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The Ugly American

In March, our book club will discuss The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick.  This is a great story!  It takes place (and was written) in the late fifties in Vietnam, Burma and a mythical nearby country called Sarkhan.  The Ugly American himself does not show up until towards the end of the book and what makes him ugly is not what most people think of when they hear the title of the book.   The authors drew on their personal experiences with the State Department, the US government and foreign governments to create this fictional account of tragic, non-functional US diplomacy.  The series of vignettes show our stupidity, arrogance and inability to effectively interact with host governments.  Most of the story makes you angry or embarrassed, parts of it are funny and a few places may make you tear up and cry.  The authors close the book with a factual epilogue, where they spell out their criticisms of the State Department and offer strong recommendations regarding what State needs to do to send effective Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) out into the world as diplomats.

The book club member who suggested the title and will lead the discussion reminded us that this was written prior to the US involvement in Vietnam.  That makes it even more poignant.  It’s not about the mistakes we made in Vietnam that most of think about.  It’s about the mistakes we were making all over the world.  Since 1958, State has made great improvements in providing FSO’s the skills they need to be good diplomats.  That said, the story was very sobering, as it was incredibly easy to map the stories from the book onto current diplomatic affairs.

Here’s a more complete review from a website devoted to all things Cambodian, which considers the book’s advice discarded.  This article from the International Herald Tribune views the world’s reaction to President Obama’s election in contrast to an ever-increasing anti-Americanism caused by Ugly Americans.  The article also closes with a great quote from the book about how Americans behave differently (worse) when they go abroad. In this critical review of The Ugly American (apparently written for students to use to cheat on their homework) the author provides more details of the characters and ends with recommend books to read next.  On to Sarkhan for me.


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