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Ugly People Essay

798 words - 4 pages

he simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that average Americans, in their natural state, if you will excuse the phrase, are the best ambassadors a country can have,” a Filipino minister tells an American official. “They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad. Many of them are not average . . . they are second-raters.”

Published in 1958, the book is often confused with another cold-war-era novel set in Southeast Asia, “The Quiet American,” which appeared in 1955. Yet “The Ugly American,” which depicted the struggle against insurgent Communism in the fictional nation of Sarkhan, was the bigger ...view middle of the document...

“The American ambassador is a jewel,” the Soviet diplomat — who is fluent in the local language, customs and religion — cables Moscow. “He keeps his people tied up with meetings, social events, and greeting and briefing the scores of senators, congressmen, generals, admirals, under secretaries of state and defense, and so on, who come pouring through here to ‘look for themselves.’ ” Sears undermines a Wisconsin dairyman’s self-started project to raise nutrition levels in the Sarkhan country­side, thwarts a band of anti-Communist irregulars formed by a militant Massachusetts priest, and orchestrates the dismissal of his more capable successor, who fails to convince Washington of an impending coup.

The Ugly American of the title is not one of these bunglers, but the book’s hero, a millionaire engineer named Homer Atkins, whose calloused and grease-blackened hands “always reminded him that he was an ugly man.” Homer is the very model of the enlightened ambassador (lowercase) the authors thought America should send into the world. He and his wife become a proto-Peace Corps couple, homesteading in an earthen-floored hut and collaborating with villagers on inventions like a bicycle-powered irrigation pump. Homer’s voice sounds surprisingly contemporary, as if he’s channeling “Dead Aid,” Dambisa Moyo’s recent polemic against current global development practices. “Whenever...

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