Elephants in the Room
Are Americans as ‘Ugly’ as Ever?
"The Ugly American" remains relevant, 60 years after it changed the way the United States saw itself in the world.
The commonly used phrase “ugly American” has come to depict an overseas American who is too loud, too ostentatious, or too arrogant (or all three). The popular expression emerged from the title of a novel published 60 years ago. It caused a sensation, the way that few books have in U.S. history. The novel is a series of linked vignettes about Americans working overseas in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan, at the center of American and Soviet competition in the late 1950s. In the text, the titular ugly American is actually a kind, practical, wealthy engineer who is humble, speaks the local language, and works with people in their villages solving local problems — the exact opposite of what the term has come to mean.
The book, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, was a national best seller and sold more than 4 million copies. Then Senator John F. Kennedy sent copies of the book to all of his colleagues. At the time, it seemed as though almost all of America’s educated set had read the novel. Today, few people under the age of 60 actually have, yet its message still resonates.
The Ugly American is easily the Silent Spring of U.S. diplomatic and foreign assistance policy. It was also an indictment of American counterinsurgency tactics and U.S. public diplomacy efforts. At the time of its publication, several significant American political figures, including Republican Vice President Richard Nixon and Democratic Senator William Fulbright, denounced it.
The novel, however, is credited with spurring a massive reorganization of America’s economic and diplomatic engagement with developing countries then emerging from European colonialism. Kennedy set about taking a series of sweeping steps in 1961: He set up the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, added to U.S. Army special forces (the Green Berets), proposed the reorganization of foreign assistance through the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, and created the Peace Corps.
The thinly veiled, fictional accounts of Americans in Asia remain disturbing. Foreign Service officers lacking proper language skills, an ambassador focused on making the rounds at cocktail parties instead of talking to potential leaders outside the capital city, a military attaché being seduced by a Chinese communist spy thus undermining U.S. negotiating capabilities at a critical moment, and U.S. foreign aid redistributed by the Soviets are a small part of the indictment of the late 1950s U.S. foreign policy.
“What about learning to speak a foreign language?” a small wiry girl asked…. “Now, just a minute” Joe said … “How many people do you think we could round up in this country who can speak Cambodian or Japanese or even German? Well, not very many. I don’t parlez vous very well myself, but I’ve always made out pretty well in foreign countries. And besides, it’s better to make the Asians learn English. Helps them, too.”
The Ugly American also describes the minority of successful role models that the authors find: an American Catholic priest who organizes an anticommunist paramilitary force, the eponymous ugly American volunteer engineer, an air force officer, an army officer, and a creative ambassador.
For example, Colonel Hillandale, of the Air Force, modelled after the real-life Colonel Edward Lansdale, speaks Tagaglog in the Philippines, eats the local food, and learns the local culture. He ventures into unfriendly territory and wins over the locals with his language skills, his appreciation of everything Filipino, and his ability to play Filipino music. Max Boot’s new book, The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, chronicles the real Lansdale’s life and impact.
The predominate bumbling and insensitive Americans, however, undermine the successful role models throughout the novel.
Reviews and critiques of the book after 1989 look upon its strong anti-communist message as naive and outdated. Certainly, there are parts of the book that give one the same feeling as watching the original 1984 version of the film Red Dawn — set in an alternative timeline in which the Soviets have invaded the United States.
The novel moved the American public because it spoke to America’s deepest fears about overseas threats. The authors wrote the book because they believed that the stakes were high. It was a best seller because the American people believed that communism was a threat and that they actually were engaged in a struggle to not only win the hearts and minds of people abroad, but also that if the United States did not succeed in its objectives around the world, it would end up fighting at home.
In truth, the book prompted many constructive changes. In the epilogue, the authors call for a “small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working, and dedicated professionals…. They must be more expert in [a country’s] problems than are the natives.” The Peace Corps, and certainly the U.S. Agency for International Development, reflected this approach.
Imagine an updated Ugly American, which one could set in a fragile state like Afghanistan, or amid the growing economic competition in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The novel painted a picture that spurred improvements. But there still remain gaps between what the United States is doing and what it could do to shape the outside world.
Today, although the United States has more foreign language speakers than it once did, it still lags behind in some critical languages. International development has come a long way since the 1950s, but in fragile and conflict-affected areas, the U.S. government could do a better job of working collectively across development, diplomacy, and defense. While the United States was able to weather communism, it has had less success against geopolitical competitors that reap the benefits of the post-World War II liberal, rules-based order without full willingness to participate in it (China and Russia, for example).
Although the world has changed radically over the past 70 years, the United States still needs to remain involved, train specialized professionals for global engagement, and adapt to shifting circumstances.
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