The recent reports how the FBI had subpoenaed information on the social media website Twitter about Julian Assange and several other prominent people connected to WikiLeaks, includind an Icelandic lawmaker brought to mind when the FBI was investigating RPCVs. This was all during the Vietnam era.
The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV)–the first national organization of RPCVs organized in 1965 actively opposed the Vietnam war. Their copious writings–newsletters, information kits, analytical papers–portrayed the goals of U.S. foreign policy as exploitative. The true function of the Peace Corps, they believed, was to mask this imperialism by putting a warm and friendly face on America’s presence overseas.
CRV members were among the marches showered with tear gas at the 1968 Democratic convention, and in 1970 they occupied the Peace Corps building in Washington for 36 hours to protests the student killings by National Guardsmen at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, as well as the invasion of Cambodia.
All of this is detailed by Karen Schwartz who found out this information by filing a Freedom of Information Act request back in 1988 when she was research her book on the agency, What You Can Do For Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps published by Morrow. The document, which filled a small carton the size of a phone book, did not arrive until July, 1991, after her book was published. Karen then wrote an article for our RPCV Writers & Readers that we published in July 1992.
The FBI placed the CRV and other antiwar groups under the category of “New Left–Foreign Influence.” In numerous documents the FBI described the CRV’s objectives as “establishing contacts with revolutionary groups, aiding guerrillas, destroying existing governments and transmitting information to Soviet bloc countries.”
CRV leaders did meet with representatives of North Vietnam while they were in Cuba, and one actually visited Hanoi, but the idea of the CRV destroying governments and transmitting information is absurd, writes Schwarz. “This was an organization run on $5 dues from a membership of graduate students, social workers, and school teachers.”
But by defying a State Department ban and spending four weeks in Cuba, as guests of the Cuban Government, no less, the CRV distinguished itself as no run-of-the-mill antiwar group. Keep in mind, writes Schwarz, “that this was just seven years after the Cuban missile crisis and U.S.-Cuba relationships were strained.”
In true cold war style, an FBI special agent reported to 22 field offices that CRV members would be gathering in Austin, Texas before going to Cuba for a two-week “indoctrination” course. (The CRV called it an “orientation.”)
Cases were opened on all 39 travelers and, as one document shows, the FBI observed their day-to-day movements in the weeks before their departure. One such report describes members getting into a friend’s car. The license and registration were traced and included in the report along with a few details about the owner of the car.
What was particularly disturbing about the documents Karen Schwarz received is that they indicated a heavy reliance on informants–more than a few members of CRV were actually cooperating with the FBI. One list of informants is four pages long, and every name is blacked out.
On a lighter note, FBI agents assigned to monitor the CRV were often lazy. If they had no new information to write up, they would simply summarize the contents of a recent CRV newsletter. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to paraphrase–they just re-typed the newsletter or submitted the newsletter itself stapled to a cover sheet. One buried note was that Paul Tsongas (Ethiopia 1962-64), later a senator and presidential candidate, listed as having taken over the job as treasurer of CRV’s Boston chapter.
To Karen Schwartz’s disappointment, she found no bombshells in the documents. She paid $200 in fees for the material, with much of it blacked out. 63 pages of the F.O.I.A. documents were deemed too “top secret” to be sent to her. “In the interest of national defense or foreign policy” because their disclosures would constitute “unwarranted invasion of privacy” and reveal the “identity of a confidential source.”
Schwartz sums up, “As I read the FBI dossiers on CRV leaders I was reminded of how quickly things changed in the 1960s. When these individuals had proudly answered John Kennedy’s call, the FBI had done the routine checks on them before they went overseas. Then, when they came home questioning the decisions of America’s leaders and scrutinizing the values of democracy, the FBI took a much closer look–and these RPCVs found a totally different place in the history of the sixties.”