Burdick and Lederer Explore the Image of the “Ugly American”

The Ugly American chronicled the lives of diplomats and civilians serving the United States in various locations in Southeast Asia after World War II. Characters in the short-story collection with selfish and naïve motivations, and some with good intentions, are labeled “ugly Americans,” distrusted and hated in many parts of the world because they refuse to understand local cultures or to learn indigenous languages and customs.

Summary of Event

Relations between the United States and Southeast Asia were strained after World War II. The United States and European countries with postcolonial ties to the region were involved with the internal politics of countries in Southeast Asia. Tension arose with Western attempts to rid smaller Asian countries of “the scourge” of encroaching communism. Many Westerners, Americans in particular, were concerned about their influence and their economic stakes in the region. Some diplomats, however, showed sincere concern for the living conditions of the local peoples, but they represented their intentions poorly and inadequately and were thus ignored or otherwise disregarded. Stakeholders as well as sympathetic Westerners shared in the scorn placed on them by Southeast Asians. [kw]Burdick and Lederer Explore the Image of the “Ugly American” (1958)
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Lederer, William J.
Burdick, Eugene

These conditions inspired William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick to fictionalize a series of intertwined vignettes that presented events in the fictional Sarkhan and surrounding nations. The stories in the book The Ugly American (1958) involved character analysis. The term “ugly American” was inspired by one episode late in the book involving a good-hearted engineer who described himself as physically ugly. In his plain-spoken country ways, successful businessman Homer Atkins set out to make the lives of the Vietnamese easier, but local leaders were uninterested in his ideas for small improvements; they would only consider large-scale actions to improve the country’s economy. A frustrated Atkins packed up and moved to Sarkhan. In an ironic twist, Atkins was to become anything but an “ugly American” after he helped villagers.

Unlike many Americans who came to the region to represent the United States by living in cities in closed diplomatic compounds in the grand style they were so proud of, Atkins and his plain and stout wife Emma set up housekeeping in the countryside with the peasants. Atkins saw that agriculture in the region was hindered by the peasants carrying water on their backs to the top of their terraced fields, an activity that took up most of their time and led to decreased productivity and great personal hardship. Atkins knew that for his ideas to be acceptable to the villagers, he must align himself with the village headman and find a fellow engineer among the local population. The village leaders knew who that person would be: a local Sarkhanese man nicknamed “Jeepo.”

Jeepo rebuilt American jeeps, and he was good at keeping things running. Atkins proposed a device constructed from a bicycle that would allow farmers to use the power of pedaling the stripped-down frame to pump water to the highest levels of their terraced farmlands. Jeepo immediately found fault with the whole plan: No one in Sarkhan would have a bicycle that could be used for such a project because bicycles were used for transportation. Jeepo pointed out that bicycles were not discarded when they started to fall apart. Instead, they were used to the point that they were scrap, and unusable to Atkins.

Atkins encouraged Jeepo to brainstorm ideas until together they came up with a way that a bicycle could be used to power a water pump and to remain intact for transportation. Families immediately had a way of using something everyone owned to make farming easier. Atkins bargained with the leaders of the village, who knew nothing of collective bargaining until Jeepo intervened. A deal was made that would allow Jeepo to be Atkins’s equal partner in a business that would provide jobs for many local men in their factory and create revenue and fame for the small village. Atkins would work side-by-side with the villagers and thereby earned their respect and friendship.

Meanwhile, Emma Atkins was noticing that the old women of the village were stooped and bent at the waist, and had backs that were in chronic pain. Villagers told Emma that stooped backs were the heritage of the old. Emma soon realized that the chronic problems came from untold hours of sweeping floors and sidewalks with short-handled brooms made of palms. The short brooms forced the women to bend to do their work. After much searching, Emma found a reed that grew much taller than the ones in the village. She had her husband dig a clump of the longer reed, which she then planted beside her house. After the plant grew, she made a broom using its reeds and showed the village women and men that sweeping was easier and more efficient if it could be done standing upright. It did not take long before villagers wanted to construct long-handled brooms. Men with water buffalo headed up the mountains for a reed supply of their own.

Many years later, after she and Homer had returned to the United States, Emma received a letter telling her just how much she had done for the women of the village, and she did it with one small but significant idea. Although the villagers were grateful enough to build a small shrine to Emma, the diplomatic establishment took no notice of such a “small matter” in their duties as representatives of the West.

Other characters earned the label of ugly American for other reasons. Among those were the Honorable “Lucky” Lou Sears, U.S. ambassador to Sarkhan. Sears was an egotistical man concerned only with his own personal comfort. He passed the time waiting for a better appointment in the United States. Another character was Joe Bing, a “big” man in diplomatic circles whom everyone loved and who may well be the book’s perfect parody of an obnoxious civil servant concerned only with serving himself, talking big, and agreeing with the authorities back home in his smiling way. It was obvious to everyone that Bing was never sincere. There were also many ambiguous characters with sincerity and strength of character whose actions were scarcely better than those concerned only with themselves. In some way, every character seemed to deserve the designation as the ugly American, even those whose motivations were pure and whose actions were just.


The Ugly American, which also became a 1963 film of the same name, portrayed how Southeast Asians saw U.S. citizens who were living in their homelands after World War II. Despite the revelations that made the novel such a success, and despite the actions that resulted from recognition of diplomatic flaws, no lasting changes were made to ameliorate the views of the region toward the United States. The belief that Americans overseas are corrupt, selfish, and naïve continues into the twenty-first century. With the broadening U.S. sphere of influence comes even more resentment. International news stories of “ugly Americans” abroad could be taken from the pages of Burdick and Lederer’s novel. Ugly American, The (Burdick and Lederer)

Further Reading

  • Beeson, Mark. “U.S. Hegemony and Southeast Asia.” Critical Asian Studies 36, no. 3 (2004): 445-462. Details U.S.-Southeast Asia relations since the end of World War II, focusing on “how U.S. foreign policy has impacted the region in the economic, political, and security spheres.”
  • Clark, Jayne. “That ’Ugly American’ Image Is Getting a Makeover Guide.” USA Today, April 28, 2006. A news brief announcing the development of a “World Citizens Guide” for U.S. travelers, especially businesspeople, offered by the organization Business for Diplomatic Action. The guide is available at http://businessfordiplomaticaction.org/.
  • Cobbs Hoffman, Elizabeth. All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960’s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Examines the genesis of the Peace Corps, created by President John F. Kennedy out of the desire to reinvent the “ugly American” into a person who cares about the rest of the world—and acts to prove it.
  • Cumings, Bruce. Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. A synthesis of developments in international relations, including the effects of colonialism and postcolonialism.
  • Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2002. A discussion of the attitude in the United States after World War II and its influence on involvement in the internal policies of Vietnam.
  • Lederer, William J., and Eugene Burdick. The Ugly American. 1958. New ed. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1983. Lederer and Burdick’s collection of short stories.
  • Schweitzer, Glenn E., with Carole D. Schweitzer. America on Notice: Stemming the Tide of Anti-Americanism. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2006. Highlights the key issues surrounding global anti-Americanism and offers ways to help change these perceptions through the efforts of Americans at home and abroad.

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