Book Review: “The Ugly American” by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick (1958)

The picture as we saw it, then, is of an Asia where we stand relatively mute, locked in the cities, misunderstanding the temper and the needs of the Asians. We saw Americans spending vast sums where Russia spends far less and achieves far more. The result has been called ‘an uneasy balance,’ but actually it is nothing of the sort. We have been losing–not only in Asia, but everywhere. (The Authors, 239)

Foreign Service groups have often recommended this book to potential workers as a guide for “what not to do” on a foreign field (in this case, Southeast Asia). When I first started reading The Ugly American, I had anticipated an almost anti-American bent, as if the title’s impression was that of a native people viewing an American visitor. The back-cover blurb on my paperback copy (published in 1963) reinforced this anticipation by reading: “If this were not a free country this book would be BANNED BANNED BANNED.” Not a bad method for drawing in a readership! Of course, I was not hoping to read some pre-hippy, anti-American drivel, but rather as an American expat in Asia myself, I had wanted to get a better sense of what the locals might think of me.

As I got deeper into the book, however, I realized that my initial impressions were a bit off. Rather than following a “what’s wrong with Americans?” plot, it became more of a “what’s wrong with many American foreign service workers?” plot instead. I have very little knowledge of the time period, but the American government’s foreign services (consulates and embassies) during the late 1950s must have been something horrendous, for the authors spare no words to develop its selfish, aristocratic identity in the reader’s eyes. As important a topic as that must have been to the fight against Communism in the decade leading up to the Vietnam War, I found that it had very little relevance to me now, nearly sixty years later. For this reason, I put the book down when I had already made it a full 80% of my way through. I didn’t want to waste my time, as one British General in the book had done: “He…had an enormous knowledge of Asia which would have been useful in the nineteenth century, but was now almost valueless.” (167)

Several months after giving up on the book, though, I had an inkling that perhaps I had been too quick to judge. Wanting to give the authors their fair shake, I took an hour to complete my reading, and the more I delved into the authors conclusions to the story (as well as their non-fiction appendix), I came to realize how its timeless truths could impact not just the wannabe foreign service workers of the mid 20th Century, but also missionaries serving on foreign fields and, in a much broader context, Christian believers in general as we live in this fallen world. “This world is not our home,” after all: we are but strangers, pilgrims, and foreigners in this strange land.

Ultimately, the authors concluded that the American Government must commit themselves to training only the best foreign service workers to serve on foreign fields. For too long, they had groomed only the mediocre, the adventure seekers, and the cocktail-party politicians. These individuals knew nothing of the language or customs of their target field, nor did their families, and upon arrival they merely banded together in American cliques, lived it up at the expense of the American taxpayer, and served as nothing more than a tourism agency for visiting congressmen and military representatives. “Americans who cannot speak the language,” they write, “can have no more than an academic understanding of a country’s customs, beliefs, religion, and humor.” (233) As a result, the embassies and consulates had virtually no working relationships with the local people and ultimately lost all their allegiance in favor of the much more outwardly concerned and cultured Russian Communists. It was no wonder, then, that the Communists could bolster their native numbers while the Americans constantly felt undermined and infiltrated. Of course, these failures would ultimately impact America’s strength in the devastation that was to become the Vietnam War.

That Communism was our bitterest enemy at this point in history is something most readers today take for granted. We fail to recognize what sorts of outlandish atrocities that all-pervasive, evil enemy committed during those years. As one Catholic priest in the story muses after reading the works of Lenin, Stalin, Engel, and Marx:

Others might think that Communism was a result of class conflict, of long-range economic change or political fanaticism; but Finian knew that Communism was the face of the Devil, altered shyly and shrewdly, but still the devil’s face, put on earth to test again the morality of men…Here was the face of the Devil. The Communists had duplicated the ritual, faith, dedication, zeal, and enthusiasm of the Church. There was the same apostolic energy, the necessity to see beyond facts to a greater truth. The only difference was that the Communists served evil. They served it so well that the priest knew that both faiths could not exist in this world at the same time. (41)

This enemy was not only corrupt to the core, but also devilishly wise in its methods of infiltration and recruiting on the small scale so that, in the end, the power of a few in multitude could overcome any threat to its existence, even the powerful United States of America. The authors warn:

(The Communists) will win the world by their successes in a multitude of tiny battles…The United States must either prepare itself to win these many tiny conflicts, which are the substance of competitive coexistence; or go down in defeat…The little things we do must be moral acts and they must be done in the real interest of the peoples whose friendship we need…To the extent that our foreign policy is human and reasonable, it will be successful. To the extent that it is imperialistic and grandiose, it will fail. (225-6)

Clearly, this book was a manifesto itself against both the impending threat of global communism and the unprepared state of Americans everywhere. But as noted above, we Christians must also consider the authors’ various practical points. Missionaries, for example, ought to be held to the same standards or higher as those recommended by the authors for foreign service workers. Missionaries must know their target language; they must never cluster with other foreigners to the exclusion of the nationals; and they and their families must be willing to live within the same means and comforts as do the nationals whom they serve. Ambassadors either of the United States or of Christ must be more than mere adventure seekers who want to “live it up” in a foreign land. Instead, they must be people of high character committed to building the strongest bridges from the Prize they represent to the People whom they serve.

Likewise, Christians in general are but strangers, pilgrims, and ambassadors to this lost and sinful world, and yet we must not shy away from our responsibilities to the “nationals” here. While we are not to be “of the world,” we are nevertheless “in the world,” and as such we must not fear learning their language, looking them in the eye, and living at their level. Too often Christians think it righteous to flee this sinful world like it’s a burning building, all the while forgetting that many people remain inside, still asleep and unaware of the danger all around them.

While likely few other readers have come away from such an old book with such an outdated political landscape with the kind of spiritual applications that I’ve just laid out, that’s OK. I feel it’s important to let God teach us even in ways that might seem otherwise inapplicable. These lessons are important for us all to munch on, and I think I’ll go now and do just that.

©2016 E.T.

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