Thursday, June 15, 2017

The "Ugly American," has become synonymous with the uncouth American traveler who makes no effort to integrate into a country he is traveling through.  Rather, he puts his chauvinistic attitudes on full display, like this man at a Shanghai airport recently.  Fortunately, it seems that more Americans try to be respectful when traveling abroad.

However, this isn't what William Lederer and Eugene Burdick were writing about in the mid 1950s.  They were appalled by the poor attitudes of American embassies in Asian countries, whose ambassadors seemed to have no idea what was going on around them.   The 1955 novel was based on their own experiences, as summed up in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan.  The Ugly American in this case isn't an uncouth traveler, but rather a homely, hard-working man who sees an opportunity to do good in a country that has only seen the worst side of the United States.

Homer Atkins is a millionaire engineer, who tries to initiate projects that actually help people, and some felt he was the progenitor for the Peace Corps.  Apparently, Kennedy spread numerous copies of the book among his staff, hoping to create a similar proactive environment with his state department.  Eventually, this led to the Peace Corps.

From his description, Homer sounds more like a modern-day Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, using his millions to spread relief around the world, counter-acting the policies of his own government. We also see a similar case where Michael Bloomberg has offered $15 million to continue to pay our dues in the Paris Climate Agreement in spite of the current presidential administration's decision to pull out of the landmark agreement.

One assumes Lederer and Burdick would be proud their book had such a profound impact on American foreign policy.  Many ambassadors now take the trouble to learn the language of the country they serve in, as do members of their embassies.  The US Embassy in Vilnius is actively involved in promoting programs to improve the education system in Lithuania at the local level, picking up where the Peace Corps left off in 2002.

Still, there is a lot to question in the way the State Department distributes and manages aid around the world.  USAID has often come under fire for its dubious practices.  A lot depends on the administration in the White House.

I'm looking forward to receiving my copy of the book and hope that we can generate a discussion.  In the meantime, I've checked out the 1963 movie based on the book, with Marlon Brando and Pat Hingle as the main characters, Ambassador MacWhite an Homer Atkins.


  1. I've done a quick read-through of the audio book and will now do a more thorough reading. Indeed, it is an attack on American arrogance and political failure in SE Asia during the 1950s. That because of the arrogance and complacency, the USA failed to recruit SE Asians into its campaign on stopping the spread of communism under Mao, Russia, and Viet Minh. The USA establishment in that region consisted of old world bureaucrats and elitists who were more concerned with making a profit on their terms without regard for the needs of the local peoples. Further, the American presence serves to exacerbate existing difficulties. The communists because of their apparent or seeming empathy take full advantage of those problems. This often happened with violent or tragic consequences.

    Americans sent into that region had little or no preparation or qualification for the job. But the book offers a series of solutions for these deficiencies. If Washington DC heeded this advice, we would not have had the Vietnam war with 58,000 dead Americans. But then, the war wasn't about communism, it was about war profits as we saw in the "Pentagon Papers".

    "The Ugly American" remains as relevant today as it did a generation ago. It makes for very interesting and illuminating reading.

  2. 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love:

    Very relevant today as the same stupid politics, ignorance, and economic corruption that led to Nam have also led to the current mess in the Middle East.

    "Half a century later, it should be clear that Washington’s present quest for "national security" can never end. The national security state itself is a machine that constantly fuels the very fears it claims to fight. In doing so, what it actually condemns Americans to is nothing less than a PERMANENT STATE of insecurity.

    The quest for a more balanced (or even unbalanced) approach to security in the 1960s pointed a way toward at least the possibility of an American world of diminished fears. Now, with a man in the Oval Office who sees enemies everywhere and declares that he alone can save us from them, and with nearly 4 in 10 Americans still approving of the way he’s trying to "save" us, if only there were a radical critique of "national security" somewhere in our world.''

    It is the same quest for corporate war profits and political idiocies that have caused all this mess.

  3. William Lederer

    The man is no stranger to those who watch Hollywood movies that deal with naval issues. He was a career Navy man and wrote the story of Ensign Pulver and McHale's Navy among other works. He gave more specific factual details about USA political corruption in SE Asia in his book "A Nation of Sheep":

    Says one commentator:

    "the political/social/cultural mess I have lived through during all that time, convinces me Lederer was right. We, the people, have given our thinking processes over to Big business/Big Government/and those who don't know how to do anything except manipulate money and the populace. The end of democracy in 2016, which has just expired, only contributed to my disgust with the insane world we live in. We are no longer a nation of freedom, only those who control the arms and purse strings have any freedom - we did it to ourselves by listening to the opinions of others and not accepting our own basic intelligence. A Nation of Sheep is a most appropriate epithet for individual liberity"

  4. Eugene Burdick

    Collaborator Burdick was a brilliant scholar who, sadly, died at a young age due to illness (he had been a WW II marine and athlete despite having medical conditions). He was famous in his time for writing the staggering book "Fail Safe":

    The movie had a great social impact by warning the world of the menace of sub orbital nukes being flown by governments. We do not know how many were in the skies back then but it was rumored that there were many:

    The 1968 Star Trek episode "Assignment Earth" starring Robert Lansing and Teri Garr also dealt with this critical matter:

    History has not been good in regard to the memory of Burdick and his many accomplishments. While he recommended nuke disarmament, he affirmed the crazed Domino Theory and had been an apologist for LBJ's war in Vietnam. Because of this, he was disregarded by those on the left while right wingers hated his anti-nuke stance.

  5. Hadn't seen this before:

    Definitely proves Burdick was quite an athlete. As to why he has been forgotten:

  6. Ale Man, I like that. Nice little bios on Lederer and Burdick. Will start with the movie as I'm still waiting on the book to arrive.

  7. Darn - neither library in my area has a copy of the book nor of the movie. I have just made a request for inter -library loan for both and hopefully they will be available in 2 weeks time. I understand the movie is very different from the book but the message is essentially the same.


    The expression "ugly American" is still in use for a variety of reasons. Example:

    7 Signs You’re An Ugly American

    Bad news, fellow Americans. The rest of the world thinks we’re terrible travelers. It’s so bad, in fact, that the term “Ugly American” has become shorthand for any tourist that sticks out or misbehaves abroad. (Don’t blame us, we didn’t coin the phrase.) Read on to see if you fit the stereotype.


    White sneakers, a fanny pack, a baseball hat ... and a Canadian-flag patch sewn onto your backpack. This uniform can make a tourist stand out—and not in a good way. Wear what’s comfortable, but do make an effort to blend in with what the locals wear, especially when it comes to covering up in more modest countries. We’ve also seen many Americans utilize the Canadian flag to pretend they’re not from the US while traveling. Don’t be ashamed of our country — be an example of what’s good about it. Let your behavior and attitude leave a positive impression when you travel instead of pretending to be from somewhere else.

    English Only ....

    The sentiments expressed above are re-echoed by famed world traveller Rick Steves:

    Still, it cannot be denied that the political "ugly American(s)" still exist and remain detested overseas.

  8. One major reason why the USA's campaigns were doomed from the beginning, and why it lost in Indochina, was because of its support of French imperialist terrorism in that area:

    ''French colonialism was more haphazard, expedient and brutal than that of the British. Paris never articulated a clear and coherent colonial policy for Indochina – so long as it remained in French hands and open to French economic interests, the French government was satisfied. The political management of Indochina was left to a series of governors, appointed by Paris. More than 20 governors were sent to Indochina between 1900 and 1945; each had different attitudes and approaches. Colonial governors, officials and bureaucrats had significant autonomy and authority, so often wielded more power than they ought have. This situation encouraged self-interest, corruption, venality and heavy-handedness.''

    {P}rofit, not politics, was the real driving factor behind the French colonization of Indochina. Colonial officials and French companies transformed Vietnam’s thriving subsistence economy into a proto-capitalist system, based on land ownership, increased production, exports and low wages. Millions of Vietnamese no longer worked to provide for themselves; they now worked for the benefit of their French overlords. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations ... ''

    This ruthless aggression and imperialist terrorism began in the 1880s. The occupation continued well into the 1940s when the fascist Japanese invaded. After WW II, when so many peoples of that region helped the French and the allies remove the Japanese, the French rewarded those peoples by another series of invasions, occupation, and depredations.

    These politically criminal acts were supported by the USA.

    By contrast, the Soviet Union CONDEMNED these actions. This gave then a huge head start in winning over the peoples of Indochina.

  9. Soviet propaganda became a great influence all over the Third World as communism was projected as a liberating force against Western imperialism and as a source for advancement:

    Please pay particular attention to page 18 & 19 (sorry, I don't know how to cut and paste those specific segments). In those parts we see that Lenin was portrayed as a benevolent provider for needy internationals. Moreover, within the Soviet Union he was portrayed as a Messianic figure who was the source for all sustenance and freedom from want.

    I well remember listening on short wave radio to Radio Moscow and its pro Soviet propaganda back in the 1960s. Every night you could hear stories about the evils of ruthless and exploitative capitalism while hearing propaganda about the ''virtues'' of communism. People throughout the world listened all the time and saw on tv how USA cities would break out in riots due to racial injustices and the Vietnam war. Similar things were witnessed by people throughout the world in the 40s/50s as well. Thus, there is no secret as to why the USA fared so badly in Indochina.

  10. When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.

    ~ Desmond Tutu

    Haven't two hundred years of failed missionary work overseas taught anybody anything? You can't convert people to anything - whether religion, or something as inane as our flicks.

    ~ Kevin Smith

    In Indochina as elsewhere, the Christian missionaries and other Westerners brought the Bible with its all-too-often false sense of hope while the Russians brought food, irrigation, medicine, and technology. No surprise why one failed and the other succeeded.

  11. "The Quiet American"

    Graham Greene's excellent novel which depicted Vietnam under the imperialistic occupation of the French, British, and Americans. As with "Ugly", it predicted the serious consequences that would arise out of the stupidity of the continued and unjustifiable occupation of that land along with the depredations imposed its innocent people by the foreign imperialists. As with Iraq today, the capitalists who profited from the wars continue to rub their hands in orgasmic glee while American taxpayers paid a price in terms of money and blood. Despite all the predictions, all the facts, all the profiteering by the wealthy elites, all the disruptions that occurred in the occupied lands, all the upheavals which arose, the wars continue. There have even been calls for the expansion of those wars.

    With all this as precedent, I can safely and accurately say that it will happen again.

  12. The funny thing is the white sneakers and baseball caps are all the rage in Europe at the moment. Americans would fit right in. Whether Europe likes it or not they have adopted much of the American "culture" over the years. You have bad boy movie directors, crazy politicians and a religious nativism that has crept into the continent that is going to be pretty hard to purge.

    1. The grass is always greener on the other side.

      In the past we have discussed on this forum several books which revealed how certain Americans of the intellectual sort idealized and imitated Europeans. This starting with the Transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller and others in Italy during its civil war of the 1840s/50s. We have also discussed William James whose books dealt almost exclusively with overseas Yanks. We've also touched upon the so called "Lost Generation" of American Bohemians living in the continent during the 1920s. But ones thing these ex-pats (many of whom returned after a prolonged period of times overseas) had in common was that they were all intellectual elites, many of whom came from wealthy families.

      Decades later, Europeans became enthralled with the American intellectuals such as the Beat Niks of the 1950s and imitated them. I well remember when Rock & Roll stars such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Eric Burdon & the Animals were asked who inspired their works, they all pointed to black blues singers of the 1940s such as Big Joe Turner, Eddie Kirkland, Muddy Waters, and others as their musical inspirations. Then a working class subculture phenomenon arose as Mods & Rockers (both comprised of working class peoples) became rivals. As with those R & R stars above, they were the poorer classes of society, not from intellectual or wealthy elites as were the American ex-pats.

      Funny how elite Americans idealized wealthy Europeans while poor Europeans idealized the lower classes in American society.