The Ugly American


In 1958, Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer wrote a book that became a multi-million copy bestseller for its exposé of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book’s title, “The Ugly American” became iconic for the way the US government and its citizens are viewed around the world. Did Lederer’s exposé change US behavior? Not one bit. The reason is simple: we behave the way we do because we have believed from the beginning of our history that it is our manifest destiny to lead the world in the way it should go.

The white settlers along the Atlantic seacoast were convinced that it was their sacred destiny to move westward until they owned every bit of land “from sea to shining sea.” No matter that the land was already settled by several million indigenous people. Regarded as “savages” by the settlers, they would be moved aside and, if they refused to move, killed. The result, from the beginning, was not pleasant for those on the receiving end. For them, and that includes members of my family, it was genocide as they were “cleansed” from the land. It was to become an outcast, cast aside as unwelcome, to be denied membership in the human community, a caricature to be manipulated and shoved aside, and never really granted membership among the “Chosen”. To read this history from the standpoint of an American Indian is searing; to have lived it, and to live it, is nightmarish.

President Barak Obama, in his inaugural address to the nation in January, 2009, said “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

“It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.

“For us, they packed up their possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and slowed the hard earth.

“For us, they fought and died in places like Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh. Time and time again these men struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might have a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

“This is the journey we continue today.” As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” says in response, “spoken like a true descendant of old settlers.” (Her book, by the way, is one that I highly recommend. It is available from and walk-in booksellers everywhere.)

A few days after his address, President Obama made these remarks on Al Arabiya TV in Dubai: “America was not born as a colonial power.” In truth, its motivations were colonial from the beginning. But affirming democracy requires the denial of colonialism, as colonialism is the antithesis of democratic principles. When any nation or people sets out to ethnically cleanse a land of others, democracy loses.

More in my next post about the United States, and war.

About gwpj

Originally from Seattle, I now live in Sapporo, Japan, where I write, explore this city, read widely, and ask questions about things that i see as important. I'm also an author, with three novels published ("The Old Man and The Monkey", "Grandfather and The Raven", and "Bear: a story about a boy and his unusual dog"). For more information about my writing, drop by my website, at
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8 Responses to The Ugly American

  1. Jerry grant says:

    Hey George…the world condition has always been expand and conquer one country ,save maybe Switzerland and a few island countries that has not acted in a horrible way to the poor people in their way to their expansion

    • gwpj says:

      Your point being, Jerry, is . . . ?

      • Jerry grant says:

        Point is,why pick on America…and not Germany..France..Spain..Portugal..Japan..Russia. England holland..Belgium. ..and on and on…certainly America is no worse or better..and thats leaving out the old old days..Egypt…Greece Rome..ottomans..Arabs…Persia….it sure is hard to be a uber liberal with out a large dose of hypocrisy …..

  2. gwpj says:

    You could also add China to the list. The point of my comments are to look at the U.S.A. and its history which was the point of “The Ugly American.” We present ourselves as a paean of virtue (“Why do they hate us when we’re so GOOD?” George W. Bush), yet the reality is very different, and has been from the beginning. If you haven’t read Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’ “An Indigenous Peoples/ History of the United States”, please do; it is quite an eye-opener, and a searing read. If you are uncomfortable with criticisms of the U.S., I am not. Is the U.S. all bad? No. That said, there is little-to-no point in overlooking our flaws, the consequences they bring, and seeking to correct them.

  3. Jerry grant says:

    George..your points are well taken…it’s just that I am so put off by the constant attacks on America and Israel for that matter by the uber left …who are completely blind to what’s happening to the world as we speak…their refusal to see the reality of it all…their reversal of moral values ,making black white and white black….

    • gwpj says:

      Well, Jerry, I guess you and I will have to agree to disagree on that point. I don’t like seeing my country (the U.S.A.) racing away from a democracy in which all people are free and treated with respect. I don’t like watching Israel look more and more like an abusive, self-destructive society, but that’s what’s happening as the current regime rushes toward annexation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the destruction of Gaza. No one deserves that kind of fate, yet all abusive systems eventually end up there. So . . . I’ll continue to write what I write, stand for what I stand for (treating others as I want to be treated, and pointing out folly when and where I see it). Not to do that would be folly, to say nothing whatsoever about irresponsible.

  4. Jerry grant says:

    Hey…wouldn’t want it any other way….you have a kindly and gentle heart…and it’s your blog..I am just putting my two cents in …thanks for allowing another side ….stay well….JG

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