[lg policy] Are Americans as ‘Ugly’ as Ever?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Feb 2 10:32:43 EST 2018

 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.
By Daniel Runde <http://foreignpolicy.com/author/daniel-runde/> | February
1, 2018, 11:51 AM
[image: Four Grotesque Male Heads. (Wenzel Hollar/Mulvane Art Museum at
Washburn University)]
Four Grotesque Male Heads. (Wenzel Hollar/Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn

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
<http://books.wwnorton.com/books/The-Ugly-American/> 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

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.
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*The Ugly American* is easily the* Silent Spring *of U.S. diplomatic and
foreign assistance policy.

*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
<http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/ugly-american> 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 <https://www.peacecorps.gov>.

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*,
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 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_I4WgBfETc> *Red Dawn*
— set in an alternative timeline in which the Soviets have invaded the
United States.


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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 <http://www.clscholarship.org>. 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.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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