The Ugly American Summary

William J. Lederer, Eugene Burdick

The Ugly American

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The Ugly American Summary

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The Ugly American is a political commentary in the form of a novel written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. It uses narrative form to comment on the way diplomacy fails when the US is in a foreign country because diplomats refuse to learn the language or local customs.

The story takes place in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. Ambassador Sears is upset because of an unflattering cartoon about him. American John Colvin recovers in the hospital after being beaten up. He had been trying to show the local citizenry how to use milk and its byproducts, and even went so far as to set up a production plant in town.

An old friend of his, Deong, has become a communist and betrayed him by telling everyone he was drugging the milk so he could take advantage of the local girls. Colvin denies the story, but he is left beaten on the steps of the US embassy. Sears complains about the cartoon, and it is removed from the newspaper to avoid threat to the loan from the US.

In the second story, we meet Russian Ambassador Louis Krupitzyn. Unlike Sears, he is fully prepared for his position as ambassador. He speaks and writes the local language. He understands local politics. When the Americans send rice to aid in a famine, he arranges to have stenciled in the local language that it is a gift from Russia.

Father Finian is a Catholic priest and a staunch anti-communist. He recruits nine local Catholics to help him publish a newspaper dedicated to destroying communist influence in the community.He tricks a Russian expert into recording disparaging things so that the people will understand that Russia doesnot have their best interest at heart.

Joe Bing, an American public relations officer, gives a rosy picture of life abroad and manages to recruit a young American Marie McIntosh. She writes home about her pleasant life in Sarkhan. Meanwhile, Sears makes another political blunder over a rumor that the US is about to evict the Sarkhanese Air Force from land lent to them, but he is moved back to the US to take a federal judgeship.

The new ambassador, Gilbert McWhite is more professional. McWhite takes the time to learn the language and is eager to combat communism. However, he discovers that his servants are passing secrets along to the communists. He begins to travel Southeast Asia looking for ideas on how to combat communism and he hears about an American called the “Ragtime Kid” who embraces local culture.

The French discover that,as part of the Communist takeover, theyhave adopted a new kind of war.This knowledge causes the French to re-examine how they are conducting their affairs. Tom Knox, another American, makes a suggestion in Cambodia for how they can increase production, but when the wealthy diplomats offer him luxury trips, he forgets all about his purpose.

Jonathan Brown, a US Senator, visits Vietnam to try to figure out what is going on with US interests. It is difficult for him to get the information he needs, however, and each time he questions someone, he receives only partial answers. When he arrives back home, he realizes that he only spoke with military men and government officials. He still claims that he understands the situation there.

Meanwhile, at a party, the King of Sarkhan is insulted by MacWhite’s deputy. In negotiations with Vietnam, the US loses a negotiation to put weapons on Vietnamese soil due to the incompetence of the negotiators.

At the end of the book, MacWhite tells the US that he believes that Russia will win the Cold War unless the US takes more interest in learning about the local people and their customs. He offers many practical suggestions to accomplish this, but each suggestion is rejected. He resigns, and is replaced with Joe Bing.

The epilogue is an explanation by the authors that although their vignettes are fiction, they are based on real people and real life events.

The authors hoped to get the message across that Americans, when abroad, need to come to a good understanding of the local culture if anything is to be accomplished. Most Americans go through a change when they travel, isolating themselves and refusing to learn the language or local customs.

If the US wants to succeed on the international stage, the authors believe it must learn to behave more like locals, and show more respect to the culture. US diplomats’ inability to blend in and to participate in local culture is a huge detriment to the American image abroad and serves only to hasten interests counter to our own. Learning to listen and respect local culture is the only way to approach modern diplomacy and international relations.

The novel was a hit and a well-timed look at the ways Americans bungle when sent abroad. It reminds us that if we are to live in the world, and hope to make a difference, isolating ourselves and disrespecting the culture we are working in will not cut it.