PRINT April 1991


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 America’s foreign-aid program. The State Department counter-pamphlet was not published until spring 1960, around the time Republican presidential hopeful Richard Nixon tried to appropriate the Lederer-Burdick critique. Too late—the book had long since been seized upon by ambitious Democrats. A few months after publication, Senator John F. Kennedy sent a complimentary copy to every other U.S. senator.

Extending the cold war (and implicitly the American frontier) to the jungles of Vietnam (represented by the imaginary country of Sarkhan), Lederer and Burdick stressed the importance of competing with the Soviets in this “undeveloped world.” The authors criticized American foreign-service personnel as spoiled ignoramuses, but offered a prescription: American agents had to learn the native language, know the indigenous culture, swim like fish among the people. . . just like their Russian rivals. The book’s title character—a big, ugly, unaffected engineer—is actually its positive hero. This Lincolnesque figure is confounded by State Department bureaucrats, as is a second positive model, the capable and knowledgeable Ambassador Mac-White. By September 1959, when Universal announced plans for a movie version and Senator J. William Fulbright denounced the studio’s “arrogance” in asking for State Department cooperation, the irony of the book’s title was already lost. A year after their bombshell first exploded, Lederer and Burdick were recruited by Life to salute the deeds of several “non-ugly Americans.”

The Ugly American’s extraordinary popular success and immediate impact on public discourse suggests that a dozen years after the end of World War II, the United States was suffering from a new sort of malady, namely an “image problem.” The book was of a piece with postwar pop sociological introspection: part of the Lonely Crowd, the Organization Man in the Gray Flannel Suit followed the Hidden Persuaders and Status-Seekers to secure his place in the Affluent Society (which is Why Johnny Can’t Read). The novel took this self-doubt global. “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land,” one character in The Ugly American opines. They “live pretentiously,” become “loud and ostentatious.” They exaggerate the mindless conformism and conspicuous consumption that presumably characterized life at home—or else they “isolate themselves,” take refuge, as a turtle retreats into a shell. Either way, they live in sublime ignorance of local realities.

Although The Ugly American’s premise was restated from an aggressive left-wing perspective in C. Wright Mills’ 1960 paperback Listen, Yankee, a defense of the Cuban revolution that attacked America’s “insulated,” patronizing foreign officials (among other things), it was the neoliberal Kennedy who really put the novel to work. From the space program to the physical fitness campaign to the Alliance for Progress, New Frontier initiatives were created, as Kennedy said of the Peace Corps, to do away with “the Ugly American image.” And, of course, the doctrine of counterinsurgency personified by the Green Berets specifically answered Lederer-Burdick’s call for “a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hardworking, and dedicated professionals.” The prettifying of the ugly American was purely functional—designed more for efficient bellicosity than for understanding.

Even as the novel’s siren song drew the American ship of state closer to the Indochinese reef, the movie version plodded inexorably toward the screen. Shooting was supposed to start in January 1960, but once Marlon Brando became involved, production had to be sandwiched between the star’s stints on the epic remake of Mutiny on the Bounty. Work on The Ugly American thus encompassed the prelude to and all but the final seven months of the New Frontier; by the time it reached the screen, Americans had lived through the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the building of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Kennedy had sent more than 10,000 American “military advisers” to Vietnam.

Not surprisingly, the movie’s script collapsed the novel’s multiple protagonists into one, Ambassador MacWhite (Brando), while splitting Sarkhan into a communist North and tenuously democratic South. MacWhite’s arrival in South Sarkhan provokes an airport demonstration, rioters threatening to break into his limo, that unavoidably recalls Nixon’s 1958 trip to Caracas. Soon, however, the idealistic, stubborn, well-meaning MacWhite mutates into a more glamorous American public figure. Studio press releases stressed that Brando’s morning coat and striped pants came from Kennedy’s tailors, Harris & Company, and his top hat was ordered from the same West German firm that made the president’s, further reinforcing the identification.

The Ugly American had its premiere in April 1963, the same month that the first signs protesting American involvement in Vietnam appeared at the annual Easter peace march in New York, and received unusually mixed reviews. Could the film be considered prophetic? Thanks to MacWhite’s self-righteous bungling, revolution breaks out in South Sarkhan and he feels compelled to call in the Seventh Fleet. The movie ends with the ambassador’s TV image beamed into an ordinary American living room: “If the cold war disappeared right now, the American people would still be in this fight against ignorance and hunger and disease because it’s right. It’s right to be in it and if I had one appeal to make to every American it would be that. . . .” His impassioned pitch is terminated with a resounding—click!—as a drumstick-gnawing Joe Sixpack turns off the set, signaling a new manifestation of the Ugly American. (To drive home the message, the end credit is accompanied by “America the Beautiful.”)

Today, of course, the Ugly American delivers the news: “What language do they speak in Kuwait?” pretty Deborah Norville asks her cohost. (Why bother to learn the native tongue when you can mesmerize the home folks with free-floating definitions of national self-interest and wistful calls for a postwar Marshall Plan?) George Bush, who served a stint as Nixon’s “Ugly American” in China, seems determined to revive Kennedy’s anywhere-anytime pugnacity—without the cold war justification. Who remembers that Saddam Hussein, like Manuel Noriega, was once a strategic asset? Who doubts that they are assets again? The post–Ugly American turned out to be just what Lederer-Burdick thought they were attacking, the kind of guy who believes his own disinformation.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. He writes film criticism for The Village Voice_, New York.