This last month, on December 5, 2009, William J. Lederer, co-author of The Ugly American, died of respiratory failure at Sinai Hosptial in Baltimore. He was 97.
Lederer wrote The Ugly American with political scientist Eugene Burdick. They were both appalled at the arrogance and incompetence they saw in the U.S. diplomatic corps in the 1950s. There book is 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.
In the New York Times, Orville Prescott said the book was neither subtle as art nor altogether convincing as fiction. “It deals in too-broad generalizations and oversimplifies too many issues. But as fictionalized reporting it is excellent – blunt, forceful, completely persuasive.”
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, hardworking and dedicated professionals” who would work overseas and speak local languages.
The book stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 76 weeks. In 2001 Lederer estimated it had sold more than 7 million copies.