Establishing the Peace Corps: The Ugly American, Part 5

One of the most important books of the late 1950s was the novel, 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.


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  • I actually listened to E Burdick and W Lederer lecture at UC Berkeley around 1960, I believe, and all they wanted to talk about was the Vietnam buildup and how we were getting involved in a civil war that we knew nothing about. They gave us fair warning, in other words. (I had not yet read Greene’s “The Quiet American”.) That was followed by journalist Edgar Snow (“Red Star Over China”), who had accompanied Mao on his Long March in 1936, lecturing us on the Dulles brothers’ religious fundamentalism and how they got us into the Vietnam War….Snow’s most famous anecdote was that Sec. of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake China Foreign Minister Chou En Lai’s hand at the Geneva Armistice convention, saying “I refuse to shake the hand of a Godless man”. This is old news to many, of course, but it is really why I chose Peace Corps over getting drafted in ‘64 (I was actually drafted, and acceptance by Peace Corps was what saved me!) Great early history of PC by John! Harlan Green, Turkey V

    Harlan Green

  • As a teenager I was given “The Ugly American” by my uncle and read it instantly. It confirmed my desire to “live the world.” Five years later I was in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia and eight years later I was in the the Foreign Service. Thirty fhree years later I was running a joint venture between a US company and a Turkish friend and since then have been in business in several other countries. During my Foregn Service career I also was detailed to USAID and commanded a US military advisory team.

    I have been amused to hear each of these different groups of Americans living and working with other peoples say how much better they are than other Americans at understanding the local people. It reminds me of the old story about the group of blind men touching an elephant and then describing the beast. Feeling the trunk one says it is like an alligator. Feeling the tail the other says it is like a snake. Feeling the tusk another says it is like a bull. None, however, can determine the complete image.

    Even after having seen other peoples through various guises I would be hesitant to give a definative discription. And I challenge any person who states that the Peace Corps understanding of another people is better than that of a diplomat, development worker, soldier, or businessman. Each sees the foreign culture though different eyes.

  • […] John Coyne placed an interesting blog post on John Coyne Babbles – Establishing the Peace Corps: The Ugly …Here’s a brief overviewThis is old news to many, of course, but it is really why I chose Peace Corps over getting drafted in ‘64 (I was actually drafted, and acceptance by Peace Corps was what saved me!) Great early history of PC by John! … […]

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