Late last week, I learned that William J. Lederer, co-author of the highly influential polemic The Ugly American (1958) died on December 5. He was 97.
A retired Navy captain before he became a best-selling author, Lederer will be buried at Arlington on February 16.
I interviewed Lederer in Peacham, Vermont, on June 27, 1996. (I took this photo on that occasion.) He was generally reluctant to grant interviews by then; The Ugly American had been credited with making our Vietnam involvement seem like a national imperative--a charge Lederer vehemently denied. But I shamelessly pulled out the old Naval Service tie. I introduced myself as a Vietnam veteran and retired Marine major turned academic, and Lederer agreed to see me.
Through that interview, and by combing through his papers at the University of Massachusetts, I came to understand that Lederer's legacy was the Peace Corps, not the Vietnam War. If Lederer was "ugly," it was in the ironically good sense of the title character of his book--a man who isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves and live and work with the people of a developing nation on their own terms. He was not one of truly "ugly Americans" who isolate themselves in American enclaves abroad and look down on the "natives."
Lederer's mentor was the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale. Both men felt that worst thing we could do would be a large-scale military intervention in Vietnam. As revealed in The Pentagon Papers, Lansdale had an unfortunate tendency to believe that the end justified the means. (Behind the scenes in Vietnam, he engaged in a series of dirty tricks aimed at discrediting and vilifying the Communists.) But in the main, Lansdale and Lederer both advocated psychological warfare. They understood that we couldn't force American values and ideas on the people of developing nations; we had to sell people on those ideas. Lansdale proved to be an asset to the CIA precisely because his background was in advertising, not military affairs. And Lederer was very much his faithful disciple. The Ugly American is essentially the gospel according to Edward Lansdale. --EFP