Pax Americana

William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s very famous book, The Ugly American, is the lucky beneficiary of a misunderstood title. The term ugly American has been absorbed into the language, a wonderfully succinct description of an offensively provincial American traveling abroad. However accurate the term, its origin is predicated on a misapprehension. The novel’s use of the ugly American appellation is actually a laudatory term attached to one of the protagonists: The ungainly, bullheaded engineer Horace Atkins. Atkins—heedless of protocol and openly contemptuous of the “stuffed shirts” in the diplomatic corps–goes to Asia and makes tangible contributions. Horace’s wife, Emma—in a turn of phrase that is jolting by today’s standards—is affectionately described as ugly, as well. Horace’s eventual business partner, the native villager Jeepo, is also explicitly ugly. Ugly, then, is a positive attribute in the novel’s taxonomy. The need is for more, not less, ugly Americans. Yet the title has entered the lexicon for very different reasons.

Lederer was a former Navy captain and Burdick was a professor of political science. The book was conceived of as nonfiction, then rejiggered into a novel that was published in 1958. The Ugly American sold upwards of four million copies and became a forgettable 1963 movie, with Marlon Brando in the lead.  The novel was interpreted as a wakeup call to shock the United States out of what was felt to be a malignant complacency vis-à-vis the overarching threat of worldwide communism. The Ugly American packed such force that it was said to be an impetus for John Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps.

Lederer and Burdick know how to tell a story. The prose does have a dated, workmanlike quality, but it zips along very effectively. The locus of The Ugly American is primarily Sarkhan, a fictional Asian country located in what was then referred to as Indochina. French colonial rule is passing into history. The American onslaught is commencing.

The novel is constructed via a series of loosely connected chapters. The Ugly American is populated by lots of stock characters: offensively ignorant American bureaucrats, canny Russians and even cannier homegrown Asian Communists, lower-level American functionaries unconcerned with geopolitics and simply looking for an exotic Asian sojourn.

There are also the exemplary characters—like the titular Ugly American—who immerse themselves in local culture and truly strive to make a difference. Lederer and Burdick, not surprisingly, render these characters with a little more subtlety.

The j’accuse commences in the very first chapter, where the reader is introduced to the oafish Senator Louis “Lucky” Sears, who has been defeated for reelection and is offered the ambassadorship of strategically vital Sarkhan—akin to a gold watch for years of dedicated service.

“There’s an ambassadorship located in Sarkhan,” the strategists said. “It pays $17,500 and you ought to be able to save money on that. There’s an entertainment allowance… and you can buy liquor tax free. There’s also an ambassador’s mansion which you get rent free.”

“Where the hell is Sarkhan?”

“It’s a small country out toward Burma and Thailand.”

“Now, you know I’m not prejudiced, but I just don’t work well with blacks.”

“They’re not black, they’re brown….”

There is the equally insipid, glad-handing Joe Bing, a “public information officer and an expert in Asian affairs”—although he knows next to nothing—who delivers a talk designed to entice Americans into serving overseas in Sarkhan:

“Now, I know what’s on your minds…” Joe said jovially. “Your social life…. You’ll have to work among foreigners, but we don’t expect you to love ‘em just because you work among ‘em. I don’t care where you go to work for Uncle Sammy, you’ll be living with a gang of clean-cut Americans.”

…..He told about commissaries which stocked wholesome American food for Americans stationed all over the world. “You can buy the same food in Asia that you can in Peoria….”

On the surface, The Ugly American is an attack on provincialism and an appeal for cross-cultural understanding. What, then, could be more benign? In reality, though, The Ugly American is an immersion into the peculiarities of the Cold War. The United States’ overarching goal was to gird itself for battle against the demonic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the agents of global communism. Besides having a colossal military arsenal, the United States needed to battle for the hearts and minds of the world. The UglyAmerican’s plea for cultural sensitivity was a means to an end—and that end was, more or less, American hegemony. The Joe Bings were a tactical blunder.

The United States needed to be the best in the world; it was crucial to project the image as an enlightened superpower. If money had to be poured into research and study, so be it. If arts and culture had to be funded, this would happen as well. And if entrenched American notions about racial blood superiority and inferiority became too much of an image problem, this had to be addressed.

The good guys in The Ugly American learn to speak Sarkhanese. They immerse themselves in Mao Zedong’s military theories and study the tenets of communism. This should not be construed as real cultural empathy. Knowledge is power: real, tangible power.


The good guys are also properly frightened by the Russians, the Chinese, and global communism on the march. Fear was a pillar of the Cold War, amply reflected in Lederer and Burdick’s novel. The Russians are presented as stealthy, devious, calculatingly ruthless.

The book’s other Louis is the Soviet ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitzyn, who is a dramatic contrast to the imbecilic Louis Sears. Krupitzyn and his wife go through “two years of rigorous studies…. They learned to read and write Sarkhanese. They learned that the ideal man in Sarkhan is slender, graceful, and soft-spoken….” This Louis “dieted and lost forty pounds; he took ballet lessons. He read Sarkhanese literature and drama, and became a fairly skillful player on the nose flute.”

The admonishment is obvious: Be more like the Russians—even if it means taking ballet lessons.

Homegrown Asian Communists are even more menacing, possessed as they are with the ability to propagandize their friends and family, the ability to burrow into embassy staffs, and a robotic sense of mission.

John Colvin, one of the novel’s central characters, is an American intelligence officer who is parachuted into Japanese-occupied Sarkhan during World War II. Colvin is rescued from the pursuing Japanese by the courageous native Deong, who then joins Colvin in efforts to sabotage the occupation. Stateside a good decade later, Colvin reads in disbelief about Communist agitation in Sarkhan and returns to the country to launch a complicated scheme to produce powdered milk. The intent is to boost the Sarkhanese economy: American largesse and know-how are some of the crucial ways to blunt Communist advances.

Actual production is moments away when—improbably—Deong himself materializes out of nowhere. Brandishing a gun at his former brother-in-arms, he is ready to shoot Colvin on the spot if he persists:

“Deong, you’re crazy,” Colvin said. “Put away the gun.”

“Perhaps whenever a man is about to die he always thinks his executioner is crazy,” Deong answered softly. “But you’re wrong….”

Colvin understood.

“Deong, you’re a Communist,” Colvin said.

“As if there were a choice,” Deong replied softly…. “I learned that the side with the most brains and power wins. And, John, that’s not your side anymore. Once it was, but not now. America had its chance and it missed. And now the Communists are going to win.”

The Ugly American has much in the way of success stories as well. When the United States’ intrinsic devotion to freedom and fair play are unimpeded by the likes of the cloddish Louis Sears and Joe Bing, the lives of the native population are improved immeasurably. It is a modified, updated white man’s burden.

“Every person and every nation has a key which will open their hearts,” a character opines. “If you use the right key, you can maneuver any person or any nation any way you want.

“The key to Sarkhan—and to several other nations in Southeast Asia—is palmistry and astrology.”  It is just a question of knowing how to handle such a simple people.

Even Emma, Homer Atkins’s wife, makes an enduring contribution to the lives of Sarkhanese villagers, by devising a long-handled broom that saves the villagers from their stoic acceptance that old age is synonymous with stooped backs. The villagers, in lasting gratitude, construct a shrine to her memory.


Six decades after the publication of The Ugly American, it is striking how entrenched much of these concepts are, albeit in different form. The United States needs an enemy, to be on perpetual guard against malignant foes—both foreign and domestic. This provides a sort of ballast.

There is also the enduring idea of intrinsic American benevolence. One character, discussing how best to contain the Russians on the march, casually asserts that the United States will “never be the first to launch the [atomic] bomb,” which almost goes without saying. But the United States was precisely the first—and so far, only—country to launch the bomb. And not once, but twice, which had transpired a little over a decade before the book’s publication.


The United States, these days, launches many “humanitarian interventions.” It seeks—selflessly–to bring enlightenment to a benighted world, to nation-build. It expresses deep concern over nuclear proliferation, although the American nuclear arsenal is of gargantuan proportions. This is right from the pages of The Ugly American. If the book’s specifics are outdated, its template is not. The song remains the same.