The Ugly American


Poster from "The Ugly American" movie starring Marlon Brando

Poster from “The Ugly American” movie starring Marlon Brando

In the book The Ugly American (1958), the authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer describe Americans living in a fictional, Southeast Asian country that was a thinly disguised Vietnam.  Popularized by a movie starring Marlon Brando, the book’s title came to symbolize the view of Americans as often seen from abroad—arrogant, loud and ostentatious.  The title actually alludes to an American government worker who, while physically unattractive, lives and works closely with Southeast Asians in improving their daily lives by bringing small scale, innovative technology into their local villages (a bicycle-powered water pump, improved chicken coops, etc).  The fictional hero of the book was actually a real person, Homer Atkins, who worked in Vietnam with the International Cooperation Agency—now the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)— in the 1950s.  Our efforts of civilian aid to Vietnam then were obviously overwhelmed by the ensuing military conflict of the Vietnam War of the sixties and seventies, leaving scars and tragic memories still felt by many Americans to this day.  Arriving at Hanoi International Airport recently I was curious, if not somewhat apprehensive, as to how an “ugly American” might be met.  The following describes my own personal experience and thoughts about going forward in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Continue reading