John F. Kennedy: The Promise Revisited

By Paul Harper; Joann P. Krieg | Go to book overview

struggles against ignorance and want. This view had its most genial expression in the Peace Corps, its most corrupt in the mystique of counterinsurgency. 54

The casual meeting of Lederer and Kennedy gives us a glimpse of Schlesinger's meaning. Here, in a brief encounter, the agenda ranged from the Peace Corps to insurgency. Kennedy's often noted impatience with the State Department and formal diplomacy could explain his acceptance of The Ugly American. The book matched the confidence of the early Kennedy years that the American liberal tradition could be exported to the Third World. It is probably accurate to state that The Ugly American was a reflection of a 1960 consensus on America's sense of mission. While there is no precise way of measuring popular acceptance of ideas, the sale of over 5 million copies of the book is significant. The authors later credited their book with a "tiny part of a great glacial shift in thinking about our role in the world." 55 The events of the past twenty years, however, have led to a reexamination of America's world role, fragmenting the consensus reflected in the underlying prescriptions of The Ugly American. The book and the country shared a confidence in U.S. expertise and "know-how" which a contemporary scholar believes contained a misplaced liberal assumption that change and development could be achieved in the Third World as easily as it had in American history. 56

Ironically, an earlier book, The Quiet American (whose similar title had caused the authors' some concern), had addressed this hubris of America's liberal mission to Vietnam. 57 The author, Graham Greene, had caustically criticized American arrogance through the story of an innocent, idealistic and dangerous American. The book's narrator, a wiser, jaded Englishman sends Graham Greene's message to America: "God save us always from the innocent and the good."58 But at the time Greene's message was dismissed in the United States as mere anti-Americanism. Perhaps there was no way that at the time The Ugly American was published that anyone could question its basic premises about America's mission. Years later one historican was to suggest a relationship: "If there is something arrogant and parochial about the behavior of Americans stationed in foreign countries, as we have been led to believe from books like The Ugly American, that is not accidental. Our sense of mission has also been arrogant and provincial." 59


NOTES
1.
The New York Times, January 23, 1959. The letter was actually written by Morris Ernst , and the following individuals added signatures: John Kennedy, Senator Clair Engle, The Right Reverend James A. Pike, Julie d'Estournelles ( Woodrow Wilson Foundation), and Harold Stern.
2.
Capt. William J. Lederer to Eric Swenson, n.d., W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. Papers, General File, 1959, K-L Folder: Lederer, Capt. Wm. J., Columbia University, New York. By April 1959 publisher Eric Swenson noted that the title was "passing into the language," E.S. to W.L., April 17, 1959, Norton, General: Lederer. When

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