The publication of The Ugly American in 1958 created a sensation in the United States. A scathing critique of arrogant and inept American diplomatic provincialism, the novel was written as a warning by two Americans – Eugene Burdick and William Lederer – to their fellow Americans. It is a damning indictment of the stupidity and ignorance, arrogance and ineptitude of those who were charged with representing the country.
In 1961, after reading the book, President John F Kennedy decided to start the Peace Corps, a voluntary organisation that sends Americans to different parts of the world to assist with development and try to counter negative perceptions of the US as an imperial power. The difference and the distance between the reality of The Ugly American and the idea of a “Peace Corps” is the battlefield between two opposing forces laying competing claims on the soul of this nation.
Soon after its phenomenal success, the novel was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando, Sandra Church, and Eiji Okada. The original novel and the film adaptation have made The Ugly American something of an iconic landmark of what ails American politics at home and abroad.