I’m not sure why I hadn’t read The Ugly American before. I certainly use the term a lot. And now that I’ve read it, I wonder why it wasn’t required reading in my international relations classes in college.
The book takes place around 1954 during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. At that time, America provided monetary aid and equipment to fight Communism in Vietnam, but not the numbers of troops that would arrive in the 60s.
The story is set in Sarkhan, a fictitious South East Asian country, as well as in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Most of the Americans can’t speak the language of the country in which they are stationed and care more about the nightly cocktail parties than the crises mounting in the countryside.
But when some Americans actually offer up useful skills to the peasants in Vietnam and Sarkhan, they are ordered home by Washington, DC, or leave out of frustration.
I’ve always thought the term Ugly American referred to loud, mono-linguistic, cheeseburger-eating expats. But in the book, the Ugly American was actually an engineer who helped Sarkhanese villagers transport water over the mountains.
On the back cover, the blurb states that “a group of distinguished citizens”, including then Senator John F. Kennedy, sent a copy of the book to every member of the United States Senate in the late 50s.
I guess it should have been required reading for them, too.