The American: Not Ugly, Not Quiet


George Nash, the dean of Herbert Hoover scholars, wrote about our 31st President most recently in the Wall Street Journal, commemorating the centenary of Hoover’s heroic World War I disaster-relief efforts in Europe. Nash described how, in 1914, a young and successful London-based mining engineer made his move “to ‘get in the big game’ of public life.”

Nash’s words capture a do-gooding impulse, but one that is mixed with personal ambition. This interesting alloy should be familiar. It puts Herbert Hoover in a long line of Americans in whom self-improvement and world-improvement seem inextricably tied—a line stretching back in our history, at least to Benjamin Franklin, and forward into our time.

It’s uncool to speak as if there were a national character. The historians of today pitch a fit. And yet, points out the historian Wilfred McClay, “there has always been something patently absurd and campus-provincial” about this prohibition. “Anyone who has spent time outside the United States,” wrote McClay, “knows perfectly well that there is such a thing as national character.” If there weren’t, people in other lands would not be so “remarkably good at identifying Americans as Americans, black or white, Northern, or Southern, even before we open our mouths.”

Without apology, then, do I cite the French sociologist Raymond Aron’s generalization that what is “typically American” is “a combination of moral idealism and practicality.” These wouldn’t necessarily go together; but in us, they do. Take someone like Bill Gates. Recently, Gates was interviewed about his and his wife’s massive medical assistance to India and other countries. An NBC reporter, probing which vaccines the couple chose to distribute and why, asked Gates: You’re looking to get the biggest bang for the philanthropic buck, right? His answer: “Right, and transform the societies.”

It is in Americans’ makeup to want to change the world—to go out into it to promote ideas or programs they consider helpful. Raymond Aron’s intellectual model, Alexis de Tocqueville, had noted the unusual communicativeness of les Americains, which bears upon the idealism-practicality alloy. Observing the Americans’ busy-bee engagement with those around them, the startled aristocrat speculated that it was a social habit springing from American equality. Tocqueville wrote:

In America, where privileges of birth have never existed and where wealth gives no particular right to one who possesses it, strangers willingly gather in the same places and find neither advantage nor peril in freely communicating their thoughts to each other.

Seen in this light, the sort of extroversion being discussed here—and it’s a trait that often leads critics to reach for the stereotype of the “ugly American”—isn’t disrespectful but something more like its opposite. I approach you because I neither lord it over you nor consider myself your inferior.

By the way, the original “ugly American” was not a heedless blowhard or egomaniac. He was meant to be admirable. William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, a combat-hardened naval officer and political scientist, respectively, coauthored a critique of American diplomacy in Asia that they decided to make into a novel using composites of real-life people and situations. The Ugly American, a bestseller in 1958, took its title from two of its vignettes, about a self-made construction engineer named Homer Atkins who has come to Vietnam at the U.S. government’s behest.

The book contrasts two types of Americans abroad: the good ones, who venture into the countryside to learn what the locals want and need, and the useless ones, who stick to the embassy cocktail circuit and are usually careerist incompetents. Atkins, the engineer, is a good one. He is bluntly honest, patient, a design genius, and has “ugly strong hands.” He tries to cut through all the bureaucracy and boneheaded policies with his ideas for basic construction projects that will help the Vietnamese to help themselves.

Atkins represents, in this not-very-adept roman à clef, the authors’ preference for “low modernization” rather than “high modernization” projects, which was part of the foreign assistance debate of that era. The book’s main message prefigures the invention of the Peace Corps: that citizen-ambassadors would do a better job representing us overseas than our effete professional diplomats.

To this day you can find The Ugly American in the libraries, shelved near classic novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and To Kill a Mockingbird—testimony to its archetypal resonance, even if the archetype is not exactly the one intended by Lederer and Burdick.

There are few better sketches of the venturesome Americans and their actions on the international stage than Walter McDougall’s important Foreign Affairs article from 1997, “Back to Bedrock: The Eight Traditions of American Statecraft.” McDougall says in “Back to Bedrock” that the fusion of moral idealism with practicality yields policies heavy with a sense of mission. He describes the energetic American missionaries of the 19th century, religious globetrotters who “pioneered the use of education, medicine, and agronomy, and the promotion of human rights to transform foreign cultures and prepare the ground for the Gospel.”

Later on, our government itself entered “the meliorist business” to “promote its secular gospel.” This “Global Meliorism,” as McDougall calls it, “moved to the forefront of U.S. policy” during the Second World War, with the Cold War only adding “new urgency to this American mission.” McDougall, fearing American overextension, is a critic of Global Meliorism. It gives him little pleasure to trace its origins back to “impulses that were as much cultural as geopolitical.” (For his latest comments along these lines, read his Law and Liberty piece from September.)

A major milestone in governmental meliorism came with the First World War, says McDougall. And he brings in Herbert Hoover. The Republican Hoover, a Bull Moose Progressive at the time, had burst into prominence by organizing a supply lifeline to Belgium, whose entire populace was trapped by the German occupation. After the Armistice he was chosen by a Democratic administration to distribute aid to some 20 war-wrecked countries, including a Russia in the throes of revolution, where his program fed 10 million people a day in the Volga River region. McDougall writes that Hoover, “a Quaker pacifist, pleaded for food to be shipped to the starving Germans, urged Wilson to fight Bolshevism with bread, not guns, and helped persuade American bankers to underwrite European stabilization in the 1920s.”

One of the statecraft traditions laid out in McDougall’s article is “Progressive Imperialism.” The concept—and the man, Theodore Roosevelt—swayed leading Republicans, including even constitutionalists like Elihu Root and William Howard Taft before the Republican rift of 1912. According to Sidney Milkis, the way that William Allen White, the famed Kansas journalist, expressed it was: “Roosevelt bit me and I went mad.”

He bit the future President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, as well. Historian Ted McAllister synthesized Hoover’s thinking:

The rugged individual he so loved was the source of American greatness. . . . He accepted the reforms of the Progressive era as largely salutary because they prevented the individual from being overtaken by the privilege of concentrated power: economic power. For him the Progressive reforms—free enterprise but not laissez faire—were consistent with the Founding principles because they protected the individual from a power too large for him to challenge.

Hoover later saw things getting way out of hand. After he lost the presidency to Franklin Roosevelt, he attempted to articulate a centrist American philosophy, but this was done while, as it were, trying to step off a speeding train (Progressivism) without hurting himself. It is not clear that Hoover made a coherent, defensible whole out of his political acts, policies, and political philosophy. What is easier to see, looking at the man’s life, is that Progressivism was an ideology but it was also more than that: it dovetailed with that impulse of ambitious do-gooding so visible in the American super-achiever.

The super-achievers, even the practical ones, can be awfully preachy. That’s very much how others see us. Graham Greene, a former British intelligence agent, captured this with his novelist’s eye. Just as the original “ugly American” wasn’t ugly, it turns out that the title character in Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) wasn’t actually quiet. Alden Pyle was summed up by the book’s narrator, a Brit, this way:

Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his, and he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world.

It’s Global Meliorism. And it reaches its poetic height with John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps President:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

The words can be given a prose translation: Supporting friends and opposing foes means fanning out far and wide and engaging with the peoples of the world. Like the young Herbert Hoover—and the older Hoover, had he been able to resume his European relief activity in World War II. (Roosevelt and Churchill blocked his humanitarian comeback, reports George Nash.) Nowadays some do this through modern means without leaving their living rooms—or, in the case of Elissa Montanti, a bedroom closet-turned-office on Staten Island. Montanti’s desire to send school supplies to Bosnia blossomed into what has been known, since 1997, as the Global Medical Relief Fund, through which she brings to the United States foreign children needing surgery and prosthetics for injuries suffered in war or natural disasters.

Then there is Molly Melching, who launched a personal crusade against female genital mutilation. Confounding the image of the linguistically challenged American, Melching has apparently cleared an area of Senegal of this barbaric practice, over the course of some 20 years spent there, by speaking to people in the villages of Senegal in their language.

I say “apparently” because, while I hope and trust that Melching is legit, it is well to be on guard against do-gooder exaggerations being palmed off on the public. Recall what happened with the mountain climber Greg Mortenson, he of Three Cups of Tea fame. There was something quintessentially American about his eagerness to help. Unfortunately, there was also something quintessentially American about the discovery, well after Mortenson’s 2006 bestseller became standard reading in the high schools, that he did not help the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan as much as the book claimed he had.

This, in the conception of Walter McDougall, comes under the heading of “Puritanism and its flipside”—the self-promotion of the confidence man. Mostly what McDougall worried about, though, was a “hyperbolic presumption” to which our missionaries, whether of the private or the public variety, might be prone. Walter Lippmann, a Progressive whose thinking evolved away from that doctrine, was also one to highlight a danger in the reformist impulse. Lippmann said it could make the reformers arrogant, even lead them to antidemocratic extremes.

Herbert Hoover avoided “hyperbolic presumption” even if he didn’t always avoid hyperbole. His opposition, though based on substance, to FDR and the New Deal at times had an angrily self-justifying ring to it. It wouldn’t be fair to blame him too much in that regard. The personal sting of being remembered, not for saving millions of lives, but for presiding over “Hoovervilles” at the start of the Depression, must have been painfully galling.

The ex-President lived until 1964. His uprightness did stand him in good stead with some of his countrymen and women—even Adlai Stevenson liberals promoting U.S. interests abroad during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Julia Child met her husband in Ceylon while both worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime intelligence agency that later became the CIA). In the postwar, Julia and Paul Child lived in Marseilles, where he was on the staff of the U.S. Information Service. In the memoir Child published about her time in France, she recollected:

Just about anyone from the GOP had, for me, a fake soap-selling ring to him, with the exception of Herbert Hoover, who had impressed everyone on a recent swing through Europe.

Hoover strove to live by, in his words, “the moral, spiritual, economic and political values” of the United States. Perhaps his career and writings do gel in the end, if we consider how hard he fought to preserve an America that could export the likes of him.