The Ugly American

One of the most important books of the late 1950s was The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The book’s hero was Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He was called the “ugly American” only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lived and worked with the local people and, by the end of the novel, was beloved and admired by them.

The bitter message of the novel, however, was that American diplomats were, by and large, neither competent nor effective; and the implication was that the more the United States relied on them, the more its influence would wane. The book was published in July 1958. It was Book-of-the-Month Club selection in October; by November it had gone through twenty printings. It was so influential that in later paperback editions its cover proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”

The authors summed up in a factual epilogue what should be done to improve the U.S. foreign service:

Whatever the reasons, our overseas services attract far too few of our brightest and best-qualified college graduates . . . . What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and - in some lands - their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.

The Cow Palace Speech

Six days before the 1960 election on November 2nd, Kennedy gave a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco - a speech written by Ted Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, and Archibald Cox. Referring to the charges in The Ugly American, Kennedy pointed out that 70 percent of all new Foreign Service officers had no foreign language skills whatsoever; only three of the forty-four Americans in the embassy in Belgrade spoke Yugoslavian; not a single American in New Delhi could speak Indian dialects, and only two of the nine ambassadors in the Middle East spoke Arabic. Kennedy also pointed out that there were only twenty-six black officers in the entire Foreign Service corps, less than 1 percent.

[End of Part Five]