The Ugly American showed the reasons why American diplomacy was failing in Southeast Asia in the 1950’s and the reasons why communism was succeeding. . Its lessons seem startlingly urgent today in light of the turmoil in Central America and in the Middle East. Whether the foreign policy errors this book dramatizes have been corrected is an important question, and one that can be usefully debated in the classroom. As a harbinger of the United States failure in Vietnam, The Ugly American seems a terribly prophetic book.
How could the warnings Lederer and Burdick sounded have gone unheeded? An examination of their book shows us precisely how, for in The Ugly American knowledgeable and skillful executors of American foreign policy (those who believe that “the things we do must be done in the real interest of the people whose friendship we need–not just in the interest of propaganda”) are routinely replaced by those who know less, care less, and are eminently less qualified to serve those interests.
The novel opens with one such individual–the “Honorable” Louis Sears, ambassador to the fictitious country of Sarkhan, a small underdeveloped nation in which communist and American interests are vying for supremacy. Sears has assumed his post as a political stopgap. Between three terms in the Senate and an anticipated federal judgeship “with a long tenure,” he’s simply filling time in a “cushy” job with a large entertainment budget and lavish living conditions, in a country he had never heard of, serving people he thinks of as “little monkeys. A caricature depicting Sears as a braying mule has appeared in a local Sarkhanese newspaper, making clear just how the American ambassador is perceived: Sears is the prototype of “the ugly American. ” In contrast, the following chapter presents the Russian ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitzyn, a thorough professional whose two-year training period has included instruction in the language and the customs of the nation he has been sent to serve in. His entire staff is fluent in Sarkhanese and in the cultural nuances which distinguish the Sarkhanese people. The Soviet ambassador molds himself into this pattern of the ideal Sarkhan.
He diets, losing forty pounds; he studies ballet, reads Sarkhanese literature and drama, and becomes a skillful nose flute player–all as a prelude to effective diplomacy. Equipped with his country’s long-range political goals for Sarkhan and a clear strategy, the ambassador is able to take actions designed to promote the communist interest in Sarkhan in many ways, not the least of which are the “small ways,” which include “educating” the population by degrees. In addition, Krupitzyn instigates deliberate acts of espionage designed to further strengthen the communist position.
For example, a Russian informer planted at an American embassy as translator supplies key information about an American rice shipment which the Russians are able to use for their own political advantage. Where the American ambassador is crude and bumbling, the Russian is refined and skillful. This theme is echoed over and over in The Ugly American in reference to Burma, Ceylon, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines–all the countries the novel examines. Still, there are individuals who do not fall into the model of the ugly American.
These are tough, hardworking Americans with a strong sense of human decency and an innate understanding of how to help people. These individuals are able to win friends for America at the same time that they help improve the living conditions of those who desperately need it. It is not the infusion of big American dollars and the establishment of big American projects that these nations need, the authors’ examples assert, but individuals who contribute their skills to help the citizens of underdeveloped nations with problems they themselves have identified.
In the book these individuals include: Father Finian, the Jesuit priest who enables the anticommunist groups of Burma to understand and to counter the tactics of those communists who are threatening to take control of their land John Cowlin, the American dairy farmer who sees how the introduction of milk into the economy of Sarkhan can turn its failures around Edward Hillandale, the Air Force colonel whose enthusiasm for all things Filipino convince the people of a small province that Americans are not all crude and contemptuous and rich, thereby influencing a crucial election Tom Knox, an American economic consultant and assionate chicken farmer who shows the Cambodians how to turn scrawny chickens into fat, lucrative ones Homer Atkins, field engineer in Vietnam whose ingenious water pump serves as the basis as a small nonprofit industry for the struggling farmers in the dry provinces. The lesson is clear. These decent Americans who remain close to the people of the countries they are working in are also America’s best ambassadors. In fact, three years after this book’s initial publication, John F.
Kennedy established the Peace Corps, whose philosophy and methods closely parallel the model of small-scale, people-oriented assistance Lederer and Burdick depict in The Ugly American. But individual Americans cannot match the communist effort to dominate in underdeveloped nations, the book warns. All the good they do is easily undermined by the failures of high-level diplomats and the absence of a clear strategy for dealing with the problems these nations face.
If the blundering Ambassador Sears and his counterpart and eventual successor in Sarkhan, Joe Bing, create hostility rather than friendship for America, Ambassador MacWhite, who serves between them, is an example of a man who can reverse this process through genuine concern for the population and a set of coherent principles designed to address Sarkhan’s most pressing problems–underdevelopment, poverty, and the threat of communism.
In MacWhite we have the example of the ideal ambassador: respectful of the culture and customs of his country, sensitive to the need for training on the part of all diplomatic personnel, learned in communist literature and the methodology which underlies the communist attempts to gain power in poor nations. In order to help prevent similar situations in his country, MacWhite goes to observe firsthand the mistakes of the French military in Vietnam.
He dissects the failures they made at the battle for Dien Bien Phu and studies communist strategy and Vietnamese terrain in order to understand these mistakes. Then he reports his findings to the senior French military command and their American advisors. “‘Since December of 1946 the French have been fighting a war which has been maneuvered by the Communists precisely along the lines which Mao outlined in this pamphlet. You are a military man–you will please excuse my bluntness–but you made every mistake Mao wanted you to. You ignored his every lesson for fighting on this type of terrain.
You neglected to get the political and economic cooperation of the Vietnamese, even though Mao proved long ago that Asians will not fight otherwise… ‘” The French commander replies: “‘ If you are suggesting, Ambassador MacWhite, that the nation which produced Napoleon now has to go to a primitive Chinese for military instruction, I can tell you that you are not only making a mistake, you’re being insulting. ‘” A report submitted to the United States Senate is similarly handled. The report is contradicted by the testimony of an American senator who has spent a brief week touring Vietnam.
The authors describe the week’s tour as being carefully orchestrated by American embassy officials determined not to allow the senator to see how badly things are going both militarily and in terms of the French and American attempt to “win friends” in Vietnam for the West. The Senate’s dismissal of MacWhite’s report on conditions in Vietnam and the Foreign Office dismissal of MacWhite himself as ambassador to Sarkhan point to American foreign policy failures as serious as the absence of careful selection and training of its diplomatic personnel.
In the end, another ugly American replaces MacWhite in Sarkhan. As for the failure of America to learn from the mistakes of the French, that is not fiction; it is history. By exposing the ineptitude of those who shape foreign policy, Lederer and Burdick point out the way costly mistakes are made–costly in terms of United Sates influence in the world, even more costly in terms of the fate of the citizens whose lives and well-being are at stake.
This is a book that is certain to deepen students’ understanding of the complexity of international affairs. Its terse, episodic style and its many portraits of individuals engaged in the process of diplomacy give readers an important sense of the dimensions of the problems which receive such cursory treatment on the nightly news. The Ugly American is mandatory reading for the citizens of a participatory democracy, in terms of understanding the mistake of the past and in order to prevent their repetition in the future.