The Ugly American Background

The Ugly American Background

The Ugly American was published by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick in 1958. In 1959, Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas rose from his seat inside the Capitol, stood up and proceeded to criticize the novel for characterizing American diplomats working to spread the perfectionism of capitalism, free enterprise and democracy as “boobs” while simultaneously praising their Soviet counterparts as “servants of communism.” Fulbright’s diatribe against the collaboration between Lederer and Burdick went to level charges that the book succeeded in its concerted propaganda efforts to mislead Americans and their representative leaders in government into buying into the book’s underlying thesis that it was, in fact, a very accurate portrait of how diplomacy work in the real world.

The latter charge was easy enough to dismiss since the authors preface its admittedly dark pre-Vietnam war examination of the machinations of Cold War politics in Southeast Asia with the admonition that while events such as those described within have happened in 59 countries across the globe, “the names, the places, the events, are our inventions; our aim is not to embarrass individuals, but to stimulate thought—and, we hope, action.”

The immediate aftermath of the publication of The Ugly American is an abject lesson in the caution to be careful what you wish for. If the intent of the authors was for their novel to stimulate action, then they almost instantly got what they wanted. American was still reeling from the effects of the HUAC witch hunt for communist subversion in the motion picture industry and the sheer insanity of the meteoric rise and mercifully quick fall of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. While McCarthy had been discredited in the minds of a substantial majority of the American people, there were still quite a few rather large pockets of true believers willing to see commies around every corner. One of those diehards just so happened to be Director of the U.S. Information Agency, George V. Allen. Part of the US Information Agency’s mission involved choosing which American books would be permitted for sale abroad and which could be denied permission if the content proved questionable to America’s foreign interests. Allen quickly deemed The Ugly American an example of a creative endeavor the sale of which in foreign countries would “not be in the interests of the United States.” And so, for a brief period anyway, The Ugly American joined the ranks of artists like screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and actor Zero Mostel as still feeling the effects of the long arm of the communist blacklist more than a decade it was instituted.

Despite efforts at obstructing access to the novel—or, more likely, precise due to those efforts—The Ugly American shot straight to the bestseller list where it remained for the next year and a half, was published in a serialized version by The Saturday Evening Post and was even chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection in October. A 1963 film adaptation was a box office disappointment and played a major role in the collapse of star Marlon Brando’s career from its height in the 1950s before his big Oscar-winning comeback a decade later in The Godfather.

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