meaning and origin of the phrase ‘ugly American’

The phrase ugly, or Ugly, American denotes an American who behaves offensively abroad.

It refers to The Ugly American (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1958), a political novel co-written by:
– William Julius Lederer (1912-2009), naval officer and special assistant to Admiral Felix Stump, commander of military forces in the Pacific,
– Eugene Leonard Burdick (1918-65), professor of political theory at the University of California.

This novel denounced the failures of the U.S. Foreign Service in Southeast Asia. However, the “Ugly American” of the title, Homer Atkins, was not one of the State Department’s career men that the authors exposed: so called because of his physical appearance, he in fact epitomised the dedicated persons that Lederer and Burdick advocated for the Foreign Service.

This was detailed by Special Press Correspondent Van Allen Bradley in his review of the novel, More About ‘The Ugly American’, published in the Binghamton Press (Binghamton, New York) of Sunday 16th November 1958—“cooky pusher” designates a diplomat devoting more attention to protocol or social engagements than to his work:

Chicago—A book you are going to hear a lot about this fall is “The Ugly American” (Norton $3.75), in which two authors who have spent considerable time in Southeast Asia give the State Department’s career men a rough going over.
[…]
Their complaint, which I have heard voiced elsewhere by newsmen and others who observe the world scene, is that most of the men and women who represent the United States as diplomats, particularly in Southeast Asia, are incompetent cooky pushers.
Loosely speaking, the collection of sketches and incidents with which they bolster their case is a novel. The authors tell us that most of the events they delineate have actually occurred.
The locale is the mythical country of Sarkhan, where the American ambassador, one Louis Sears, a boob if there ever was one, is pitted against a suave and ably schooled Russian ambassador.
Sears dislikes the people and the job he is supposed to do. His Russian counterpart has learned the Sarkhanese language and made the interests of the people his own.
It is this sort of thing, the authors believe, that is making it possible for the Soviets to take over Asia in bloodless conquest.
Their answer would be to kick out the deadheads and reupholster our whole foreign service with “well-trained professionals who are dedicated to their jobs and who will work in the interest of the native people. Only in this way, they imply, can we “save” Asia from the Communists.
The “Ugly American” of the title is the kind of dedicated man they mean. He is one Homer Atkins, a big, ugly engineer who does a good job of it by living in a Sarkhanese village with his wife, Emma, and showing the natives how to make a better life with what they have.
Atkins, whose good efforts bring him nothing but the back of a hand from his bosses, is one of the few really believable characters in the book. The embassy boobs are painted a bit too boldly to be credible. This, it must be said, weakens the message this crusading novel tries to get across.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of the phrase ugly American used in its current sense is from the Bergen Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Wednesday 24th December 1958:

A Bilateral Embargo On Squares

Commander Whitehead, the bearded salesman for ginger beer and quinine water, has learned more in the United States than how to look distinguished when deplaning at Idlewild.
Don’t, the Commander warned the Dollars Export Conference, send any more squares to America. A square, Commander Whitehead told his fellow British exporters, is a somewhat opaque, insensitive, unresponsive fellow unaware of the nuances of contemporary thought. For a definition, that’s about as elegant and as accurate as they come.
The square, says Commander Whitehead, is unpopular on this side of the ocean. To quote him:
The unforthcoming, stiff-upper-lipped, monosyllabic Englishman, who will not unbend to show enthusiasm, annoys hell out of Americans and Canadians.
The Commander was talking, of course, about how to sell Empire goods in what were once the colonies. Send bright, enthusiastic salesmen, amusing ones if possible, he asked.
O. K., Commander; perhaps we can make a deal. We send a lot of tourists to the British Isles, and you send a lot of salesmen to the States. If you’ll keep the stuffy Englishman locked up, we’ll see what can be done about the ugly Americans.

 

front cover of The Ugly American (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1958), by William Julius Lederer and Eugene Leonard Burdick—photograph ebay:

front cover of 'The Ugly American' (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1958)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.