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The Ugly American Vs. The Quiet American – Which Do You Prefer?

Hungary Today 2015.11.11.

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the “Ugly American” definition by dictionary.com

Pejorative term for Americans traveling or living abroad who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards. The term is taken from the title of a book by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer.

It seems as if the best-seller book today has renewed relevance in American foreign policy. The multi-million-copy bestseller coined the phrase „Ugly American” for tragic American foreign policy blunders abroad. The original story goes that Homer Atkins, a plain and plain-spoken man was sent by the U.S. government to advise the Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan on engineering projects. When Atkins finds badly misplaced priorities and bluntly challenges the entrenched interests, he lays bare a foreign policy gone dangerously wrong. First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a runaway national bestseller for its slashing exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption abroad.

While both critiques and readers originally considered the book a harsh disclosure of a certain era and U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia back in the 1960s, the book’s message has recently been rehashed by The New York Times in an essay by Michael Meyer in 2009. The title of this article is: Still ‘Ugly’ After All These Years.

Today, the phrase is shorthand for Americans who wear tube tops to the Vatican or shout for Big Macs in Beijing. But when more thoroughly examined, the impolitic travelers in “The Ugly American” aren’t drunken backpackers or seniors sporting black socks and wielding their cameras and iphones, but the so-called educated elite of the diplomatic corps, whose insensitivity to local language, customs and history is apparent, while they frequently ignore the political will of local citizens.

Many contend that Americans are nice folks at home, but when they are sent abroad, they tend to become arrogant and pretentious. The other book with a similar title „The Quiet American” was also published in the 1950s. This book by Graham Greene sold less copies, but it served as a contrast to the Ugly American. We seem to feel these days that America would perhaps be better off returning to the „Quiet American operational mode”.

The Ugly American’s enduring legacy is its argument that during the course of Western „democratization projects” the United States has spent billions of dollars trying to change the course of events in various corners of the globe, without obtaining popular consent from the locals. Therefore, typically there is a lack of realism and legitimacy in exporting these policy measures.

Lederer and Burdick wrote a thinly disguised account of how the United States was squandering billions of dollars and, through bungling and ignorance of local cultures. The term “ugly American” became a catch phrase to describe boorish, self-interested Americans who cared little about other countries.[1]

Mr. Lederer and Burdick originally wrote their book as nonfiction, only to rework it at the last minute to create greater emotional resonance and to avoid potential lawsuits. In an epilogue, they called for the establishment of “a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working and dedicated professionals” who would work overseas and speak local languages. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 76 weeks and was made into a 1963 movie starring Marlon Brando. “The Ugly American” remains in print today and is sometimes used as a text for training military and diplomatic officers.

„Live and learn”, holds the old American adage. But will the U.S. diplomatic core ever learn to be prudent and humble when it comes to respect and acceptance of local cultures that are invariably different from American values? Respect worldwide is not something you gain by interference and arrogance. It is a hard-earned reward for staying quiet when you need to and accomodation and acceptance when it comes to the will of the people. Legitimacy is what should shape American foreign policy attributes, not political activism and intrusive arrogance. That is how the United States could once again become a highly praised and respected partner and leader in world affairs.

Adam Topolansky



[1] By Matt Schudel, Washington Post Staff Writer
January 10, 2010

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