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PRINT April 1991

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

the Ugly American

WHY IS IT THAT of all the adjectives that might have stuck to the proper noun “American,” “ugly” has been the most resilient? The phrase, which has something to do with how we see the rest of the world and thus how we imagine the rest of the world sees us, derives from a novel—or rather a polemic—on the subject of American diplomatic failure in Southeast Asia. Written by retired Navy captain William J. Lederer and Berkeley political-science professor Eugene Burdick, and published in late 1958, The Ugly American is today unread and out of print. It’s arguable, however, that no American fiction since Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been more influential.

Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, The Ugly American sold four million copies and occasioned considerable ambivalence. President Eisenhower reportedly read the book, then ordered an investigation into

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