Eugene Burdick and Bill Lederer met at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. This would have been about 1948. They then went their separate ways, each establishing himself as a writer. Lederer had a Navy background and was the special assistant to the commander of the military forces of the Pacific Area for over six years. He wrote two books based on his career, one entitled All the Ship’s at Sea, the other, Ensign O’Toole and Me.
By the time he met up again with Burdick in 1957 he had made twenty-six trips to Asiatic Pacific countries. He was famous for escaping official functions and going off to meet local journalists and shopkeepers and visiting the homes of the poor.
Eugene Burdick was a teacher of political theory at the University of California and consultant to the Fund for the Republic. He had also been a truck driver, bean hoer, ditch digger, and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he earned his Ph.D. He wrote a wonderful book, The Ninth Wave, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1956.( The Ninth Wave is a book that everyone interested in our political system should find and read.) Burdick was fascinated at how power was used by leaders, especially leaders in Asia.
The two met in 1957 when Burdick visited Honolulu where Lederer lived in Pearl City. Lederer’s ideas about and experiences of the events in Southeast Asia, and Burdick’s studies of power politics in the same area, led them to collaborate on the novel, The Ugly American.
It was a collaboration between two authors usually separated by several thousand miles, conducted by long-distance telephone and the exchange of numerous tape recordings. It wasn’t easy, but the men shared deep convictions that what they had to say about American foreign policy must be said to the largest possible audience.
The popular novelist of the times, John P. Marquand, would write: “This is a book that no one interested in the immediate destinies of our nation should miss..this bitter and higher readable book.”
A note from the authors at the beginning of The Ugly American reads:
“This book is written as fiction, but it is based on fact. The things we write about have, in essence, happened. They have happened not only in Asia, where the story takes place, but throughout the world–in the fifty-nine countries where over two million Americans are stationed.
“As the end of the book we have added a documentary epilogue which we hope will convince the reader that what we have written is not just an angry dream, but rather the rendering of fact into fiction. The names, the places, the events, are our inventions; our aim is not to embarrass individuals, but to stimulate thought–and, we hope, action.”
It not only stimulated thought in America, it stimulated action. The Peace Corps!