The Ugly American

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For other uses of the term, see Ugly American (disambiguation).
The Ugly American
First edition cover
Author Eugene Burdick
William Lederer
Country United States
Language English
Genre Political fiction
Set in Sarkhan
Published 1958 by Norton
Media type Print
Pages 285 pp
OCLC 287560
LC Class PS3562.E3

The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. The book depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of East bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas.[1] The book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles. John F. Kennedy was so impressed with the book that he sent a copy to each of his colleagues in the United States Senate. The book was one of the biggest bestsellers in the country, has been in print continuously since it appeared and is one of the most politically influential novels in all of American literature.

The book is a quasi-roman à clef which presents the experience of American diplomats and others in the fictional nation of Sarkkan as a stand-in for Southeast Asia and allegedly portrays several real people using pseudonyms.

1958 novel[edit]

Historical background[edit]

In 1958 the Cold War was in full force, pitting the two geopolitical giants, the United States and the Soviet Union, against each other for military and geopolitical influence and dominance. NATO and the Warsaw Pact divided Europe into two competing visions of the world, with the Western world viewing countries in the Eastern bloc as behind an Iron Curtain with the failed Hungarian Revolution in 1956 confirming this. The nuclear arms race was underway with the US well ahead initially, but by 1955, the Soviets had exploded a hydrogen bomb and were beginning to catch up, sparking fears of nuclear armageddon. The Soviet launching of Sputnik into orbit in 1957 gave the Soviets a huge technological and propaganda victory and sparked a crisis of confidence in the United States and worries about falling behind technologically and militarily and concerned whether its education system was up to the job of competing with the Soviets. In Asia, the French had left Indochina in 1954 after their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and this marked the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The U.S. and the Soviets struggled for preeminence in the Third World through proxies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the Middle East, the US feared the spread of Communism starting in Egypt and attempted to secure the region's most populous and politically powerful country for the West by guarantees of funding for construction of the Aswan Dam but it was eventually the Soviets who prevailed. Soviet diplomatic and political successes in the Third World left the West worried about losing one country after another to Communism according to the domino theory evoked by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.[citation needed]

It was in this atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and uncertainty in the United States about Soviet military and technological might, and Communist Cold War political success in unaligned nations of the Third World that the novel was published in 1958, with immediate seismic impact.


The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan (an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma or Thailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam) and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed.[citation needed] The book describes the United States's losing struggle against Communism due to the ineptness and bungling of the U.S. diplomatic corps[2] stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture.

Plot summary[edit]

The book is written as a series of interrelated vignettes. In one, a Burmese journalist says "For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious."[3]

The American Ambassador “Lucky” Lou Sears confines himself to his comfortable diplomatic compound in the capital. The Soviet ambassador speaks the local language and understands the local culture. He informs his Moscow superiors that Sears “keeps his people tied up with meetings, social events, and greeting and briefing the scores of senators, congressmen, generals, admirals, under secretaries of state and defense, and so on, who come pouring through here to ‘look for themselves.’” Sears undermines creative efforts to head off communist insurgency. The "Ugly American" of the book title refers to the plain-looking engineer Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects, such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. The book implies that the Communists were successful because they practiced tactics similar to those of Atkins. [1]

Characters in real life[edit]

According to an article published in Newsweek in May, 1959, the "real" "Ugly American" was identified as an International Cooperation Agency technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques, and helped to start home canning industries.[4]

Another of the book's heroes, Colonel Hillandale, appears to have been modeled on the real-life U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Edward Lansdale, who was an expert in counter-guerrilla operations.


The book was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the Fall of 1958, and came out as a Book of the Month Club selection in October.[5]

The book became an instant bestseller, going through twenty printings from July to November 1958, remaining on the bestseller list for a year and a half, and ultimately selling four million copies.[5]

After the book had gained wide readership, the term "Ugly American" came to be used to refer to the "loud and ostentatious" type of visitor in another country, rather than the "plain looking folks, who are not afraid to 'get their hands dirty' like Homer Atkins" to whom the book itself referred.


The title entered the English language for a type of character portrayed in the book. The book is one of the leading best-sellers in the nation's history, and one of a very few works of fiction that had a profound effect on American political debate and have had a lasting impact ; as such, it is in the same league as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle.[5]

Lasting impacts in the Kennedy administration included Kennedy's national physical fitness program, his statement of America's willingness to "bear any burden" in the Third World, the founding of the Peace Corps aimed primarily at development in the Third World, the build-up of American Special Forces, and emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics in fighting communists in South Vietnam.[5] According to British documentary film maker Adam Curtis, Senator and future U.S. President "John F. Kennedy was gripped by The Ugly American. In 1960, he and five other opinion leaders bought a large advertisement in the New York Times, saying that they had sent copies of the novel to every U.S. Senator, because its message was so important."[6]

Within a few years of publication of the book, President Lyndon Baines Johnson had made reference to the term in his Great Society speech to a 1964 university graduating class,[7] the term Ugly American and it was solidifying as a pejorative expression referring more generally to the offensive behavior of Americans abroad.[8]

1963 film[edit]

The film version of the novel was made in 1963 and starred Marlon Brando as Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite. The Ugly American received mixed reviews and was completely overwhelmed by a number of better films that year.[9] The film won no Golden Globes and neither won and was not nominated for an Oscar. It did poorly at the box office and was not among the year's top 25 grossing films of 1963.[10]

The screenplay was written by Stewart Stern, and the film was produced and directed by George Englund. The film was shot mainly in Hollywood, with Thailand serving as the inspiration for the background sceneries. Parts of the film were also shot on locations in Bangkok, Thailand, including at Chulalongkorn University, one of the leading institutes of higher learning of the country. Upon release, the film garnered generally positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% of critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.1/10.

Kukrit Pramoj, a Thai politician and scholar, was hired as a cultural expert/advisor to the film and later played the role of Sarkhan's Prime Minister "Kwen Sai". Later on, in 1975, he, in fact, became the 13th Prime Minister of Thailand. Probably because of this, the word "Sarkhan" has entered the Thai language as a nickname of Thailand itself, often with a slight self-deprecating or mocking tone.[citation needed]

Critical reaction and political discussion[edit]

The New York Times reported that Brando “moves through the whole picture with authority and intelligence,” and the New York Daily News said it was “one of Brando’s best performances.” But the negative view was reflected by the critic in Time Magazine who wrote that Brando “attempts an important voice but most of the time he sounds like a small boy in a bathtub imitating Winston Churchill” and called it a “lousy picture.”[11]

Of twenty-three reviews examined by one scholar[who?], fourteen were positive, five negative, and four neutral or mixed. Brando had given interviews where he questioned American Cold War politics, and some reviewers agreed, but few of these reviews mentioned that the film was set in a country very much like Vietnam. Only a few mentioned the point that, as the Dallas Morning News put it, one should “not assume that nationalism is inevitably anti-American,” and the New Republic was unusual in adding that “American blindness ... has driven many people particularly Asians, towards communism.” Some called Senator Brenner the real “ugly American” and objected to his McCarthyite tactics. The New York Post wrote that the film presented the dilemma that when Americans supported dictators, the Communists “make common revolutionary cause with the downtrodden.” Many East Coast reviews, however, objected to the film’s “oversimplification” of the issues. The Washington Post said it was “nothing more than a western about the bad guys and the good guys.”[11]


  1. ^ a b Meyer (2009).
  2. ^ Paul Hollander (1995). Anti-Americanism: Irrational and Rational. New Brunswick, N.J. USA: Transaction Publishers. p. 399. ISBN 978-1-4128-1734-9. OCLC 30701897. It was the highly popular message of the book that Americans abroad, and officials in particular, were both totally ignorant of local customs, social norms, and culture and cheerfuly insensitive to the feelings and beliefs of the peoples they were seeking to patronize and defend from the communist threat. "The Ugly American" became a stereotype of the American abroad universally disliked. ...The novel also conveyed that the few Americans who were knowledgeable of and interested in foreign countries are systematically weeded out from foreign service. The novel's Ambassaodr Sears thinks of the natives as "little monkeys" and had no idea where the country was loacated in which he was given the job as a political reward. He was among the American officials described by one of the articulate natives as people who cannot grasp the power of ideas (unlike the communists) and who were sent over to "try to buy us like cattle". 
  3. ^ Lederer, William J; Burdick, Eugene (1958). The Ugly American. The Norton library. Norton. ISBN 9780393318678. LCCN 58007388. Retrieved 17 May 2015.  p. 145
  4. ^ Clifford, Robert L.; Hunerwadel, Helen B. (1996) [1993]. "Chapter 1: Burma Beginnings and Point Four". In Arndt, Richard T.; David Lee, Rubin. The Fulbright Difference. Fulbright Association series. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. pp. 20–24. ISBN 1-56000-085-6. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d Hellman, John (July 1983). "Vietnam as Symbolic Landscape: The Ugly American and the New Frontier". Peace & Change (Conference on Peace Research in History) 9 (2-3): 40–54. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0130.1983.tb00494. ISSN 1468-0130. Archived from the original on 17 May 2015. Retrieved 17 May 2015. 
  6. ^ How to kill a rational peasant
  7. ^ Wikisource:The Great Society
  8. ^ "Ugly American: Definition of Ugly American by Merriam-Webster". Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2015-05-18. an American in a foreign country whose behavior is offensive to the people of that country 
  9. ^ Stefan Kanfer (7 July 2011). Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando. Faber & Faber. p. 187. ISBN 978-0-571-27878-7. 
  10. ^ "Top Grossing Films of 1963". 2013-09-06. Retrieved 2015-05-18. 
  11. ^ a b Cowans, Jon (2010). "A Deepening Disbelief: The American Movie Hero in Vietnam, 1958-1968". Journal of American-East Asian Relations 17: 324–351. doi:10.1163/187656111x564306. , p. 333-339.

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