Guest Column

‘The Ugly American’: A Remembrance

By David I. Steinberg 26 July 2019

The other day I was browsing in the fiction section of my local library looking for some delicious Le Carré spy novel that I had not yet read when next to one such volume was an old acquaintance; I found Lederer and Burdick’s The Ugly American.[i] Some 60 years earlier I had read it, and I remembered in part it dealt with Burma, both directly and under a national pseudonym, but I had forgotten the details. Musing that The Irrawaddy was publishing occasional vignettes of an earlier Burma, I considered rereading the work, which was published in 1958—the year I first went to Burma—to see how Burma figured in this earlier diatribe of the failures of US policy in Southeast Asia in the wake of the spread of communist influence, and whether contributing a short article to The Irrawaddy might prove provocative. This was the quintessential Cold War-inspired work. It was correctly catalogued under “fiction”, but a spy novel it was not.

One’s memory over six decades may have become somewhat shaky, but one clear impression remained: The title of the book, which was quite popular at the time, had been completely misunderstood by those who had not read it. Although it dealt with gross failures of fictional policies and some real events, like the fall of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and the Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines, the term “ugly American” was commonly used to denigrate Americans doing stupid or bad things overseas. In fact, the “ugly American” of the title is one of the heroes of the volume—a physically ugly American and his also physically ugly American wife. They were a couple of the few “good guys” in a general panorama of American incompetence, arrogance and misunderstanding. They had made an effort to understand local cultures and sensitivities and did so without condescension. Even President Lyndon Johnson had mistakenly publicly claimed that the ugly Americans were the bad guys, not the models of intercultural sensitivity.

Perhaps because I was overseas for much of this period, I did not realize the extent of influence of this stylistically undistinguished and rather sophomoric foreign policy novel. It was said to have been one of the most influential American political novels, and then-Senator John F. Kennedy gave copies to his senatorial colleagues. It was supposed to have been an important influence in the formation of the Peace Corps. It was in 1963 made into an undistinguished film starring Marlon Brando.

This volume was supposedly fiction, and many country names had been changed, although Vietnam and the Philippines figure prominently under their proper designations. But the last chapter was a non-fictional call for rethinking many of our policies—most of which had been spelled out in fictional accounts but, in line with the singularly simplistic presentation, the authors seem to have felt the need to regurgitate in even plainer language, avoiding metaphors.

Although various attributes of Burma, such as monks and fortune tellers and other cultural forces, are associated throughout the volume with a country called “Sarkhan”, one chapter is devoted to Burma in the guise of an ambassadorial interview with a person whose pseudonym was U Maung Shwe, the publisher of a major newspaper. This is clearly supposed to be Ed Law Yone, publisher of The Nation, the major English-language daily in the country at the time. But Ed was far too sophisticated for the simplistic suggestions that he was said to have made to the fictitious American ambassador in that country.

The villain of the work, however, in spite of a number of exaggerated diplomatic and other duds, is not any individual. It is the American bureaucracy, most specifically the Department of State, but with asides against the Congress and the military. The criticisms are often telling, but are as extreme as the overly positive references to the Soviet capacities and practices in the area. The one competent but fictitious US ambassador is effectively forced to resign.

During his tour of Burma in 1953, then US Vice President Richard Nixon stops to admire the bracelet of a young girl. / US Embassy

This genre includes two other works of prominence. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) is a subtle, disturbing and stylistically superior novel of Vietnam, and may have prompted the writing of the Lederer book. We might remember that another volume of a slightly later period also focused in part on Burma. E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful[ii] reconsidered the scale of development. One complaint in both the Lederer and Schumacher volumes is the foreign insistence on big projects with big political impacts in the donor state. Others today sometimes criticize this feature of assistance.

Throughout the volume, the Americans illustrate a remarkable sense of misunderstanding (and misreporting) on local situations and local cultures, when they have infrequent contact with them. A major defined deficiency of the Americans, in contrast to the Soviets, is that they live too well and are too culturally isolated, as well as their lack of local language capacity. This was certainly true then. Now, a degree of competence in “exotic” and difficult languages does often result in extra pay at the State Department, but the chances for advancement for those with such skills are often limited, so longer-range incentives are insufficient. Yet there has been progress: teaching of languages both in Washington and at post has become common. Recruitment from the Peace Corps or other overseas experiences often bring to the Foreign Service of the State Department individuals with a degree of such knowledge and the advantage of having lived in local communities rather than the gated, exclusive, expatriate estates. Yet in Myanmar not too long ago, senior officials of two major non-Western embassies decided to have lunch together and the only language to be spoken was Burmese. The US could not do this and remains far behind in spite of improvements.

And subterfuge sometimes adds to the problem. When the Near East Bureau of USAID was formed, the agency could report to Congress that it was ninety-some percent in compliance with fulfilling its language requirements. Statistically true, but false in the real world. A couple of Portuguese language positions existed because of a US base in the Azores, and perhaps a position or two requiring French in Morocco and Tunisia. But in a bureau that ranged over those states plus Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, not one position required an Arabic speaker.

In thinking back over Myanmar and US-Myanmar relations, both states today are obviously far more sophisticated than once we were, and indeed on economic development policies generally. Policy mistakes on both sides are still rife, at least in my analysis, and one could catalogue them on both sides. But US policy makers, intellectually isolated on affairs Myanmar, need to understand the complexities and dynamics of the various social forces in Myanmar—something that the increased foreign scholarship on Myanmar is exploring in depth, so that policies can be attuned to realities. Myanmar authorities, civilian and military, need to calculate the effects of their internal concerns on foreign relations, for if we have learned anything from the Ne Win era it is that Myanmar can never again be isolated culturally or economically, and will have to adjust its approaches toward national dilemmas to international standards.

The Ugly American as a novel deserves to be forgotten, but the ugly American as an individual prototype of a culturally sensitive person is an ideal. And the need for cultural sensitivity remains seminal, perhaps even more acute after the debacle of the Vietnam War and our Middle East trauma. Now, the American presence in Myanmar is far more sensitive than in some earlier eras, and if the Cold War is no longer a priority, sustainable development and income disparities are in a necessarily engaged world. And the verities remain: the dignity with which peoples must be treated.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian studies emeritus, Georgetown University.

[i] William J. Lederer & Eugene Burdick.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1956.

[ii] E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. 1973.