Friday, November 15, 2013

The Ugly American (1958 book) and (1963 movie)

The Ugly American dust jacket
Not since I read John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids three years ago have I finally read a book that qualifies as one of the "Ten Best Reads." I just finished reading The Ugly American and was blown away with the superb prose, the stories and the moral lessons which is rarely prevalent in today's fiction. Following the law of Watchmen (Issue #1), the best way to grab the reader is to tell a horrifying story that grabs that tugs on your heart strings... from there it's only a matter of retaining good story telling. And The Ugly American is one such example. The main reason I even bought a first edition to read was because it had a unique (and very trivial) connection with one of the best television programs ever produced: Playhouse 90.

Among the many projects that never met fruition was a 1958 best seller by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, as reported in the April 11, 1959 issue of TV Guide: “Before the season is over, Playhouse 90 hopes to do The Ugly American, best-seller about the lack of experience and diplomacy in our foreign service.” The novel told of the Honorable Gilbert MacWhite, ambassador to Sarkhan, an illusory Southeast Asian country dealing with an uprising of anti-American sentiment and disapproval of its own government. MacWhite underestimates the magnitude of the situation, assuming he’ll be able to smooth things over in no time. But he soon realizes that the country’s turmoil won’t easily be pacified. MacWhite soon discovers that American diplomacy does not involve ammunition or money, as he tries to keep the Communists in the north from overrunning the weakened democracy in the south.
            The Ugly American consisted of 21 short stories, each teaching a valuable lesson in the span of an ambassador’s overview in Sarkhan. In a time of Sputniks and Explorers and ICBM’s and “dirty” and “clean” atomic weapons, the novel demonstrates how a nation could lose its power and integrity slowly, in minute particles, through a succession of bits and fragments. Though fictional, each story featured a facet of real events and situations that have hurt American diplomacy. In more than one story, the value of close communication with the native tongue was more important than a native translator who was hired to interpret the press, the radio and personal conversation. Diplomats received rose-tinted reports of local sentiment that only served to soundproof the representatives responsible for an accounting. Blockage of information itself was among the many penalties we had to pay.
Playhouse 90 Television Series
            In the short story, “What Would You Do?”, two Americans – a married couple named Martin – came to Burma as short-term advisors. They were quiet people about whom nobody seemed to know much, and they quietly went up north to the Shan States, which are pretty wild. They brought no pamphlets, brochures, movies, or any of the other press-agent devices which are so offensive to most of the natives. Unlike ambassadors and diplomats, they had no automobile and no servants. They just moved into a small town and settled down in a modest house and began living there. They spoke Burmese – a most unusual accomplishment for Americans in Burma – and they frequently received visitors as a result. These visitors were amazed at two things. One was the tremendous size of the vegetables they were growing in their garden; and the second was the size of the garden itself. Mrs. Martin took them into the kitchen and showed them a small home canning outfit. The Burmans had never seen anything like it, and didn’t know what it was. They came around day after day to watch fruit and vegetables being canned. Then, as the months passed by, the Burmans saw that when the cans were opened the vegetables were still edible.
            The two Americans distributed high-quality seeds to all of the townspeople and helped them organize a community canning plan. The people of the village still do most of the growing individually, and a good deal of the canning is done at home; but now they not only put up things for their own use, but for all Burma. The village became the canning center of the nation, and process meat, vegetables, and many favorite Burmese foods. In that section of the Shan States everyone was pro-American because of the Martins. They came to Burma to help the natives, not to improve their own standard of living. “You don’t need publicity if the results of what you are doing are visible and are valuable to the people,” it was explained in the book. “The steam from a pot of soup is its best advertisement.”
            In another short story, “Nine Friends,” the story of Father Finian, ordered to Burma with the positions of Overseers of Catholic Missions and Advocate for the General of the Society of Jesus. He knew of the terrible trouble there, the political plague which infected people who were susceptible because of hunger, poverty, or political disunity. To verse himself in the local preachings, Finian read Lenin’s What is to be Done? and Stalin’s History of the Communist Party, Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Marx’s Das Kapital. Through all the tedious reading through economics and politics, sociology and philosophy, the priest never wavered. He decided to take a long trip via Manila, Saigon, Bangkok, and finally Rangoon. There, he learned first hand the culture, the history, and anthropology of the country. After discovering how Communist infiltration was applied through the printed paper, Finian and eight associates formed a battle plan.
            The group, under the leadership of Father Finian, published a small, cheap newspaper on the ditto machine. They called it The Communist Farmer. This was cunning, because the title could mean anything. Initially the Communists did not know whether to support or oppose the newspaper, which appeared mysteriously and suddenly in marketplaces, stores, doorsteps, village squares, buses and streets. In each issue was an article by a famous Communist. One issue had an article by Karl Marx in which he attacked the stupidity and backwardness of the peasants. Another issues offered a speech by Stalin in which he justified his slaughter of “kulaks” on the grounds that agriculture must be collectivized. The rest of the issue was a simple reporting of facts about farming difficulties in Russia, the agricultural progress in the United States, hints on how to increase farm production, advice on how to use fertilizer. The Communist Party was confused and attacked the paper savagely in speeches, by radio and in other papers. They could not effectively deny that what was reported was authoritative. Their all-out effort to suppress the paper made The Communist Farmer more desirable, and copies became prized.
The lesson to be learned went beyond his effort to venture into the territory and learn the native way of living, speaking and praising. By setting an example, he changed the way people thought of America. “The evil of Communism is that it has masked from native peoples the simple fact that it intends to ruin them. When Americans do what is right and necessary, they are also doing what is effective.”
            Most of the stories in the book do not have happy endings. In most cases the Communist infiltration succeeded and rarely an American learned a valuable lesson that could be applied to future diplomacy. The entire novel ends with a negative note the dreadful dilemma that the little things done must be moral acts and must be done in the real interest of the people whose friendship America needed – not just in the interest of propaganda. The heads in Washington knew nothing of this. The ambassador who was replaced by MacWhite cared not for the people who lived outside the embassy. He merely considered his own status with his superiors, hoping for a transfer and promotion. Senators in Washington assumed MacWhite and his staff, like any foreign ambassador, would show the best side of things to keep their own appropriations up. When a Senator paid a visit to Sarkhan and inspected a tank-training field, a machine-gun range and a parade field, he asked a Vietnamese being given instructions in a recoilless rifle, how many times he’s fired the rifle and against what kind of targets, the answer was not what he expected. The native answered that he had never seen the recoilless rifle before this morning, and normally he was a cook. He was bewildered by the sudden change in his assignment, but delighted. The translator told the Senator that “he has worked several weeks with the recoilless rifle. He has not fired at targets because there is an extreme shortage of recoilless shells. He says, however, that he welcomes the chance to practice with the rifle, and would like to use it against the Communists.”
            When The Ugly American was first published in 1958, the New York Tribune reviewed: “If this were not a free country, this book would be banned.” The novel was a scathing indictment of foreign policy of the period, which more than likely is a problem we still face today. The producers of Playhouse 90 had one sole objective for their weekly presentations: television viewers would spend the next morning participating in enlightening discussions between coworkers at the water cooler. Any drama demonstrating the lack of competence with the American government was certain to generate feedback for the network. Like the readers of the book, television viewers would share the manifold frustration of the few who understood how to achieve results in Sarkhan. Naturally, the television play would contain a different story in between each sponsor break, offering a format best suited for an adaptation of this novel. Having read the novel, it remains a darn shame that Playhouse 90 never telecast a version in 1959 or 1960.
The Ugly American 1963 movie poster
            The novel did make it to the silver screen in 1963 with Marlon Brando playing the role of Harrison Carter MacWhite. To add an air of authenticity, much of the movie was filmed on location in Thailand. In the movie, like in the novel, MacWhite ignores the advice of his staff and focuses primarily on the completion of Freedom Road, a U.S.-built highway which he feels is most essential to the community making transportation and industry feasible to acquire financial stability. In a similar manner as depicted in the novel, MacWhite loses the battle and upon resigning his position, returns to the United States. The short stories that make up the novel are far superior to the movie which chose to only cover one or two aspects. Very few words of wisdom are applied in the movie, which are sprinkled throughout the book. “You can’t buy gratitude with your handouts," MacWhite is told by a Communist sympathizer. In short, the old adage is applied here: the book is much better. The film closes with MacWhite explaining to the press in an interview that to help the countries of Southeast Asia, Americans must understand their internal problems before inflicting a way of life upon them. As his words are carried to the United States by television, an uninterested viewer switches off his television set. The movie was in part an allegory of American involvement in Vietnam, among other Asian countries, and the battle against Communist insurgency.

The book is essential reading and available on for a bargain of a price.