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By William J. Lederer
co-author of The Ugly American.
Book Review with commentary

It is astonishing to read how things never change, even when one knows what seems to be a law of “civilized America.” Lederer was not prescient. He just reported the events of his day as an historian would—objectively. This book first published 46 years ago, went through two re-printings within a year. His preface says it all:

      Preface

      In the 2½ years since The Ugly American was published more than 8000 readers have written Eugene Burdick and myself. Letters have come from every corner of the country and from all kinds of people in every conceivable occupation. By and large, however, they have been from ordinary citizens and they have, in one form or another, asked the same questions: what can the average citizen do about the posture of the United States in foreign affairs? How can the man in the street prevent the blunders by which we have aided our enemies to turn against us in large areas over the world--areas were our influence was paramount and admiration for us high, fifteen short years ago (1945).

      These are disturbing questions and certainly professor Burdick and I gave no more than hints as to the solutions in The Ugly American. The key to the riddle lies in the causes of the blunders; and the chief cause is ignorance-- an overwhelming national ignorance--of the facts about the rest of the world. A nation or an individual cannot function, unless the truth is available and understood. Since the United States is a democracy, the broad answer to the questions asked in the 8000 Ugly American letters is that all of us must become informed.

      Like most simple solutions, it is a difficult one to apply. Particularly it is difficult in the United States today, when the truth is largely unavailable; when the government itself frequently is ignorant of the most obvious events currently in other nations; when the press is so convinced that the American people don’t want the hard facts of foreign affairs that it makes only routine efforts to report them; when lack of knowledge of international matters has made the people of the United States a nation of sheep--uneasy, but too apathetic and uninformed to know why--endorsing any solutions which appear cheap and easy and come from a source apparently better informed than themselves.

      This book has been written in the conviction that something can be done about it, and that it must be the average citizen who does it. It is, I hope, a useful answer to the questions implied in the Ugly American.

First published near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, after WWII, The Marshall Plan, Japans’ reconstruction, and the adroit avoidance of war over Suez, this book sees beneath that noble era of American history. He listened to what others were really saying to and about us. It is particularly painful to see his observations so faithfully repeated today—minus the honor that Truman and Eisenhower earned. Lederer was particularly concerned with Southeast Asia. In just one example he labeled one of our better administrations a "Government by Misinformation"

Doubtless this book was voracious reading for Carl Rove and the Neocons. His accurate portrayal gave the Neocons a road map, and Dick Cheney, the arch Neocon, complete guidelines about how to run a "Government by Misinformation." Such are the ironies of history. Expose a problem in one era, a later one, seeing how easy it is, goes it one better.

And that is not all. Lederer's title drips with the Authoritarianism of Adorno, Milgram, Altemeyer, and Zimbardo. We, the people, have not changed one iota. As a society, we care too little about foreign affairs, the Constitution, or even our own pocket books. As long as we can have fun today, who cares about tomorrow? Or so it seems.

Visiting foreign US embassies for himself, Lederer concluded that most embassy reports from most countries were erroneous. He walked among the foreigners, heard what they had to say. It did not compare with what Washington wanted to hear, and heard. The same feature infected the media. And so it largely remains today.

Lederer accurately pointed out that in 1960, the world was in revolution against colonialism. Yet the US bucked the flow, became an empire in its own right. Yet our own travels to Europe, Asia, Africa and South America convince us that Americans are still as uninformed as they ever were, at least in the eyes of the many respondents to our probing questions. At the same time, many usually hastened to say that America is indeed a land of opportunity. It seems money talks everywhere!

How many "bubbles" (called panics in the 19th century) will it take 'til we know when too many people have lied? To recast words from those true patriots Peter, Paul and Mary.

Lederer realized that his stated goals could not come quickly. Nevertheless, like ourselves on this site, he believed it is possible. It is high time to get on with it.

It is significant that Judge Andrew Napolitano asks the tough questions, in a book of the same title.

Reviewed by Harry Rosenberg

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