Thirty Days That Built The Peace Corps:Part Five

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]


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  • The Ugly American…My mother gave me a copy to read during training (1964) as she “pushed” me out the door! And the book was included in our Book Locker too when I got to Colombia! Wish more Volunteers and Staff would take the time to read it…even for the first time! Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama 2009-2010

  • John, I am rereading some of the history books about the early Peace Corps and find your comments so valuable. I have a question. In Kevin Lowther and C. Payne Lucas’s book, “Keeping Kennedy’s Promises,” they make mention of the Peace Corps Education Program in Ethiopia, a brief section entitled: “Mastering bigness in Ethiopia.” Are you aware of any books by RPCVs or others which deal with this Ethiopian Peace Corps program and its relationship to political events in that country?

    Almost all RPCv books deal with individual experiences in one setting. I think this speaks to how the Peace Corps was compartmentalized. I can’t find any books by RPCVs which deal from an overall program perspective in one spepcific host country. Could you recommend any? i do note that Kevin Lowther was a Volunteer in Sierre Leone.

    The ETV prograqm in Colombia is well documented, by Peace Corps, by outside evaluators and by the Volunteers, themselves, and may be the exception to the rule.


  • Joey–As for Ethiopia. You would want to get in touch with Shlomo Bachrack who blogs on East Africa on this site. And also the husband of Linda Bergthold (Gary) who did a study in 1965 or so on the Peace Corps education program in Ethiopia. I suspect Gary would have a copy, but I am sure the library at HQ in D.C. would have a copy.There are other books about the impact of Volunteers. For example, Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps edited by Robert B. Textor and published by MIT Press in 1966; New Frontiers For American Youth by Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birkey, published by the Public Affairs Press in 1961; and the final chapter in Kennedy’s Quest For Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-63, edited by Thomas G. Paterson. The chapter is written by Gary May and focuses on Ethiopia directly. This book came out in 1989.
    May focuses on a strike against the PCVs that took place in Debre Berhan in 1963. He uses that as a way to talk about the larger issues of education in the country, and the work done by PCVs. The May piece is a good summary of the events in Ethiopia in those early days, though the PCVs who lived through those months of the student strike carry a lot of hard memories. Student strikes, of course, continue in Ethiopia and other PCVs, in other years, had to experience violent on their school compound.
    If I can help you further, let me know. John

  • The “Ugly American ” thesis lives—-After months of speculation, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally broke the silence on U.S. foreign aid reform. With hints at scaled-back contracting and a convergence between development and defense, the dawn of a new era in foreign assistance has arrived.

    “It’s time for a new mindset – for a new century,” she said. “Time to retire old debates and replace dogmatic attitudes with clear reasoning and common sense. And time to elevate development as a central pillar of all that we do in our foreign policy.”

    New mindset, Hillary?

    That’s why AID/State wants 1000 “Rural Development Officers ” in Afghanistan by January 2010. This is the same plan used in Vietnam in the 60’s , partially as a result of the “Ugly American” thesis.

    Hillary, it didn’t work ,remember!!!

  • Dennis You mean my work in VIetnam “winning the hearts and midns” of the people did not leave an image of a caring American?

  • John, Thank you very much for those references. The only footnote I would make is to remind you that, to the very best of the information I have been given, there is no longer a library at PC/D. There is the ICE, but it is basically technically information.

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