The Ugly American is less a novel than a series of related stories of Americans in Asia during the era of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts.
William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick contrast the American foreign service staff in Asia with the Russian foreign service, basing their tale on actual people and events. The novel’s goal isn’t entertainment, but persuasion.
America’s diplomatic core in Asia don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs, stick to themselves, never get outside the cities where their embassies are housed.
Worse, they reject advice from Americans whose language skills and willingness to interact with the locals give them expertise.
The Russians, by contrast, train their foreign service staff thoroughly before deploying them. As a result, the Russians win the hearts and minds of the people. The Americans are despised.
The great — and horrific — thing about The Ugly American is that it still feels real today. You have only to see newscasts of President George W. Bush shrugging off the Iraqi shoe-thrower to see that Americans still have no appreciation of the cultures in which they have troops stationed. And post 9/11,we’ve seen how effective Mao’s embedded insurgents can be.
I hope you will read this novel— and that you won’t like what you read one bit.The Ugly American
by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick
W. W. Norton, 1958
My grade C+