William J. Lederer, 97

Novel 'The Ugly American' blasted policy in Southeast Asia

William J. Lederer, who died Dec. 5 at 97, was a co-author of
William J. Lederer, who died Dec. 5 at 97, was a co-author of "The Ugly American." (Family Photo - Family photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

William J. Lederer, 97, the co-author of the influential 1958 novel "The Ugly American," which condemned U.S. diplomatic policies in Southeast Asia and was often credited as an inspiration for the Peace Corps, died Dec. 5 of respiratory failure at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.

Mr. Lederer, who was a high-ranking naval aide before writing "The Ugly American" with political scientist Eugene Burdick, was appalled at the arrogance and incompetence he saw in the U.S. diplomatic corps of the 1950s. He and Burdick wrote a thinly disguised account of how the United States was squandering billions of dollars and, through bungling and ignorance of local cultures, ceding influence in Asia to the Soviet Union.

The term "ugly American" became a catch phrase to describe boorish, self-interested Americans who cared little about other countries. In the novel, however, the "ugly American" is the tale's hero. Homer Atkins is a retired engineer who goes to the fictional nation of Sarkhan and ignores the embassy parties and the grandiose plans of politically appointed diplomats. Instead, he helps install simple water pumps that improve the daily lives of ordinary people, winning their hearts and minds.

" 'The Ugly American' is neither subtle as art nor altogether convincing as fiction," New York Times critic Orville Prescott wrote in 1958. "It deals in too-broad generalizations and oversimplifies too many issues. But as fictionalized reporting it is excellent -- blunt, forceful, completely persuasive."

Mr. Lederer and Burdick originally wrote their book as nonfiction, only to rework it at the last minute to create greater emotional resonance and to avoid potential lawsuits. In an epilogue, they called for the establishment of "a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working and dedicated professionals" who would work overseas and speak local languages.

The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 76 weeks and was made into a 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando. "The Ugly American" remains in print today and is sometimes used as a text for training military and diplomatic officers. In 2001, Mr. Lederer estimated it had sold more than 7 million copies.

One of its early admirers was John F. Kennedy, then a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who sent a copy of the book to each of his Senate colleagues. He alluded to it during his 1960 presidential campaign and proposed that young people volunteer for international humanitarian and educational service. On March 1, 1961, six weeks after Kennedy took office as president, the Peace Corps was formed.

Some observers saw "The Ugly American" as an anticommunist tract, and others considered it a prescient warning against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. It created an uproar at the State Department, which Mr. Lederer further fueled with two nonfiction books, "A Nation of Sheep" (1961) and "Our Own Worst Enemy" (1968), critical of U.S. diplomacy.

His belief that international cooperation should be built from the ground up was summarized by a Filipino official's comment to an American diplomat in "The Ugly American":

"The simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that average Americans, in their natural state, if you will excuse the phrase, are the best ambassadors a country can have. They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad. Many of them are not average . . . they are second-raters.''

William Julius Lederer Jr. was born March 31, 1912, in New York. By 15, he was working as an assistant to columnist Heywood Broun, who introduced him to Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other members of the Algonquin Round Table.

Mr. Lederer roamed around the country for two years, enlisted in the Navy in 1930 and, despite not being a high school graduate, passed a test to win admission to the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated in 1936.

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