Author Of The Book That Launched The Peace Corps Dies At 97

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.


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  • I read the book in 1958, joined the Peace Corps in 1962, became a diplomat in 1965, and wound up in Southeast Asia “winning the hearts and minds” of the locals in 1968.

  • NY Times Obit , January 14th

    ” ….The Ugly American was well known even by people who hadn’t read it, said the writer Paul Theroux, who was a Peace Corps voulunteer in an interview in the New York Times last year. “Because of the book, the Peace Corps was at pains to teach volunteers the host country languague. I was able to speak Chichewa well enough to hold a lively conversation the day I arrived.”

    I bought and reread the book five years ago while visiting Ho Chi Min City . A tout sells it outside the “rustic” war museum which displays tanks , guns and the effects of Agent Orange on the population!!

    Dennis Grubb
    Colombia I

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