Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Trump

Trump has presented himself to the world as the caricature of the ugly American: loud, boorish and ill-informed.
–Dana Milbank, Washington Post

The bombastic chauvinism of the Ugly American seems to be everywhere, as personified by our …”
–Carrie Tirado Bramen, author of “American Niceness: A Cultural History.”

Trump is, in many respects, the archetype Ugly American, and possesses all the worst qualities that have come to be associated with the stereotype. The president is vulgar, anti-intellectual, arrogant, vain, materialistic, shallow, racist, sexist, loud, offensive and deeply ignorant.
–Conor Lynch,

Donald Trump, the ugly American. It’s a perfect fit, or so say Dana Milbank, Carrie Tirado Bramen, Conor Lynch and about 474,000 others in Google’s search results.

The Ugly AmericanThe term has its origins in a 1958 novel—or, more precisely, a volume of linked short stories—and a Marlon Brando movie.  Written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, it told the story of Americans who represent the US in Sarkhan, a fictional Southeast Asian country that looks a lot like pre-American-War Vietnam.  Americans like Ambassador Louis (Lucky Lou) Sears, a former senator who volunteers that he doesn’t work well with blacks and refers to the people of the country as “strange little monkeys.”  Or Joe Bing, the embassy public relations official, a man who “drives a big red convertible which he slews around corners [and has] exactly the kind of loud silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear.” Or George Swift, an embassy functionary who skips a call to a high Sarkhanese official to help the ambassador’s wife buy liquor for an embassy reception.

Actor Pat Hingle

Actor Pat Hingle, who played engineer Homer Atkins, the actual “ugly American” in Universal’s “The Ugly American.”

But none of these is the ugly American of the title.  That honor goes to Homer Atkins, played by Pat Hingle, an American engineer, whose hands–“laced with prominent veins and spotted with liverish freckles,[with] fingernails black with grease [and bearing] the tiny nicks and scars of a lifetime of practical engineering”—“always reminded him that he was an ugly man.”

But unlike many of the Americans depicted in The Ugly American, who saddle Sarkhanese villagers with technology that they won’t be able to operate or maintain once the Americans go home, Homer Atkins observes that villagers have an abundance of bamboo, bicycles and abandoned French jeeps.  So he designs technology they will be able to use: a system that uses bamboo for pipes, bicycle-peddling for power, and parts from the junked jeeps for pistons.

“A prototype Peace Corps couple,” the Times dubs Atkins and his wife.  And indeed Lederer and Burdick close the Ugly America with a call for a “small force of well-trained well-chosen hard-working and dedicated professionals…willing to risk their comforts…who speak the language of the land of their assignment.”  Two years after The Ugly American was published in 1958, my old boss, Milwaukee congressman Henry Reuss, proposed a study of a proto-Peace Corps idea that he called the Point Four Youth Corps, and Sen. Hubert Humphrey proposed the Peace Corps itself, which was established by President Kennedy in 1962.

And Donald Trump, whose name, in a perverse kind of historical appropriation, now is so closely identified with the phrase, “the ugly American”?

His current budget would cut Peace Corps funding by 15 percent, the largest reduction in forty years.

The ugly American?  Trump doesn’t deserve the sobriquet.  Where are the real ugly Americans when we really need them?


  1. Eric Christenson
    August 20th, 2017 | 4:25 pm

    Thanks! I think most of us in our 70s and early 80s who read the novel know this, but why others don’t is a mystery.

  2. Fred Close
    August 22nd, 2017 | 6:21 am

    Eric, the rest of us don’t because we didn’t read the novel and instead soaked up the popular usage of the term. How did the term change from compliment (the novel) to indictment (everyday usage)? Obviously Dana Milbank/the general public apply the latter meaning to Trump. Too bad there’s no simple way to get Milbank to read this excellent column. He might be grateful to learn the truth. I am.

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