The Deceptive American

By: MAJ Donald K. Reed, U.S. Army

Any epic novel's lore can be enhanced by a mysterious urban legend. The meteoric success of The Ugly American, published in 1958, created high expectations among readers for authors William J. Lederer's and Eugene Burdick's second collaboration. They published Sarkhan in 1965, and received initial high praise from early reviews. The Literary Guild and the Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club made it an immediate selection for their readers. Bookstores around the nation stocked tens of thousands of copies on publication day. Yet, the book simply disappeared without explanation, supposedly recalled by the publisher. Lederer and Burdick spent years attempting to discover why their work had been withdrawn, and blamed agencies within the U.S. government for suppressing the book because of its disapproving view of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia.1 The novel was finally re-released under the title The Deceptive American in 1977, after an additional 12 years of effort by the authors to republish it.

Readers today will be shocked by how the main themes of the novel still resonate. The action takes place in Sarkhan, the same fictitious Southeast Asian country where The Ugly American was set, bordering China and Vietnam. The country faces a pivotal transition of leadership in which Crown Prince Lin is set to replace his retiring father, King Diad, in a ceremonial transfer of authority. A covert Communist insurgency, supported by external powers, positions itself to manipulate the government and take advantage of the confusion during the transfer to seize control. The Communists run a highly functional underground network that allows them to influence key negotiations and sway both Sarkhanese and U.S. perceptions, thus setting the conditions for the Communists' attempt to seize power.

Washington's foreign policy mistakes are evident throughout the book and unfortunately are recognizable as ones that still occur today. The various U.S. agencies that are working through the U.S. embassy in Sarkhan lack a comprehensive strategy for engagement and development. Aid, intelligence, diplomacy, and military assistance frequently run counter to each other. U.S. embassy officials put too much faith in the wrong Sarkhanese power brokers and are often attracted by the power brokers' American education and flawless use of English, rather than their actual accomplishments and abilities.

Lederer and Burdick emphasize the importance of understanding a culture in order to relate to it. The two protagonists, a retired U.S. Navy captain turned merchant trader and an American anthropologist who lives in Sarkhan, are fluent in many dialects of Sarkhanese. Their ability to accurately read the rapidly changing situation results from their long-standing relationships within Sarkhan, a deep understanding of the cultural nuances, and familiarity with the key Sarkhanese power brokers. These factors should reverberate with present-day Special Forces soldiers as essential traits for operational success around the world.

In the following scene, the protagonists, Coldstone and McCauley, argue with an embassy official against blindly increasing military aid to the Sarkhanese government. They insist that a more population-centric approach will be more effective to counter the Communists' efforts. In Sarkhan, the Communists are educating and brainwashing the best people in the rural areas, which is ninety percent of Sarkhan. Almost daily, they are visiting villages which have almost no communication with the government in Haidho [the capital] except when the tax collector comes or the Army requires recruits. The Communists soon will have a network of communications through Sarkhan. (p. 168)

Most American diplomats and intelligence people go for the "sure" military man. And wind up with unstable dictators in Korea, Vietnam, Formosa, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan—the list seems endless. The only sure victory is a solid political victory, but Americans are not prepared to travel that harder, slower, more tedious route. The Communists are. American men must go overseas as patriots, preferably without families, willing to die, willing to learn the language and the customs, the emotional patterns, the historical and religious backgrounds. They must be willing as Americans to suffer and be as dedicated as saints. (p. 169)

The enemy and locales maybe different today, but it is easy to see the similarity to problems that the United States faces in its current overseas contingency operations.

This novel is a great read for anyone who will operate at the battalion level with SOF. Even if that individual is not going to work in Asia, the story of The Deceptive American is still useful to help identify the culture biases that many Americans possess, so that such biases can be mitigated in future engagements.

About the Author(s): MAJ Donald K. Reed is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer currently pursuing an MS degree in Defense Analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.


1. Did the government censor the novel, or was this just coincidence? While it is unlikely that a diabolical Orwellian conspiracy existed to censor the work, the controversy nevertheless piqued my desire to read the novel. This could have been the authors' intent all along.

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