador is the truly ugly one.
The books was hugely popular, going through 20 editions in the first six months, and selling more than four million copies. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy was so impressed with the book he bought copies for every member of the U.S. Senate. The book led directly to the creation of the U.S. Peace Corps and, briefly, to an improvement in the quality of ambassadors appointed to represent the United States. In addition to being seriously influential, the book was eerily prophetic, describing how American diplomacy abroad was leading the U.S. into a war in Indochina. With Hiroshima, Silent Spring and Grapes of Wrath, Ugly American ranks as one of the most influential books of the 20th Century.
Greed, cultural snobbery, ignorance of local customs, utter indifference: those are the characteristics of the truly ugly Americans Burdick and Lederer describe. To a considerable extent, those same characteristics contributed to the dumpster fire that was American foreign policy in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s.
It’s still sadly accurate to the political appointments made today.1 Ambassadorships are handed out as prizes to big campaign donors with precious little thought to the impact those persons might have. And the Trump Administration has slashed the State Department budget. For the next fiscal year, Trump proposes a 23% reduction in its budget, on top of cuts made over the last two years. Diplomacy is cheaper than war, but maybe the corporate profits aren’t. The Ugly American may still be in print, but it’s pretty clear no one in the Trump Administration is reading it.
You should be. Setting apart the Cold War assumptions, it’s still every bit as relevant to U.S. foreign policy today as it was in 1958.
WC mentions this fine book because “ugly American” has come to mean the boorish, loud, sometimes drunken Americans you meet overseas who make you embarrassed to even be from the same country. If you’ve been abroad, you are certain to have encountered them. WC used the term recently in a Facebook post, criticizing two Americans who had embarrassed themselves and their country in a bar in a foreign country. Facebook didn’t like it.
Calling a couple of boorish clods “ugly Americans” is hate speech? A call back to exactly the kind of behavior Burdick and Lederer were criticizing is hate speech? WC’s appeal was unsuccessful, although it’s not clear to WC whether the appeal was heard by a Real Person or a computer algorithm.
So WC’s is thumbing his virtual digital nose at Facebook by writing this blog post, which WC will link to Facebook when the blog post goes up. And we’ll see if Facebook thinks this is “hate speech,” too.
- At least when the ambassadorships are filled. The Trump Administration has an astonishing number of critical vacancies, including the the Ambassador to the Europeans Union, the U.S.’s largest trading partner. But that’s a different subject. ↩