William Lederer and Eugene Burdick wrote a fictional novel called The Ugly American*. The title refers to the world’s belief that typical Americans are insensitive to the languages, customs, traditions, religions, and backgrounds of peoples of other lands and cultures. The Ugly American argued that the American Foreign Service was a complete failure because it employed ignorant and arrogant fools. As political and anti-war commentary, their story ranks alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Allen McDuffee, writing on timeline.com, says Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on June 23, 1959. It promoted a book “notorious for its devastating critique of how Americans behave abroad.” Asked why, Senator Kennedy said “Many have been discouraged by the examples we read in The Ugly American. I think the United States is going to have to do much better in this area if we are going to defend freedom and peace in the 1960s.” When Kennedy became president he made the book required reading for those entering diplomatic service.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Lederer said many of the problems he described in The Ugly American still form the core of American foreign policy. “It pains me to say this: Our military leaders and CIA agents and diplomats are still ignorant about the countries they’re assigned to. We’re still fighting poor, hungry, angry people with our bombs and tanks when what they would really respond to is food and water, good roads, health care, and a little respect for their religion and culture.”
A work of fiction.
The Ugly American tells a story of how fictional diplomats and government officials in Southeast Asia failed in their attempts to fight communism because they were bunglers who cared more about their images and bank accounts.
In the 1950s, the U.S. Foreign Service was staffed with career politicians and well-connected figures. Most of them were self-centered, pompous, and entirely unqualified to work with peoples from other cultures. Burdick and Lederer originally wrote The Ugly American as a non-fiction account of the Foreign Service in Burma, but recast it as a fictional novel set in an imaginary Southeast Asian country. It was published in 1958 as the U.S. steadily escalated its military involvement in Vietnam. New York Times critic Orville Prescott called it “excellent fictionalized reporting – blunt, forceful, and completely persuasive.”
What was behind the switch from fact to fiction?
One reason was how Lederer felt about writing. ”When you write, you want to communicate with as many people as possible,” he said. That meant “this story had to be a fictional novel, because readers instinctively believe fiction more than non-fiction.” Lederer and Burdick burned every page of every copy of their non-fiction work, hired four dictating machines and four stenographers, and started from scratch, finishing six days later. Another reason for converting to fiction was included in the book’s introduction: “Our aim is not to embarrass individuals, but to stimulate thought – and, we hope, action.”
Few Americans had ever paid much attention to foreign policy.
The Ugly American opened millions of eyes to what was going on in strange lands far away. This annoyed and embarrassed the U.S. government, so they attacked the authors as being traitors. The government’s attempt to ban what some called a venomous satire led to 78 weeks on the bestseller lists and 5 million copies sold. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson, Lederer said “We received 8,000 letters from readers, almost all of them asking ‘What can I do about this situation?’ After I had spent 18 months answering letters, it dawned upon me that it was odd these people had to ask me. So I started on another book, trying to tell them what to do.”
Lederer moved into a Harvard undergraduate dormitory to write A Nation of Sheep.
In an interview, he explained why. “First, the campus atmosphere was perfect for working. Second, there were a great many scholars nearby to consult on factual details. Third, it was interesting to talk with the students, especially since the book emphasizes that the future of the country is with the young. It starts off jammed with scandals, and ends with tremendous optimism.”
A Nation of Sheep was about the gullibility of the American public.
Since 1950, the U.S. had been pouring billions of dollars into Vietnam. The U.S. formally, diplomatically, and financially supported France’s colonial “right” to own Vietnam – Vietnamese peoples be damned. These things were not universally popular with Americans, many of whom despised colonialism and believed that Asian nations should be free to govern themselves.
Lederer’s message about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
He was one of the first to speak forcefully about how the U.S. public is fed misinformation by the government and the media. Many other reporters and authors drew the same conclusion, agreeing that “those who control the news deliberately manipulate and distort information to keep the facts from the public.” Lederer said “Because we are a nation of headline readers, we grasp none of what’s beneath the surface and so we don’t know enough to do anything. I want to let the average guy know he’s been had.”
So do I. It’s why I write these articles about information. To read more like this, click here.
*Five years later Marlon Brando starred in the movie version, a different story altogether.