answering-kennedy001-1601Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines
Edited by Parker W. Borg, Maureen J. Carroll, Patricia MacDermot Kasdan, Stephen W. Wells (all Philippines (1961-63)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
$25.00
498 pages
March 2011

Reviewed by P. David Searles (CD Philippines 1971-74; Regional Director NANEAP and Deputy Director Peace Corps HQ 1974-76)

IF ANY ADDITIONAL PROOF IS NEEDED, the early groups of Peace Corps Volunteers in the Philippines achieved a remarkable level of unit cohesion, as this massive collection of essays shows.  In all, 110 of those involved in the first three groups — 96 of whom are returned Volunteers — have joined  together to produce a remarkable and historically valuable set of reminiscences focusing on their experiences in the Philippines during 1961–63.

The overriding impression one gets from reading them all is that the experience was life altering, life altering in a very positive and long lasting manner. The writers remember with great fondness the Filipinos they lived and worked with, they cherish the way the experience opened their minds to other cultures and modes of life, and they credit it with having a determining effect on how they spent the next 5 decades of their lives.  The only regret they have is the feeling (perhaps unjustly, in my mind) that they did too little for the Philippines in exchange for these great blessings.

Answering Kennedy’s Call is going to change the way future historians write about the early days of the Peace Corps. For a half century those days have been portrayed in a manner that lionizes the founding fathers and spends little time examining their work.  The essays, even those of the staff members, are almost unanimous in damning the “non-job” of  “teacher aide” to which almost all were assigned, the irrelevant training programs they endured, the destructiveness of the psychological testing process, and the lack of support provided once at their sites. Surely, future “creation” stories will have to take into account the fact that early programs, at least the ones in the Philippines, were badly flawed. The Volunteers’ amazing insistence that their efforts make a difference and that their ability to “roll with the punches” (to use one of their favorite expressions) must be acknowledged as the key reason it all worked out well, and they must share the credit now reserved for the folks back in Washington.

There are wonderful nuggets of information sprinkled throughout the essays. Jerry Poznak explained how the idyllic Peace Corps training site in Ayala came to be — an account that seems to confirm the rumor I heard that the first Country Director, Larry Fuchs, paid for it out of the Petty Cash account.  Alexandra York told of her frustration when she learned that women trainees “were locked in early” every night in the women’s dormitory during training while the men “cavorted” in nearby Manila. Leonard Mirin described how he used the ubiquitous packets of USAID dried milk to mark out the lines on a baseball field.  (Others reported that students inevitably came down with diarrhea shortly after drinking it.)

Steve Wells, a fellow who spent nearly a decade in the service of PC/P during the 1960s, describes a physical ordeal trainees had to endure in which the trainer expected that some trainees would actually have near-death experiences.  (What in the world was he thinking, and where was the adult supervision?) Three PC/P Volunteers, all men, claimed to have actually eaten a balute. (If you don’t know what a balute is, you sure don’t need to know!) Peace Corps provided early Volunteers with the necessities for setting up their group homes — usually 3 or 4 Volunteers of the same gender were placed together in one abode — that including a set of Noritake China!  Happily, by the 1970s Volunteers were given a cash allowance to get settled. No more Noritake China.

During my three years in PC/P (1971–74) I always had the feeling that I owed some thanks to those who had been there during the program’s formative years. After reading Answering Kennedy’s Call, I can now say with certainty that I owe them an immense debt of gratitude. By the time I got there, all the hard work had been done: job definition had become paramount and in line with Filipino priorities; training was job-specific and in-country; a fully staffed network of regional offices was in place to provide Volunteer support; the notion that staff was to act in loco parentis was fast disappearing; the psychologists were gone; and the voice of the Volunteer was accepted as every bit as valid as that of anyone else. The one inescapable conclusion from reading these 96 Volunteer essays is that PC/P in its early days was very much a work in progress; the remarkable thing is that those early PCVs had the determination, fortitude, and flexibility to make the program work, while correcting its obvious flaws.

The editors provide an excellent summary of the thinking behind the Peace Corps effort in the Philippines in a short Introduction.  It was there that I learned why many folks during my time were so disparaging of the “numbers game.”  In its initial planning stages the Peace Corps founding fathers saw the real possibility of a 5,000-strong Peace Corps program in the Philippines within a relatively short period of time. As a result, Volunteers were poured into the country with unseemly haste, leading to a situation where PC/P had 25% of all  Volunteers in the world in 1963!  I will admit that I took pride in increasing the PC/P program to one of the largest during the 1970s, but we were thinking in terms of 500 volunteers, not 5,000.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book deals with the post-Peace Corps lives led by these now septuagenarians.  Each essay ends with a brief summary of what happened in the half century that followed his/her Peace Corps service.  What stands out is that so many of them devoted their lives to public service, and in doing so rose to significant levels of prominence and accomplishment in their chosen fields. A somewhat more sobering aspect is the comparison of the photos in each essay: one from the PC/P days and the other from the past year or so.  One must ask “Were we ever that young?  and how did we get so old?”

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P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback (1974–76). His career has included work in international business, government service and education. In 1993 David earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and wrote two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997) both published by The University Press of Kentucky.