The publication of The Ugly American in 1958 created a sensation in the United States. A scathing critique of arrogant and inept American diplomatic provincialism, the novel was written as a warning by two Americans – Eugene Burdick and William Lederer – to their fellow Americans. It is a damning indictment of the stupidity and ignorance, arrogance and ineptitude of those who were charged with representing the country.
In 1961, after reading the book, President John F Kennedy decided to start the Peace Corps, a voluntary organisation that sends Americans to different parts of the world to assist with development and try to counter negative perceptions of the US as an imperial power. The difference and the distance between the reality of The Ugly American and the idea of a “Peace Corps” is the battlefield between two opposing forces laying competing claims on the soul of this nation.
Soon after its phenomenal success, the novel was turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando, Sandra Church, and Eiji Okada. The original novel and the film adaptation have made The Ugly American something of an iconic landmark of what ails American politics at home and abroad.
Today, as the American war machine is preparing for yet another assault on a far-away place to reassert its imperial power, it is quite useful to reread the novel and reflect on its persistent relevance.
Who are the ‘Ugly Americans’?
The Ugly American was a work of fiction but based on facts. Sarkhan, the fictional country where the novel is set, is the allegorical name of anyone’s homeland at the receiving end of the arrogance and ignorance of “Ugly Americans”. Sarkhan was Vietnam. Sarkhan was Guatemala. Sarkhan was and remains Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. Sarkhan was and remains Iran.
It is now for the second time in my lifetime that yet another “Ugly American” is plotting against the course of history in my homeland. I spent much of my adult life thinking of the name Kermit Roosevelt as the epitome of pernicious evil. Today, the degenerate character of John Bolton overshadows the memory of Kermit Roosevelt.
Who are these creatures?
Kermit Roosevelt Jr (1916 -2000), a grandson of US president Theodore Roosevelt, was a career intelligence officer who engineered the CIA-MI6 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, in August 1953.
I was a two-year-old toddler when that fateful coup altered the course of history in my homeland. It undermined the democratic movement and allowed the Pahlavi regime to consolidate power. A decade later, Ayatollah Khomeini launched his first militant Shia putsch against the Pahlavis and recast the Iranian political culture in decidedly Islamist terms, the consequences of which we still live with.
For Iranians, that vicious, vulgar, rude, and loutish interference in their democratic aspirations remained the most traumatic event of the 20th century.
Sixty-six years later, I am witnessing how another “Ugly American” is walking in the footsteps of Roosevelt. His name is John Bolton, a chief advocate of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq, a nefarious Islamophobe, and former chairman of the far-right anti-Muslim Gatestone Institute. This infamous institution is known for spreading lies about Muslims – claiming there is a looming “jihadist takeover” that can lead to a “Great White Death” – to incite hatred against them and intimidate, silence, and alienate them.
In his diabolical plans to wage war on Iran, Bolton is taking a page from Roosevelt’s playbook. Just as the CIA operative used venal Iranian politicians and fake news to incite against the democratically elected Iranian government, today his successor, the US national security adviser, is seeking to spread misinformation on a massive scale and set up a false flag operation with the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), a militant terrorist organisation. Meanwhile, he has also pressed forward with debilitating sanctions that are further worsening the economic crisis in the country and making the lives of ordinary Iranians unbearable.
It is true that the regime Bolton is targeting is not completely innocent. No doubt the custodians of the Islamic republic have their share of nefarious interventions in all the troubled spots in the region – the most disgusting aspect of which is their involvement in Syria to keep the murderous Bashar al-Assad in power.
But who will cast the first stone? The US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Russia? Which country is exactly where it is supposed to be? Which one is not involved in monumental human calamities?
Exacerbating the already catastrophic scene in the Middle East, the Bolton war on Iran will result in nothing other than an endless night of death and destruction throughout the region – adding millions of Iranians to the Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian and Yemeni victims of war.
An imperial regime with no legitimacy
Bolton is the dreadful residue of the pure violence and wanton cruelty that drive Zionist Christian zealots in their crusades against Muslims. He is the embodiment of the basest and most racist roots of American imperialism.
The regime he serves is the most naked and vulgar face of brutish power, lacking any semblance of legitimacy – a bullying coward flexing its military muscles. At its helm is an arrogant mercantile president, who – faced with the possibility of an impeachment – has no qualms about using the war machine at his disposal to regain political relevance and line his pockets.
But the world must know Americans are not all ugly, they are not all rabid imperialists – Boltons and Roosevelts. What about those countless noble Americans – the sons and daughters of the original nations that graced this land, of the African slaves who were brought to this land in chains, of the millions after millions of immigrants who came to these shores in desperation or hope from the four corners of the earth? Do they not have a claim on this land too – to redefine it and bring it back to the bosom of humanity?
When it comes to Iran, history has given us the accounts of two noble Americans to balance their ugly compatriots and keep things in perspective. One is Howard Conklin Baskerville (1885-1909), a teacher in an American missionary school in Tabriz, who fought for Iranian democracy. In 1909, just two years after he arrived in Iran, he joined the pro-democracy forces resisting the Qajar royalists during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911 and died defending the city of Tabriz against their assault.
The other is William Morgan Shuster (1877-1960), an American lawyer and civil servant who, during the same revolution, was brought in to help the country cope with the massive debt the Qajar royal family had accumulated. He not only tried to help the revolutionaries financially but also resisted the interference of two empires – the Russian and the British – who sought to have him expelled. Upon his return to the US, Shuster wrote a book called The Strangling of Persia – a scathing critique of Russian and British imperial violence.
For their service and dedication to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people, both Baskerville and Shuster have been given the highest honour in the pantheon of Persian poetry of the constitutional period.
Anytime I think of Kermit Roosevelt and John Bolton, I am reminded of Baskerville and Shuster and tell myself: “The worst thing about the United States is that there is always hope for it.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.