The phrase “The Ugly American” may have originated with Constantino Arias’ photo of the same name, showing a 1950s Batista-era tourist in Havana, Cuba. But the term is best known for the 1958 fictionalized political science novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer which graphically describes the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia.
In 1967 or 1968, WC’s high school English teacher, Eve Kozloski, assigned the class a book report, with a list of books to choose from. The thing about the list of books – which we were not told at the time – was that all of the books had been banned at some point by the Fairbanks public school system. One of the books was The Ugly American, and WC, even back then practicing his rebelliousness, selected it.1 It was an eye opener, and helped cement WC’s opposition to the Vietnam War. The book is still relevant, still in print and still gut-wrenchingly prophetic.
WC mentions all this for two reasons. First, WC is watching Ken Burns’ superb The Vietnam War, which in the first three episodes is a kind of visual aid to The Pentagon Papers, the history of the Vietnam War leaked by Daniel Ellsberg, that the U.S. government tried to suppress. The Ugly American, written in 1958, seen in light of subsequent events, is incredibly prophetic. Which makes all the mistakes, blunders and arrogance that led to that miserable war all the more appalling. If you are not watching Burns’ documentary, you are missing something terribly important.
The second reason WC mentions The Ugly American is that he is still around. We saw him again on Tuesday, this time speaking to the United Nations, making all of the arrogant blunders, all the stupid, ill-informed mistakes that Burdick and Lederer fictionalized back in 1958. We haven’t learned, or at least Donald Trump and those who voted for him haven’t learned.
The Ugly American of the title is an inversion; the guy who does best and accomplishes the most if a homely, even ugly man who isn’t afraid of hard work, learned the language of the local peoples and works at solving their problems. It’s the suave, handsome, well-dressed bureaucrats who are corrupt, scornful of local customs and languages, and morally certain they know what’s best. Very much like Donald Trump, arrogantly lecturing career diplomats, folks who have struggled with intractable problems for decades, on the moral rectitude and righteousness of Trump’s opinions. It’s the same old Ugly American. The novel spent 76 weeks on the best-seller list and sold roughly five million copies. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, the veteran correspondent Robert Trumbull called it a “devastating indictment of American policy” and a “source of insight into the actual, day-by-day by-play of present titanic political struggle for Asia.”
And yet the United States continues to make the same mistakes. As recently as last Tuesday.
There were positive benefits from the book. It was a big factor in the creation of the Peace Corps. Homer Atkins, the “ugly American” of the title. whose calloused and grease-blackened hands “always reminded him that he was an ugly man,” was a prototype for the best kind of Peace Corps volunteer, a true ambassador – note the lower case “a” – for America. Instead, today, we have Donald Trump, who squats on gold-plated toilets and regards late-night tweets as the pinnacle of statesmanship. Sad.
- Ms. Kozloski had students read their book reports in class, one report for each of the ten books on the reading list. She then asked the class what it was the books had in common. We couldn’t guess. She wouldn’t tell us. If you look in WC’s 1968 high school yearbook, at Ms. Kozloski’s photo, just above her signature you’ll find the note, in her beautiful handwriting, “All the books were banned.” ↩