Writers From the Peace Corps: The Lost Generation, Part Five

The Ugly Peace Corps Volunteer
Then in 1958 came The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene J. Burdick. This book went through fifty-five printings in two years and was a direct motivation in creating the Peace Corps, as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her history of the Peace Corps, All You Need Is Love.

In a “Factual Epilogue” to the novel, Lederer and Burdick lay out the basic philosophy and modus operandi of what would later be the Peace Corps. Writing about how America should “help” developing countries, the authors declare:

We do not need the horde of 1,500,000 Americans – mostly amateurs – who are now working for the United States overseas. 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 cases – 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 hero in The Ugly American is Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He is called the “ugly” American only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lives and works with the local people in Southeast Asia and, by the end of the novel, is beloved and admired by them.

John F. Kennedy and others in his presidential campaign, including such Peace Corps founders as Sargent Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, and Bill Moyers had read the book and responded to what Lederer and Burdick wrote about the ineptitude of American foreign policy.

By January 1959, Kennedy had sent this book to every member of the Senate, and the ideas expressed in it, i.e., our inadequate efforts in foreign aid, would be used by Ted Sorensen when he crafted the speech Kennedy gave on November 2, 1960, at the Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco six days before the election. It was in this final presidential campaign speech that Kennedy called for the establishment of a Peace Corps: “I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [foreign aid] be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country . . . .”

One inspiration for the idea of a Peace Corps that Kennedy mentioned were the 10,000 students who had gathered at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan. These students heard his extemporaneous remarks about volunteering for overseas service and immediately began a grass-roots petition across Midwest campuses that generated thousands of signatures of support from college students. America, Kennedy said in San Francisco, was “full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way.”

Like the writers and artists of the 1920s who fled America, the young people coming of age in the 1960s, the so-called Silent Generation, were seeking to give voice to their own discontent here at home. It was a discontent that Kennedy, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into when he ran for the presidency in the last year of the decade.

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  • Yes, hearing Burdick and Lederer lecture at Berkeley on the “Ugly American” convinced me Peace Corps was the way to serve my country as president Kennedy asked us to do–and that we were fools in S. Vietnam just carrying on French colonial policies. Turkey V.

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