The Ugly American

1958 novel

The book depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, culture, and customs and refusal to integrate was in marked contrast to the polished abilities of Eastern Bloc (primarily Soviet) diplomacy and led to Communist diplomatic success overseas.[2] The book caused a sensation in diplomatic circles. John F. Kennedy was so impressed with the book that he sent a copy to each of his colleagues in the United States Senate. The book was one of the biggest bestsellers in the U.S., has been in print continuously since it appeared, and is one of the most politically influential novels in all of American literature.[1]

Literary structure


The title of the novel is a play on Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American[4]:17 and was sometimes confused with it.[2][excerpt 1]

The "Ugly American" of the book title refers to the book's hero, plain-looking engineer Homer Atkins, whose "calloused and grease-blackened hands always reminded him that he was an ugly man." Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump.[2]


The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan (an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma or Thailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam) and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed. The book describes the United States' losing struggle against Communism due to the ineptitude and bungling of the U.S. diplomatic corps[5] stemming from innate arrogance and their failure to understand the local culture. The book implies that the Communists were successful because they practiced tactics similar to those of protagonist Homer Atkins.[2]

Category and structure

The book is written as a series of interrelated vignettes. It was originally commissioned by the publisher as a work of nonfiction, but was changed to a fictionalized novel at an editor's suggestion. The authors say in the introduction that the work represents "the rendering of fact into fiction."[2]

Plot summary

In one vignette, a Burmese journalist says "For some reason, the [American] people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious."[6]

The American Ambassador "Lucky" Lou Sears confines himself to his comfortable diplomatic compound in the capital. The Soviet ambassador speaks the local language and understands the local culture. He informs his Moscow superiors that Sears "keeps his people tied up with meetings, social events, and greeting and briefing the scores of senators, congressmen, generals, admirals, under secretaries of state and defense, and so on, who come pouring through here to 'look for themselves.'" Sears undermines creative efforts to head off communist insurgency.

Characters in real life

According to an article published in Newsweek in May 1959, the "real" "Ugly American" was identified as an International Cooperation Administration technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques, and helped to start home canning industries.[7]

Another of the book's heroes, Colonel Hillandale, appears to have been modeled on the real-life U.S. Air Force Major General Edward Lansdale, who was an expert in counter-guerrilla operations.[8]


The book was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in the Fall of 1958, and came out as a Book of the Month Club selection in October.[1]

The book became an instant bestseller, going through 20 printings from July to November 1958, remaining on the bestseller list for a year and a half, and ultimately selling four million copies.[1]

After the book had gained wide readership, the term "Ugly American" came to be used to refer to the "loud and ostentatious" type of visitor in another country rather than the "plain looking folks, who are not afraid to 'get their hands dirty' like Homer Atkins" to whom the book itself referred.


Given the mood of fear and uncertainty in the US at the time due to Sputnik and other perceived failures in the struggles of the Cold War, a book about diplomatic failures in Southeast Asia was well-aligned with the Zeitgeist and primed to catch attention. The book was lavishly praised in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times Book Review, and the Chicago Tribune, with reviewers adding their own anecdotes about boorish behavior on the part of Americans abroad. A reviewer in Catholic World linked it to The Quiet American and said that the book was trying to answer some of the questions raised by Greene's book.

Reviews in some news or opinion publications reflected the varying opinions extant during the Cold War public debate. A reviewer in Time called it a "crude series of black-and-white-cartoons" while the Saturday Review, and The Nation also disapproved of overly simplistic characters.[4]:16


Contemporary reaction

The book was published in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. Reportedly as a result of the book, Eisenhower ordered an investigation of the U.S. foreign aid program. As the presidential campaign of 1960 heated up, the issues raised in the book became a campaign issue for the Democratic Party.[4]:17

Presidential politics

Lasting impacts in the Kennedy administration included President Kennedy's national physical fitness program, his statement of America's willingness to "bear any burden" in the Third World, the founding of the Peace Corps, the build-up of American Special Forces, and emphasis on counterinsurgency tactics in fighting communists in South Vietnam.[1] According to British documentary film maker Adam Curtis, Senator and future U.S. President "John F. Kennedy was gripped by The Ugly American. In 1960, he and five other opinion leaders bought a large advertisement in The New York Times, saying that they had sent copies of the novel to every U.S. senator because its message was so important."[9]

President Lyndon Baines Johnson made reference to the term Ugly American in his Great Society speech to a 1964 university graduating class,[10] and it was by then used as a pejorative expression for generally offensive behavior by Americans abroad.[11]

Peace Corps

Senator Hubert Humphrey first introduced a bill in Congress in 1957 for the formation of a Peace Corps aimed primarily at development in the Third World, but "it did not meet with much enthusiasm"[12] and the effort failed. The Ugly American was published the following year. Senator Kennedy first mentioned the idea of creating a Peace Corps during his campaign for President in 1960[13] and in March 1961, two months after his inauguration, Kennedy announced the establishment of the Peace Corps.[14] Kennedy and other members of the administration viewed the Peace Corps as their answer to the problems described in The Ugly American.[15]


Presidents, Senators, and Congressmen alluded to the book or quoted from it, either as commentary or to further their objectives, or to criticize it. Senator J. William Fulbright, powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the book from the Senate floor, declaring that it contained "phony" claims of incompetence, and that it was a follow-up to McCarthy era treason charges.[4]:17–18

Long-term impact

The title entered the English language for a type of character portrayed in the book. The book is one of a very few works of fiction that had a profound and lasting impact on American political debate, along with such works as Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle.[4]:15

In 2009 an article appeared in The New York Times Book Review about the book's impact since it was first published. The reviewer wrote "[T]he book's enduring resonance may say less about its literary merits than about its failure to change American attitudes. Today, as the battle for hearts and minds has shifted to the Middle East, we still can't speak Sarkhanese."[2]

A 2011 book on Arab–American relations took its title in part from the book, recalled the sense of diplomatic bungling in Southeast Asia portrayed in the book, and pointed out that many Arab commentators likened American mistakes in Iraq to those in Southeast Asia.[16]

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