The Ugly American: A Bestseller Reexamined
On January 23, 1959, a New York Times advertisement for a bestselling book, The Ugly American, featured an open letter to United States senators signed by prominent citizens who had sent them complimentary copies of the book. One of the signatures was that of Senator John F. Kennedy, then engaged in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. After fourteen weeks on the bestseller list, the book was headlined as "the best-selling novel that has become an affair of state." 1
Whether or not congressmen receiving the book actually read it, the record does show that subsequently many of them cited the book in legislative debate and congressional hearings. At least twenty-one pieces of legislation introduced in the year following its publication referred to the book. In addition, the novel was credited with creating a presidential commission, and its title rapidly became a new term in contemporary usage. "Ugly American" became a pejorative phrase used to connote the poor image Americans had earned overseas through insensitive or boorish behavior. Ironically, the book's titled character was actually the hero in the book and a positive example of American interaction abroad, but the title became, instead, a shorthand way to express the central message of the book. 2
The phenomenal sales (nearly 5 million) of The Ugly American should alone earn it our attention, but the uses it served rendered it even more historically relevant. The book became a significant weapon in the Democrats' foreign policy critique of the Eisenhower years, supporting partisan criticism of the foreign aid
The preliminary research for this study was undertaken at the NEH Summer Seminar, "A Generation of American Foreign Policy, 1945-1975," conducted by Professor Thomas G. Paterson, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1983.