The Ugly American: Complexity of International Affairs

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The Ugly American showed the reasons why American diplomacy was failing in Southeast Asia in the 1950's and the reasons why communism was succeeding. . Its lessons seem startlingly urgent today in light of the turmoil in Central America and in the Middle East. Whether the foreign policy errors this book dramatizes have been corrected is an important question, and one that can be usefully debated in the classroom.

As a harbinger of the United States failure in Vietnam, The Ugly American seems a terribly prophetic book. How could the warnings Lederer and Burdick sounded have gone unheeded? An examination of their book shows us precisely how, for in The Ugly American knowledgeable and skillful executors of American foreign policy (those who believe that "the things we do must be done in the real interest of the people whose friendship we need--not just in the interest of propaganda") are routinely replaced by those who know less, care less, and are eminently less qualified to serve those interests.

The novel opens with one such individual--the "Honorable" Louis Sears, ambassador to the fictitious country of Sarkhan, a small underdeveloped nation in which communist and American interests are vying for supremacy. Sears has assumed his post as a political stopgap. Between three terms in the Senate and an anticipated federal judgeship "with a long tenure," he's simply filling time in a "cushy" job with a large entertainment budget and lavish living conditions, in a country he had never heard of, serving people he thinks of as "little monkeys." A caricature depicting Sears as a braying mule has appeared in a local Sarkhanese newspaper, making clear just how the American ambassador is perceived: Sears is the prototype of "the ugly American."

In contrast, the following chapter presents the Russian ambassador to Sarkhan, Louis Krupitzyn, a thorough professional whose two-year training period has included instruction in the language and the customs of the nation he...
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