How to Protect Ordinary Americans from Ignorance

THESE WORDS COME FROM the American year of 1961. “The defeat of America need not be accomplished by destructive weapons and violence. There are easier and cheaper ways of conquering a politically incompetent nation. It can be accomplished by psychological weapons, by economic strangulations, by political chicanery, by intellectual subversion.” [1]

Almost 60 years later, in 2018, William J. Lederer is not a household name. When John F. Kennedy (JFK) was preparing himself to be the youngest man to enter the White House, he knew the name Lederer, except, being a former military man, Kennedy probably addressed him as Captain Lederer.

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A Pocket Filled with Keys

Along with Professor Eugene Burdick, the Captain was jettisoned into not just national, but international fame, with the publication of their novel, The Ugly American. Have you ever used that phrase? Do you know what it means? It is slang, in 2018, for the uncouth Yankee tourist. It refers to the abuse many a first world resident heaps upon sovereign citizens of foreign lands, abuse rivaling the colonizing hearts of 15th century Spanish conquistadors. You and I have that image in our heads because of 1958’s The Ugly American.

If JFK knew the name Lederer, so did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK). Six years into the Civil Rights Movement, Lederer wrote, “In the two and half years since The Ugly American was published, more than 8000 readers have written Eugene Burdick and myself. Letter have come from every corner of the country and from all kinds of people in every conceivable occupation. By and and large, however, they have been ‘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 help prevent the blunders by which we have aided our enemies to turn against us in large areas in the world – areas where our influence was paramount and admiration for us high, fifteen short years ago.” [2]

Lederer had a pocket filled with finely whittled wooden solution keys. He whittled those keys from 1936 to 1959 in the Navy, serving six of those years – the same ones where Dr. King shaped domestic policy – intimately involved in Southeast Asia. Twenty six trips into Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Formosa educated Lederer better than 95% of the foreign correspondents of his day.

“The key to the riddle lies in the causes of the blunders,” he wrote, “and 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.” [3]

The nonfiction sequel to The Ugly American is called A Nation of Sheep. JFK probably, known for speed reading, consumed this book in an afternoon. It is a scathing critique, where the good Captain hammers his points home over and over again with the available facts.

“The destruction of [this] mighty nation may well be approaching because of the activities of one person. He has encouraged leaders to tranquilize the populace with half-truths. He has lured the press into inattention and has assisted the people in duping themselves. He has persuaded his fellow citizens to concentrate on life’s comic strips and mindless entertainments and to avoid the bruises of reality.” [4]

Towards a Household Curriculum

Who is this person? You. And, me. Us. The ordinary person, the 8000 who wrote Lederer, our minds are the locks Lederer’s keys are whittled to open.

It doesn’t get anymore conservative than the two words: personal responsibility. Supposedly, the Republican party, champions this concept. It is because of conservatives that JFK and MLK read Lederer. They wanted an insight into his thinking process.

Having given up on journalists to do their job well, Lederer provides a curriculum for the household his name resonated inside.

“[Women] as individuals may be the most quiet influential people in the United States . . . Any interest which housewives take in public affairs is reflected and multiplied by their children, their husbands and their friends.” [5]

To illustrate his point, Lederer told the story of how a Mother inspired an entire classroom of thirty children to educate themselves. She asked herself how to pique the interest of his twelve year old daughter in world affairs. The answer was to use the mail system to adopt a Korean orphan. The cost of said adoption was $15 a month. ($124 in 2018 dollars.) Neither the Mother nor the daughter had $15 per month, so the idea was shared with the daughter’s classroom. The result was electric. The students all decided to invest into the idea, or, devote 50 cents per month towards the $15.

No one, in 1961 or in 2018, makes an monetary investment without also making an intellectual investment. The children had a 50 cent-level interest in all things Korean. In very little time, they became experts, scouring the newspapers for any well-crafted news stories.

And, that is how Lederer suggested Fathers be included, through a game centered around those news stories. Turn dinner time into a quiz show. Ask each family member their thoughts on the news. What happened today in Germany? Did the President use spin to answer a tough question? Does the new local initiative actually enhance the neighborhood’s quality of life?

Soon, the men where the Father works are playing the game, also. They will have too. Otherwise, they look bad before their co-worker, who is studying to stay ahead of his children.

The effect is to produce a precious few armed with what so many are not: facts. “In a democracy where so many are inarticulate, the voices that do speak carry enormous weight.” [6]

That is an amazing beacon of hope for those of us living in the Information Age, where Google provides us with encyclopedia-quality research in a few seconds. We can use this tool to help us communicate in a way which enhances foreign policy, instead of deter it. This is extremely helpful since we live in a world where Israel isn’t living up to our Biblical idea of Israel or China saber-rattles through North Korea’s dictator or our own President espouses imperial policies the public thought died out under the Founding Fathers.

It appears, education is key.

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

All citations from the book, A Nation of Sheep by William J. Lederer, 1961, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., New York. Printed in the United States of America

  1. Page 12
  2. Page 7
  3. Page 7
  4. Page 12
  5. Page 170
  6. Page 176

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