News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A Review of The Ugly American, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick (1958):

This book was put up as a primer for those few freaks curious, to the point of even reading a book, as to what was up with American foreign aid failing to deliver in the 1950s. The authors put their shoulders into explaining why Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam ended up proving the domino theory wasn't just a theory. The book is framed as a novel, but each chapter is an allegory for situations the two authors witnessed while working their way across South and Southeast Asia. As such, though competently written, this fictional work is no more a novel than Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt or Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow, both of which too are indictments of social stereotypes. But this book is more happening than its predecessors because there's a juicier range of characters and the scenarios are better designed and come with plot twists.

Also, as few fiction authors have a creative imagination that can stay afloat for more than a few paragraphs, they rely on the usual standby of sticking closely to the truth. Fortunately, given their vast experience getting screwed by commies and stymied by US bureaucrats, they have some swell anecdotes. The prose is clean, unambitious, slightly better than journalese, and there's a regrettable absence of nifty turns of phrase. Character development is only that required to show the historical inevitability of the protagonist's actions.

In an early chapter, a goodhearted American entrepreneur providing cheap quality milk to the locals ends up with a gun to his head because he becomes successful and thus a threat to vested international worker interests. A local doing the bidding of the local communists (a former friend whose family is being held hostage) demands that he dump a jug of a local date-rape drug into his factory's milk. The alternative is to be shot on the spot, whereupon the communist will stand on his cadaver like an African game-hunter and proudly proclaim that he'd been shot just as he was trying to sneak the drug into the day's milk production. A Hollywood struggle ensues. Eventually the entrepreneur is beaten up by the locals and railroaded out of town when the locals burst in and the part-time commie persuades them that the foreign devil was out to deflower them while they snored.

The point of the story is not just that commies are wily but that they had an adept grasp of local conspiracy theories and rural legends, so their propaganda was less sophisticated and thus more intelligible to yokels. There was a local mythology regarding date rape drug use and thus when a foreigner came into town offering an improvement on a local beverage, he left himself vulnerable to the possibility of such a set-up. In another chapter, American grain is imported to be given to the locals. However, in the warehouse communist sympathizers stamp it all over with "Gift of the USSR" in the local language. The stand-in ignoramus that serves as Uncle Sammy's rep can't read it and so, despite considering himself an "inside dopester", doesn't understand he's being swindled. This chapter was based on real events such as 1950's India receiving tractors from the US and the whole shipment being stenciled in the local warehouse with "Gift of the USSR." The Indian population became increasingly angry at US stinginess with Mao becoming three times more popular than Ike.

In addition to this, the book points out that most American diplomatic representatives did not speak the language of the people in the country they were appointed to. The authors point out in the epilogue that the US ambassador to France at that time spoke German but not French; the US ambassador to Germany spoke French but not German. Not a single US diplomatic representative in Southeast Asia spoke the local language.

They point out that most of the constructive work was performed by private individuals (analogous to UN reps calling for conferences and regional studies during the recent tsunami crisis, as opposed to the US and Australian navies which got on the ball and saved lives immediately). Some of these private individuals were affiliated with religious organizations, others simply motivated individuals: wanderers who married locally, renegade engineers, mechanics looking for a fresh start, and so forth.

This is contrasted with the US bureaucracy of the time which was not only bloated, as usual, but also functionally incompetent on the whole, as usual. The US bureaucracy was devoted to showboating, cocktail parties (Dick Nixon complained about this loudly) and to huge pork-barrel projects which made headlines and helped win elections back home. Highways were constructed in boondocks lacking automobiles. Hydro projects were planted in populations without electric power grids or electric appliances or irrigation infrastructure to take advantage of the head pond.

Furthermore, when private individuals in the countryside were effective, their reputation for good works usually became an embarrassment to the diplomatic clowns in town who got down to the slippery business of having them legally ejected from the national circus. The hero of the book is an the ugly American who is an ornery tinkering mechanic who speaks the local language and gets the job done. He is contrasted with the beautiful people, the bimbo collective infesting the US bureaucracy which spends its time preening, drinking, chasing cock and skirts. This book also unconsciously brings up the drinking habits of that generation. Everyone's guzzling all the time. Everyone good or bad is soaked in alcohol. Nothing gets done without hooch. The men do bourbon and pilsner; all the women are whisky drinkers. This generation went into recovery right before I began a brief stint of bartending in the early 1980's, shafting management (it was mutual) and ripping off customers (that's what they seemed to be there for) at a Canadian tourist trap.

The book also carries on about official French corruption, alive and well then just as it is today. Corporate bribery overseas is presently a tax deductible expense for businesses with head offices in France. In those long ago days, the French in Vietnam worked with the world's premier heroin growers, the Montagnards (mountain aborigines), facilitating their export of the drug to destinations known and unknown. JFK wanted to end the biz but learned the hard way that it was the only form of persuasion that worked keeping the Montagnards on the US side. Thus Air America and the French Connection. The book points out that in those days bringing French companies into a country typically meant setting up a monopoly arrangement to "protect" the market and give the bureaucrats skim money ops. Sounds similar to some of the development projects that Canada has engaged in in the Caribbean.

When it comes to corruption, capitalism is the cleanest system, welfare state socialism is significantly dirtier, and in communist states the level of corruption, like the level of state power, is absolute. When government enters an industry it always creates monopolies and trusts. For that matter, government itself is a monopoly and a trust.

The authors of this book, like myself, are no fans of big government. The authors place a particular focus upon securing popular involvement of the locals. For example, when one of the localized foreigners wants to persuade the locals that they should oppose communism, he does not hector or lecture them. He poses questions, withdraws from the conversation, and lets the locals work out their own solutions. After all, commonsense dictates that communism's implications, whether collective ownership or the banning of religious faith, is not going to be popular with the locals of any locale on this planet. Letting people form their own decisions means that they have a secure grounding in the conclusions that they reach. One of the problems with reporters and academics is that too many of their conclusions are acquired second-hand care of opinion makers. Unless you make your own decisions on issues from the ground up, you can't be sure of anything at the end of the day. Everything ends up a broken record playing 'he said, she said.'

In another chapter, a different localized foreigner wants to persuade locals that using a different kind of broomstick will improve people's posture and end the chronic stooping arthritis of old people in the village. The solution is not to import broomsticks from America, but to locate a local reed that naturally grows to a sufficient height as opposed to the traditional short reed indigenous in that region. Once the foreigner locates a place where the reed grows, she then brings back several of the reeds and plants them around her house. She begins using one of them is a broomstick. She lets locals curiosity summoned them to ask her about her new improved broomstick. In other words, rather than lecturing them, offending them and nannying them into dependence, as is common with left-wingers jonesing for the adulation of their "inferiors", she encourages them to proceed from their own sense of initiative.

In yet another situation, yet another localized foreigner wants to persuade locals to use his a mechanical pump design of his. He also sticks with the rule of thumb that any sort of device which is to become popular in-country must be something which can be manufactured locally. His design incorporates 100% new and secondhand materials available locally. He develops a bicycle powered irrigation pump which can be manufactured around the country. Rather than apply for patents, he goes into a cooperative venture with a local mechanic and the village head man to establish a company with stock shares. They hire a sales force on commission. The design itself is not patented and thus available for anyone around the country to use.

In other words, the authors were strongly opposed to foreign aid. They mentioned the cliché that when you give money away, not only do people become dependent and helpless, but also quite resentful. If you're the one forking out the pork, you're the one with the power. Nobody likes someone with more power than themselves. As was very evident during the Iraq War, even if you liberate country and foster democracy, don't expect the rest of the world to thank you for it. It's busy being envious, jealous, and petty minded. This is the human condition.

Last but not least, the authors point out that the Soviets never employed any locals in their embassies. All of their butlers, chefs, and other flunkies were imported directly from the Soviet Union. Furthermore, above 90% of them spoke the local language. The United States diplomatic representatives tended to hire armies of locals for a variety of menial tasks. As a result, they suffered constant leaks of information and the commies were always up on their game. The Commies in China offered schools instructing cadres from a variety of Southeast Asian Nations and classes were held not in Chinese, but in the language of the visiting cadres’ native country. This is contrasted with the United States which offered subsidized US university education for locals, but only in English which had the result of restricting free education to locals who came from upper-class city backgrounds. The problem, the authors point out, was that most of Southeast Asia at that time was rural. Just educating upper-class city folk meant the US Foreign Service was quite out of touch with the country bumpkins, and it was they who powered the successful communist movements in the region.

A surprisingly interesting book that’s worth the read.

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