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Literature / The Ugly American

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The Ugly American is a political novel written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer in 1958. The book narrates the life of various fictitious political figures and their lives within the fictional Asian country of Sarkhan. Adapted into a film starring Marlon Brando.


  • Ambadassador: Louis Krupitzyn, the Soviet Ambassador to Sarkhan, makes great and concerted efforts to learn and blend into Sarkhanese culture, speak and understand its language fluently, and manages to endear himself and his regime to many locals, at least initially. A higher contrast could hardly exist between him and …
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  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Lou Sears, US Ambassador to Sarkhan. He makes no effort to learn the Sarkhanese language, shuts off himself and his office from local society, insists on entertaining only the expatriate crowd, and prefers to live comfortably like an officer in a colonial regime.
  • Badass Preacher: Anti-Communist Catholic Jesuit priest Father Finian, who slowly assembles a team of like-minded Burmese to destroy the Communist Party's reputation in a Burmese highland town. Might also qualify for Evil Jesuit especially from the Communists' point of view.
  • Banana Republic: Sarkhan, and to varying degrees, the rest of the Southeast Asian countries surrounding it. The extremely pro-American Philippines deserves special mention as even it features in one chapter, with vaguely Latin-like dignitaries flaunting Hispanic honorifics and surnames to boot.
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  • Bilingual Backfire: American diplomats hire natives of the fictional war-torn Southeast Asian country to work as servants in their embassy. A visiting Chinese diplomat discovers and explains that at least some of the servants are spies pretending not to understand English; Sears' replacement, U.S. Ambassador Gilbert MacWhite, finds this out the hard way.
  • Dirty Commies: The whole reason for the American presence in Sarkhan in the first place. This is the Cold War after all.
  • Eagleland: Perhaps the entire point of the book is to explore both flavors and how they each affect American perceptions in Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, most of the protagonists are flavor 1's, while the bumbling, ineffective diplomats are flavor 2's.
  • Da Editor: The sharp-spoken Mixed Race Ruth Jyoti of the Setkya Daily Herald. She holds no punches when pointing out the severe insensitivity, arrogance, and incompetence of many high-and-mighty American officials in Southeast Asia.
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  • During the War: Much of Southeast Asia is a hotly-contested battleground for the ongoing Cold War. In one chapter set in Vietnam, the "First Vietnam War"—i.e., the Vietnamese war for independence from their French colonisers—is ongoing, and the novel covers the fall of Dien Bien Phu.
  • Expy: These exist of several real people since the novel satirises American foreign policy in Cold War Southeast Asia.
    • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Colonel Hillandale, for one, is almost transparently based on real-life CIA officer Col. Edward Lansdale, especially since Hillandale in the novel is explicitly described as the CIA man who engineered Magsaysay's defeat of the Huk rebellion and his election as President (the position which Lansdale served in Real Life).
    • On a country-wide scale, Sarkhan itself; culturally it most closely resembles Burma or Thailand, but geopolitically it was intended to be a stand-in for Vietnam.
  • Evil Colonialist: Sarkhan has a sovereign government, but in lieu of formal colonialists the Americans often come closest, acting like high-and-mighty colonial officials and refusing to understand local customs or mingle with local communities.
  • Far East Asian Terrorists: More precisely Southeast Asian terrorists in the form of the more violence-oriented strains of Communist cadres working in Sarkhan and elsewhere in the region.
  • Figure It Out Yourself: Atkins uses this as his rationale for co-developing the water pump with Jeepo instead of doing all the work himself. This pays off when Jeepo improves on Atkin's design so that the bike serving as its power source doesn't have to be dismantled first, as most Sarkhanese families only have one bike to spare.
    Atkins: Whenever you give a man something for nothing[,] the first person he comes to dislike is you. If the pump is going to work at all, it has to be their pump, not mine.
  • Going Native: Generally, the Soviets are seen as better at adjusting to local cultures than the aloof, brash, and fairly xenophobic Americans; this goes some way to explaining why the Communists are having better success at attracting the populace of Sarkhan and neighbouring states.
    • On the American side, the eponymous "Ugly American"—the humble engineer Homer Atkins, who actually spends his days in Sarkhan interacting with the locals and assisting them through small livelihood programs.
    • Another American case in Col. Hillandale in the Philippines, who goes to Filipino parties and was dubbed "The Ragtime Kid" by the locals. (This isn't as much of an effort as it might seem, though, as the Filipinos have already been considerably Americanised prior to the setting of the novel—thanks to a half-century of American occupation.)
  • Holiday in Cambodia: Sarkhan, but also in the actual Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
  • Mixed Race: Eurasian (half-white, half-Cambodian) Ruth Jyoti, editor of the Setkya Daily Herald.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted; two major ambassadors on opposite sides of the Cold War are both named Louis (Sears on the American side, Krupitzyn on the Soviet side). Whether or not this was intentional on the authors' part, this might serve to highlight them as Foils by showing just how different their approaches are to diplomacy.
  • Real Person Cameo: Then-Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay is given a few lines.
  • La Résistance: The Communist rebels in Sarkhan (including Deong) and elsewhere across Southeast Asia.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Accused of American John Colvin, with milk. He tries setting up a facility to process and distribute powdered milk for the benefit of Sarkhanese locals, but because his former friend Deong has become a Communist, Deong forces him to add a powerful emetic into the milk, since it's Deong's belief that the Americans can't be entrusted with development projects in Sarkhan, thus appearing to be the locals' saviours. When John can't agree with this, Deong is forced to accuse him of adulterating the milk with aphrodisiacs to take advantage of local women (who savagely beat up Colvin's ass in short order). Worth noting that Deong learned about the use of the emetic ipecac from John during World War II, when they help sabotage the Japanese army's food with it.
  • War Is Hell: In the Vietnam chapters, after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, a French Foreign Legion unit attempts to take on the Communists outside of Hanoi. The casualties portrayed on their side are horrific, with two Legionnaires (a black American and an anti-Communist Vietnamese) respectively receiving graphic mutilations—the former's left eye gouged out, the latter's vocal cords severed.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters
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