William J. Lederer began his long career in the Navy in 1930. During his twenty-eight years of service he traveled throughout Asia on some 30 trips, acquiring several books worth of experience, criticisms, and insight. In 1948, Lederer attended the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont and met fellow author and political theorist Eugene Burdick. Disillusioned with the style and substance of America's diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia, Lederer and Burdick openly sought to demonstrate their belief that American officials and civilians could make a substantial difference in Southeast Asian politics if they were willing to learn local languages, follow local customs and employ regional military tactics. Together they co-authored two widely influential books, The Ugly American (1958) and Sarkhan (1965).
The collection includes materials related to most of his major publications including, A Nation of Sheep, The Ugly American, Sarkhan, Our Own Worst Enemy, I, Giorghos, Mirages of Marriage, and Martial Choices. A substantial series of correspondence traces Lederer's associations and communications throughout his entire career. Area files, research materials, and photographs are also included, but not yet fully processed.
The collection is open for research.
Background on William J. Lederer
An American author and Navy captain, William Julius Lederer, Jr. was born on March 31, 1912 in Manhattan, New York to dentist and occasional actor William Julius Lederer and Paula Franken. Lederer's mother died when he was 5, after which the family moved up the Hudson River to Ossining, New York. He completed one year at DeWitt Clinton High School before dropping out at the age of 16 and becoming assistant to New York journalist Heywood Broun. Under Broun's tutelage, Lederer was introduced to members of the Algonquin Round Table, including author Dorothy Parker and humorist Robert Benchley.
In 1930, Lederer enlisted in the Navy but was not permitted to matriculate in the Naval Academy because he lacked a high school education. Lederer, as he writes in his article and short story "Making Annapolis Was Easy," after two years as an enlisted man, won the right to take the entrance exam to the Naval Academy, which he passed. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1936. Throughout the 1940s, Lederer divided his time between serving on a river gunboat in China and as a line officer in the Atlantic fleet during World War II. He was a ship's navigator in the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. Lederer received various honors for his service during the war, including a Purple Heart and a Commendation Ribbon for his role as executive officer of the destroyer Bristol that was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea.
Lederer's naval career lasted 28 years, taking him to many Asian nations on some 30 trips and providing him with several books worth of experience, criticisms, and insight. He began publishing articles in national magazines in 1947, and in February 1950 released All the Ships at Sea (Norton, 1950), a compilation of often-humorous accounts of his time in the Navy. Later that same year, while serving as Chief of the Magazine and Book Division, Office of Public Information, Department of Defense, Lederer published The Last Cruise (Sloane, 1950) about the sinking of the submarine U.S.S. Cochino during a polar gale north of the Arctic Circle, championing the American heroes and self-sacrificing men of the U.S. Navy.
In 1950, Lederer was awarded a year-long Nieman Fellowship from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University; Lederer lived in Cambridge during the extent of his fellowship.
During the later years of his naval career, while serving as a public information officer, Lederer worked first at the Pentagon, then in 1951, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii as special assistant to Admiral Felix Stump, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific. Lederer maintained this assignment, promoted to the rank of Captain, until his retirement in 1958.
In 1958, the same year as his retirement from the Navy, Lederer became The Reader's Digest's Far East Correspondent, a position resulting in numerous articles and book publications. He held this position until 1963.
In 1948, Lederer attended the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont and met fellow author and political theorist Eugene Burdick. Nearly a decade later the two men would collaboratively author The Ugly American (Norton, 1958), a fictionalized exposé designed to shine light on American policy in Asia and on the State Department's poorly trained overseas personnel who often lacked cultural awareness and knowledge of the local language. Due to the critical nature of The Ugly American, the book became surrounded by controversy and the two authors fast became well-known literary figures. The phrase "ugly American" has passed into common usage to describe the oblivious or arrogant American abroad. This book is often cited as the catalyst for the creation of the Peace Corps and the Army Language School. The book and its authors became even more successful with the release of the 1963 film adaptation starring Marlon Brando. Lederer and Burdick collaborated a second time on a follow-up novel Sarkhan (McGraw Hill, 1965), this time targeting American attempts to stop the spread of Communism in Asia.
From 1966 to 1967, Lederer was the writer-in-residence at the Kirkland House at Harvard University. He published additional books, including several more books about the Navy and foreign affairs, three books of advice about marriage, several children's books, a practical manual for writers, a how-to for beginner cross-country skiers, and numerous articles on a wide range of topics.
Lederer married Ethel Victoria Hackett in 1940 and they had three sons. The two divorced in 1965; later that year Lederer married Corrine Edwards Lewis, his co-publisher at the Honolulu Beacon, a monthly humor magazine. Lederer and Lewis divorced in 1976.
William Lederer died on December 5, 2010 at the age of 97 in Baltimore, Maryland.
The papers of William J. Lederer, including personal and professional correspondence, photographs, area files, research materials, and manuscripts, document his 28-year service in the United States Navy and his career as an author of over 15 books and numerous articles. In particular, the collection sheds light on his editorial process. A meticulous writer and editor, Lederer frequently revised his works several times, even making significant changes late in the process, before publishing them.
The collection is partially processed; most materials related to Lederer's writing and his correspondence are processed and listed, while area files and photographs are not yet included in the collection inventory.
Acquired from William J. Lederer, 1988.
Processed by Christine Barber, 2013.
Cite as: William J. Lederer Papers (MS 158). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.