William Lederer was an American author and captain in the U.S. Navy who served as special assistant to the commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific and Asian theater.
Eugene Burdick was an American political scientist, novelist, and non-fiction writer, and served in the Navy during World War II. The two met in the buildup to the War in Vietnam.
The authors were disillusioned with the style and substance of U.S. diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia. They sought to demonstrate through their writings their belief that American officials and civilians could make a substantial difference in Southeast Asian politics if they were willing to learn local languages, follow local customs and employ regional military tactics.
Historical and political
The book was very much a product of its times and historical context.
In 1958 the Cold War was in full force, pitting the two geopolitical giants, the United States and the Soviet Union, against each other for military and geopolitical influence and dominance. NATO and the Warsaw Pact divided Europe into two competing visions of the world: the Western world viewed countries in the Eastern Bloc as behind an Iron Curtain (evidenced by the failed Hungarian Revolution); the Eastern Bloc countered by portraying itself as the liberator of countries that were still in thrall to colonialist machinations (evidenced by banana republics). The nuclear arms race was underway with the US well ahead initially, but by 1955, the Soviets had exploded a hydrogen bomb and were beginning to catch up, sparking fears of nuclear armageddon. The Soviet launching of Sputnik into orbit in 1957 gave the Soviets a huge technological and propaganda victory and sparked a crisis of confidence in the United States and worries about falling behind technologically and militarily. In Asia, the French had left Indochina in 1954 after their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the U.S. became involved in Vietnam to fill the perceived power vacuum. The U.S. and the Soviets struggled for preeminence in the Third World through proxies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In the Middle East, the US feared the spread of Communism starting in Egypt and attempted to secure the region's most populous and politically powerful country for the West by guarantees of funding for construction of the Aswan Dam, but it was eventually the Soviets who prevailed. Soviet diplomatic and political successes in the Third World left the West worried about losing one country after another to Communism according to the domino theory evoked by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was in this atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and uncertainty in the United States about Soviet military and technological might, and Communist Cold War political success in unaligned nations of the Third World that the novel was published in 1958, with immediate impact.