An Ugly American, 1924

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Research Services at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

The term “ugly American” was popularized by the 1958 book of the same name by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick.  It referred to certain types of behavior exhibited by some Americans in foreign lands.  These included being self-absorbed, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, and ignorant of local customs.

An early example of such behavior is found in the following April 1924 despatch from the U.S. legation in Siam (now Thailand) about a visit by Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell.  Mitchell was a notable Army officer.  At one point, he commanded U.S. air combat units in France during World War I.  Based on his wartime experiences, Mitchell argued for greater interest and investment in air power.  After the war, he was appointed as the assistant chief of the U.S. Army Air Service, an early predecessor to the United States Air Force. 

In a later despatch, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires  wrote:

When General Mitchell first informed this Legation of his intended visit to Siam, he gave the impression that he was doing so in connection with the American Army Aeroplane flight around-the-world, through which intimation he received all courtesies and attention for an official visitor, including an audience with His Majesty.  During his stay in Bangkok he never once intimated that his visit was not official in character, however, I am inclined to believe that it was entirely personal.

Mitchell’s actions in his advocacy for air power was antagonistic towards his superior officers and his many skeptics and in 1925 he was court martialed for insubordination.  He resigned shortly after his conviction but continued to promote the benefits of air power until he died in 1936.

Many of Mitchell’s views about the efficacy of air power were later vindicated.  He is considered to be the father of the U.S. Air Force, formally established as an independent agency in 1947.

Sources: U.S. Legation Siam to the Department of State, Despatch 500, April 23, 1924, file 811.2300/130; U.S. Legation Siam to the Department of State, Despatch 520, June 2, 1924, file 811.2300/151; 1910-29 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

2 thoughts on “An Ugly American, 1924

  1. An Ugly American, 1924, offers a poignant exploration of cultural clashes and the complexities of identity, resonating even in today’s globalized world.

  2. Somehow it’s not terribly surprising that Mitchell would behave that way. Regarding his claim to be the only flying general, he may have been close to the mark. Benjamin Foulois, who had been a temporary Brigadier General when leading the Air Service during WWI (clashing repeatedly with Mitchell), could certainly fly but had reverted to prewar rank. (He did not regain his star until 1927.) Mason Patrick had general officer rank, but only learned to fly in 1922, earning a junior pilot rating. So, while he may not technically have been the only general-rank flier in 1924, he didn’t have much company.

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