William Lederer, the co-author of the enduring 1958 novel The Ugly American, died December 5. He was 97. Written with political scientist William Burdick, The Ugly American is set in a Sarkhan, a thinly veiled Vietnam, and is a Cold War parable of the consequences of American political and diplomatic ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence in Southeast Asia.
The title made its way into the American lexicon to connote bull-in-a-china shop Americans overseas who know or care little about native society, culture, politics or mores. Ironically, Lederer and Burdick used not as its meaning has come to be known. Instead the ugly American in the novel is a physically ugly, but for-the-people American engineer who works to win the hearts of minds of the fictional people of Sarkhan by getting his hands dirty working on civic improvement projects in the countryside.
The character Colonel Edwin Hillendale in the book is modeled on famed American CIA operative Edward Lansdale, who advocated people-to-people, hands-on diplomacy to fight communist insurgencies in developing nations. Lansdale put those practices to work in the Philippines following Word War II and in Vietnam in the mid to late 1950’s. He remained an advocate of that strategy—which the Pentagon more or less scorned—during the duration of the Vietnam War.
Lederer—a 1936 Naval Academy graduate who served in World War II—and Burdick’s book was a huge bestseller and was the basis of a 1963 Hollywood film starring Marlon Brando. The film changed the book’s message into a call to fight communist insurgencies in developing nations. The book is still in print today.