[William Lederer, Peacham, Vermont, June 27, 1996]
A 97-year-old ugly American was buried today at Arlington. He wasn’t physically “ugly.” He was “ugly” in the ironically positive sense of the enduring catch phrase he and the late Eugene Burdick contributed to the American lexicon. He was William Lederer, a retired Navy captain and co-author of The Ugly American.
Published at the height of the Cold War, in 1958, The Ugly American is an interlocking set of stories about a group of American innocents abroad losing the Cold War contest for hearts and minds in a thinly veiled Vietnam Lederer and Burdick call “Sarkhan.” Their principal targets were the Foreign Service professionals and political appointees alike who were “ugly Americans” in the commonly understood sense of the term. These were the officials who couldn’t be bothered to learn the language or honor the customs of the countries to which they were assigned and who isolated themselves in American enclaves. Their opposite number was the title character of the book, a physically unattractive and unassuming man who committed himself to making a difference by living and working alongside the Sarkhanese on their own terms.
The Ugly American, Lederer and Burdick claimed in a prefatory note, was a “rendering of fact into fiction.” The claims of venality and malfeasance, to be sure, were exaggerated. And the book did rest on a dubious neo-colonial premise—that “all over Asia . . . the basic American ethic is revered and honored and imitated when possible.” Today, we know better. But, for those of us of a certain age, to reread The Ugly American is to feel a nostalgic longing for a time when we really believed that “truth, justice, and the American way” was a redundant phrase and that America would never torture or start a preemptive war.
In June of 1996, I had the honor of interviewing William Lederer in Peacham, Vermont. He was 85 at the time and still in good shape, mentally and physically. But he was generally wary of interviewers by then. More than one researcher had suggested that he and Burdick belonged in the same literary camp as Harriet Beecher Stowe--“the little woman” whom Lincoln reportedly charged with “starting the great big war.” Lederer clearly resented the insinuation that he and Burdick were in any sense responsible for the Vietnam War. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that “The Ugly American was about incompetence in the Foreign Service—period! “
I found Lederer to be just as defensive about the veracity of The Ugly American. He told me a colorful but disingenuous story about the genesis of the book. Supposedly, he and Burdick had first written an actual exposé, complete with names, dates, and places. But, dissatisfied with that first attempt, they decided that fiction would have a greater impact. On the spur of the moment, Lederer claimed, they burned all the copies of the manuscript, along with their documentation. This colorful account, unfortunately, is at odds with certain letters and other documents I found among his papers housed at the University of Massachusetts.
Books, unfortunately, do have a way of taking on a life of their own—often one quite apart from that which their authors anticipate. There was widespread concern in those post-Sputnik days that Americans were going soft and that we needed to stand up and be counted. The Ugly American inadvertently contributed to the general sense of urgency and helped to make Vietnam seem like our theater of opportunity,
Still, The Ugly American is a call to action, not a call to arms. Lederer and Burdick insisted that we could not prevail in Asia with “guns and money alone.” It would take individual commitment at the grass-roots level. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy was so impressed by the book that he bought a copy for each of his fellow senators. The book’s legacy was the Peace Corps, not the Vietnam War.
Lederer and Burdick, however, were well-connected. They could see that some in high places had a different Vietnam agenda. Their next novel, Sarkhan, published on the eve of our direct involvement in 1965, was a fictionalized account of behind-the-scenes manipulation in order to justify a large-scale military intervention.
One of the saddest fates that can befall a once prominent and influential man, I have come to realize, is to outlive his time. Such was Captain William Lederer’s fate-- a warrior who understood that the pen could indeed be “mightier than the sword” and an “ugly American” in the best sense of the term. --EFP