The Ugly American Summary & Study Guide

William J. Lederer
This Study Guide consists of approximately 68 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Ugly American.
This section contains 1,352 words
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The Ugly American Summary & Study Guide Description

The Ugly American Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains For Further Reading and a Free Quiz on The Ugly American by William J. Lederer.

Chapters 1-4

The Ugly American begins in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, in the office of U.S. ambassador Louis Sears. Sears is upset because a hostile cartoon of him has appeared in the local newspaper.

Meanwhile an American named John Colvin is recovering in the hospital after being beaten up. Colvin has been trying to help the Sarkhanese learn how to use milk and its by-products, and he set up a milk-distribution center outside the capital city, Haidho. But he is betrayed by an old friend named Deong who has turned communist. Deong tells a group of Sarkhanese women that Colvin is trying to put a drug in the milk that would enable him to take advantage of Sarkhanese girls. Colvin denies it, but the women beat him. He is left unconscious on the steps of the U.S. Embassy.

The ambassador complains about the cartoon to Prince Ngong, the head of the Sarkhanese government. Ngong fears that a large U.S. loan may be in jeopardy and instructs the newspaper to print a flattering cartoon and editorial about Sears.

The second story introduces Ambassador Sears's Russian counterpart, Louis Krupitzyn. Unlike Sears, Krupitzyn has had long preparation for his position. He can read and write Sarkhanese and understands Sarkhanese culture. He is also cunning. During a famine, the Americans send 14,000 tons of rice. However, Krupitzyn arranges for every bag of American rice to have stenciled on it in Sarkhanese that it is a gift from Russia. The Americans protest, but the Sarkhanese continue to believe the Russians were their benefactors.

The next character to be introduced is Father Finian, a Catholic priest from Boston who has been assigned to Burma. A fierce anti-communist, Finian recruits nine local Catholics who also want to fight communism. They publish a small anti-communist newspaper and then trick a Russian expert by secretly recording and then broadcasting disparaging things he has said about the local peasants. It then becomes clear to the local people that the Russians do not have their best interests at heart.

Chapters 4-10

Joe Bing, a flamboyant American public relations officer in the Southeast Asian city of Serkya, gives a presentation in Washington about employment opportunities abroad. He paints a rosy picture of luxury travel, an excellent salary, low expenses, with no need to learn a foreign language. A young American, Marie McIntosh, is recruited. She writes home about the pleasant and luxurious life she now lives in Sarkhan.

Sears makes another diplomatic blunder over a rumor that the United States is about to evict the Sarkhanese Air Force from land lent to them. But Sears soon gets what he wants when he is recalled to the United States to take up a federal judgeship. The new ambassador is Gilbert MacWhite, a professional foreign-service officer. Unlike Sears, MacWhite learns the local language. MacWhite is eager to combat communist influence, but he makes the mistake of trusting his old Chinese servants, Donald and Roger. Li Pang, a visitor and friend of MacWhite, interrogates Donald and tricks him into revealing that he has been passing information to the communists. MacWhite tries to learn from his mistake by traveling in the Philippines and Vietnam so he can understand how to combat communism. In the Philippines, he hears about Colonel Hillandale, an American who embraces local culture and is known as “The Ragtime Kid” because of his love for jazz and his ability to play the harmonica.

Chapters 11-15

Major James Wolchek of the U.S. Army visits Major Monet, a Frenchman, in Hanoi, Vietnam. The French are losing the battle against communist insurgents; at Dien Bien Phu, French forces are encircled. Monet invites Wolchek to parachute with French troops into the besieged fortress as a foreign observer, but before they can do this Dien Bien Phu falls to the communists. In subsequent skirmishes with the enemy, Monet and his legionnaires are defeated again and again. Wolchek explains to Monet and MacWhite that the communists are winning because they are practicing a new kind of warfare. As the communists press their assault on Hanoi, Wolchek and Monet are slightly wounded. MacWhite acquires a pamphlet by Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung that explains his concept of guerilla warfare. Monet uses these new tactics and wins a skirmish with the communists. But then the French evacuate Hanoi and a communist army enters the city.

In Cambodia, Tom Knox, an American, helps the local people improve their chicken and egg yield and is greeted with enthusiasm by villagers wherever he goes. At a conference that appraises the results of U.S. aid to Cambodia, Tom makes practical proposals for further increasing chicken and egg yield, but he is overruled because the Americans want to develop mechanized farms. When French government diplomats and a wealthy Cambodian landowner provide Tom with a series of luxury trips, he forgets all about his good idea.

In Sarkhan, Colonel Hillandale attends a dinner party given by the Philippine ambassador. Hillandale entertains everyone by giving palm readings, which is a respected practice in the country. He is given an opportunity to read the palm of the king, but the appointment is sabotaged by the hostility and incompetence of George Swift, MacWhite's deputy. The king is insulted, and MacWhite gets Swift transferred.

Chapters 16-18

In Hong Kong, a meeting of the Special Armament section of the Asia conference is discussing the prospect of placing U.S. nuclear weapons on Asian soil. The Asians become suspicious when the Americans refuse to discuss classified material about the safety of the weapons. Solomon Asch, leader of the American delegation, feels let down by Captain Boning, one of his negotiators, who gives the impression he is deliberately holding back information. As a result, the Asians decide to oppose the installation of nuclear weapons on their soil.

In Vietnam, Homer Atkins, a retired engineer, meets with Vietnamese, French, and U.S. officials. He has been asked to give advice on building dams and military roads, but he tells the Vietnamese that they should start with smaller projects they can do for themselves, such as building brick factories and a model canning plant. MacWhite is impressed by Atkins and invites him to Sarkhan, where Atkins teams up with a local man named Jeepo to design a water pump. They go into business together, hiring workers who manufacture the pumps and then sell them.

Chapters 19-21

Atkins's wife Emma notices that all the old people in the village of Chang 'Dong have badly bent backs. She realizes this pervasive condition is due to the short-handled brooms they use for sweeping, so she invents a long-handled broom using sturdy reeds as a handle. The local people soon learn to make their own long-handled brooms.

Jonathan Brown, a tough U.S. senator, visits Vietnam to find out for himself what use is made of U.S. aid. He wants to meet local people, but the U.S. Embassy staff tries to control the information he has access to. On a visit to an ammunition depot, Brown questions a Vietnamese man, but Dr. Barre, the interpreter, alters the man's answer in a way that he thinks will please the senator. The same thing happens when Brown visits Hanoi and tries to find out what the real military situation is there. As he goes home to the United States he realizes that he has talked only to military men and government officials, although later on the Senate floor he claims that he understands the situation in Vietnam because he has been there.

MacWhite is rebuked by the secretary of state for his testimony to a Senate committee about the situation in Southeast Asia. MacWhite replies that he fears the Russians will win the cold war unless the Americans act in the real interests of the countries whose friendship they need, not in the interest of propaganda. He makes many practical suggestions, all of which are rejected. He resigns as ambassador, and the State Department decides to replace him with Joe Bing.

The Ugly American ends with a “Factual Epilogue” in which the authors explain that although their stories are fiction, they are based on fact.

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