When is a country too dangerous for Peace Corps Volunteers to remain? And who decides? Host Country officials? Peace Corps staff?  Peace Corps Volunteers? Or, the State Department?  These questions are foundational issues for Peace Corps.  The collection, “El Salvador: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977 -1984″ (National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington D. C)- includes 20 public documents in which we can see how Peace Corps answered these questions during a turbulent time in El Salvador, some 32 years ago.  The website for the National Security Archive is: www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/ Please note: “These materials are reproduced from www.nsarchive.org with the permission of the National Security Archive.”

The documents consist of correspondence between Peace Corps in country staff and Peace Corps Washington; between Peace Corps staff and the State Department; and, between Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to El Salvador and Peace Corps Washington. Today, Peace Corps has withdrawn programs from Honduras  and is monitoring operations in Guatemala and El Salvador. Reviewing these declassified documents from many years ago gives a chronology on how Peace Corps once went about making these critical decisions.

In 1979, Democratic President Carter was in the difficult third year of his administration. During this critical period in El Salvador, other crises added to international instability. On November 4, 1979, Islamist militants invaded the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The Russian army entered Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979.

And in Central American, the revolutions had begun. The revolutions were to dominate in that decade and beyond. Peace Corps Volunteers had already been withdrawn from Nicaragua. Further south in Colombia, Volunteers continued to serve even as one of their own, Richard Starr, was in his third year of captivity, held by the Marxist insurgency FARC

Peace Corps was in a vulnerable administrative transition moving from a mere subdivision of the Nixon created ACTION agency to a more independent status. Richard Celeste was the newly appointed Peace Corps Director. He had negotiated, with the help of Peace Corps legal pioneer William Josephson, a contract granting Peace Corps this independence. Events were to test Celeste’s resolve.

The following excerpt gives a description of the situation in El Salvador during this time:

Summary of Events Leading to the Withdrawal of Peace Corps Volunteers (from El Salvador), Miscellaneous Document Type, December 20, 1979, 1 pp. Collection: El Salvador, 1977-1984, Item Number: ES00332

The Romero regime was overthrown by Colonels Jaime Gutierrez and Adolfo Majano in a coup d’état, October 15, 1979. This was the outgrowth of escalating unrest and violence: seizure of the embassies of Costa Rica, France and Venezuela; kidnapping; strikes; and terrorists attacks by left- and right-wing groups, resulting in more than 100 deaths in 1979.

The first civilian/military junta, Oct. - Dec., 1979, tried to reforms, but terrorist activities by both left- and right-wing groups continued, which resulted in serious PCV security problems.

The following State Department cables reflect the rapidly changing situation from mid-September into October and the coup.  Leticia Diaz was the Peace Corps Director in El Salvador. Frank Devine was the Ambassador and Cyrus Vance the Secretary of State. Richard Celeste was the newly appointed Director of Peace Corps and William Sykes was the Deputy Director.  Paul Bell was the LAC Regional Director.

Welfare of Peace Corps Volunteers, Unclassified, Cable San Salvador, 05292, September 17, 1979, 1pp. Collection:  El Salvador, 1977 - 1984: Item Number: ES00212

TO MCOLLINS OSS

FROM LETICIA DIAZ, PCD/ES

E.O. 12065

RECENT EVENTS IN SALVADOR REPORTED BY US MEDIA MAY CAUSE CONCERN RE WELFARE PCVS. ALL PCVS ACCOUNTED FOR AND OK.

DEVINE

On October 11, there was an incident that prompted this cable:

Letter of Commendation for Peace Corps in El Salvador, Unclassified, Cable State 267728, October 12, 1979, 1 pp. Collection: El Salvador, 1977 - 1984 Item number: ES00228

FM SECSTATE WASHDC

TO AMEMBASSY SAN SALVADOR IMMEDIATE

TO:  STAFF AND PCV’S

FROM: PCD DIAZ

ALL PCV’S, PCT’S  AND STAFF ARE TO BE CONGRATULATED FOR THE MAGNIFICIENT WAY THEY RESPONDED TO THE OCTOBER 11 INCIDENT.

ALL LAC PCD’S AND DIRECTOR CELESTE JOIN PAUL AND ME IN SENDING OUR FULL SUPPORT TO ALL OF YOU. I AM PROUD OF THE WAY IN WHICH YOU HAVE RESPONDED.  YOUR INPUT SHOULD BE SHARED WITH BILL.  I KNOW HOW ANXIETY PRODUCING THIS ALL IS. MY PRAYERS ARE WITH YOU.  I KNOW THAT I WOULD NOT HAVE HANDLED THE SITUATION AY BETTER HAD I BEEN THERE.  TOGETHER PCV’S AND STAFF PROVED THAT PC/ES CAN REACT UNDER PRESSURE. YOU DID IT TOGETHER. MAY THERE BE PEACE.  VANCE

There was further evidence of support for Peace Corps El Salvador from a cable signed by 56 Country Directors.  Letter of Support for Peace Corps in El Salvador from Peace Corps Directors from 56 Countries, Unclassified, Cable State 268714 October 13, 1979, 1 pp.  Collection: El Salvador, 1977 - 1984: Item Number: ES00231.  Unfortunately the reproduction that I have is not sufficiently clear for me to quote.  The title of the cable is self-explanatory.

The coup d’ etat occurred on October 15th.  In Part Two, we will see contingency planning suggestions from PC/DC staffer Bill Reese to LAC Regional Director Paul Bell.

Please note:  The Digital Archive of the National Security Archive at George Washington University is a subscription service offered to libraries. To view this collection, it is necessary to visit a library that does subscribe to the service.  In the Denver Metro area, both the University of Denver and the University of Colorado/Boulder do.