The Devil in the Details of Diplomacy

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick

The Ugly American

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s landmark novel, The Ugly American burst onto the American literary scene in 1958. With the tense early stages of the Cold War unfolding, Americans hungered to know how their nation was addressing the communist threat around the world. The Ugly American answers that question in a riveting novelization.The book comments on American foreign policy through a string of vignettes set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, and its neighbors. Despite some piecemeal successes in building capitalist systems and fostering support for the United States, ultimately, American intervention fails to win local support due to incompetent officials who dismiss the local culture and fail to effectively convey American ideals.

The first of Lederer and Burdick’s criticisms of American foreign intervention are the norms of cultural superiority that prevent American officials from truly interacting with the locals. For instance, the original American ambassador to Sarkhan is former senator Louis Sears, a man who considers the Sarkhanese to be little better than “monkeys.” He refuses to learn the language of the Sakhanese, or assimilate to any of their customs, instead wasting aid money on cocktail parties for the embassy staff. This debauchery is not limited to senior officials, as Marie MacIntosh, a very low-level staffer, boasts about her servants and chauffeured cars in a letter home.

In short, Lederer and Burdick illustrate how arrogance undermines the very American values that are supposed to be impressed upon the local people, values that are admired by the Sarkhanese. This distance directly translates to battlefield results, when the French forces in the novel are forced to concede Vietnam when they refuse to conform to the the native guerrilla tactics that are best in the marshes of Southeast Asia. In short, it is the inability of the U.S. and Western nations to translate their ideals into the local culture that provides the fatal flaw.

This brings us to Lederer and Burdick’s second major criticism of U.S. foreign development: the failure to adapt the American developmental model to the needs of local populations. Throughout the book, major American officials seem more preoccupied with creating headline-worthy infrastructure than actually helping the largely rural populations of Sarkhan and its neighbors. A specific example is the struggle of Tom Knox, a Midwestern chicken farmer. After spending time in the Cambodian countryside, he befriended the local populace through a mutual love of chicken farming. When he is asked to present to an American agricultural aid committee, his inexpensive chicken-breeding proposal is refused, while unnecessary canal and mechanization programs are introduced. Tom fervently protests because he realizes that such programs would be unnecessary for the local people and wouldn’t provide them nearly as much benefit as the price tag suggests, but is still ignored.

Lederer and Burdick illustrate how the aid administrators’ uninformed opinions result in programs that don’t fit the targeted nations. They criticize the Americans’ tendencies to shoehorn Tennessee Valley Authority-like development models into every country, rather than trying to build capitalism in a method that is adapted to local needs. Thus, rather than the actual idea of giving economic aid to other nations and developing capitalism, the authors are far more critical of the U.S. inability to adapt the programs that worked well in the United States for other nations.

Nevertheless, Burdick and Lederer appear to support the general notion of American aid and actively building liberal capitalist democracies in Third World nations. They provide several examples of down-to-earth Americans making real differences, politically and economically, in poor and repressed regions of Southeast Asia. One prominent example was the work of Father Finian, a Catholic priest, in a communist Burmese province. He learns the local language, customs, and cuisine to endear himself to the locals. positive depiction as a compassionate man dedicated to gaining the confidence of the locals. Most importantly, Finian’s initiative is the “first time that [the Burmese] men had ever been told by a white man that a big and important decision was entirely their own…and would be followed by the white man.” Thus, when an American respects the locals, gains their confidence, and allows them to make an independent decision without Communist propaganda, the locals choose an ideal that is strikingly similar to the American First Amendment.

Lederer and Burdick present a similar story in the Philippines where unconventional Colonel Edwin Hillendale is able to convince a Communist dominated province of the Philippines to vote for the Western-backed candidate Magsaysay after counteracting Communist propaganda by bonding with the local Filipinos. Simply eating and drinking with the Filipinos, Hillendale creates an amiable image of Americans, thereby making them receptive to liberal democratic ideals and politicians.

Once again, Lederer and Burdick imply that given a free choice and information from likeable Americans, third world populations would choose Western democracy. This is also shown to be true of capitalism through the efforts of Homer Atkins, an engineering. Like Finian and Hillendale, Atkins is respectful of the native Sarkhanese and incorporated their financial limitations into a simple water pump he designed for rural Sarkhanese farmers. More importantly, the system that Atkins builds in the Sarkhanese village is a fairly advanced capitalist system: a limited liability partnership with profit sharing, legally binding documents, and travelling salesmen. Just as Western liberal political ideals were quickly adopted in place of Communism, so too was capitalism. Thus, Lederer and Burdick clearly do not fault the ideology of American intervention, nor actively supporting the development of liberal capitalist democracy in Third World nations.

Lederer and Burdick’s ideas were surprisingly prophetic. Fifty years later, capitalism has become the overwhelmingly dominant economic system, even among formerly communist nations. As our foreign service became more professional and began to cultivate respect for other nations, our Western ideals quickly outpaced communism, and created the peaceful world we enjoy today. However, some of Lederer and Burdick’s comments may have been too progressive for their time. For instance, people of color were barely accepted at home, let alone foreign cultures in foreign nations. In addition, the anti-communist, pro-American fervor of zealots like Senator Joseph McCarthy prevented anyone with political aspirations from straying too far from the American path. Nevertheless, we overcame our flaws, and today lead a free capitalist world, and hopefully that world will continue to flourish under free trade and freedom.