Peace Corps’ early days: The day the FBI came knocking

I have a minor disagreement with one comment in this entertaining recollection by John Long. He writes that Kennedy’s idea for a Peace Corps came in a “bull session” at the University of Michigan. It was far from that. I was on campus that long ago night in 1960 covering the event for a Kalamazoo radio station, my parttime job during my graduate school years when thousands of Michigan students cheered Kennedy call to do something for their country. It wasn’t a “bull session.” It was a significant moment in the JFK’s presidency and in the lives all of us who responded to Kennedy’s challenge to make a difference in the world. JC Note.

Peace Corps’ early days: The day the FBI came knocking
by John C. Long
Courier Journal
Published Sept. 14, 2017

John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps shortly after his inauguration to fulfill a promise he’d made to University of Michigan students at a bull session after a presidential campaign speech. Kennedy ensured that any failure would be kept in the family by appointing his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to run the new organization. The irrepressible Shriver made sure Kennedy need not have worried.

Shriver led a small group that began meeting at the Mayflower Hotel to lay plans. Americans began applying. The first volunteers were selected and began training. Meanwhile, inspired by the young president, I was dropping out of college and heading to Washington to seek to join the New Frontier.

I heard the Peace Corps was hiring, and after passing the Civil Service typing test on the third try, I joined the staff. On Sept. 25, 1961 – three days after Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act, making it a permanent government agency – I reported for work as a file clerk. The first volunteers hadn’t yet been deployed. The file room was in the Selection Division, which screened the applicants and assigned them to projects. We clerks filled applicant files with incoming references. When the required number had been received, an application was ready for evaluation.

Our selection officers, mostly psychologists and psychoanalysts, relentlessly bugged us clerks for hatching files. (One such visitor to our service window was a junior psychologist with a winning smile from Owensboro, Kentucky, named Marilyn Medley. Three years after her first appearance we were married, and 3½ years after that, we ended up in her native state, when I joined the Courier-Journal staff.)

Shortly after my arrival, the first volunteers entered service. A Nigeria volunteer quickly caused the first Peace Corps scandal, when she wrote derogatory comments about Nigeria on a postcard, for anyone to see. Nigerians speak English. She was swiftly recalled.

We worked many extra hours in the early days, often long into the night, for which I recall we weren’t paid. We worked that hard because Americans were applying in droves and Congress initially limited our staff to 500 employees. Treading warily, Congress also initially required all staff members to undergo full-field FBI investigations rather than routine Civil Service Commission background checks. That produced an incident in Fredericktown, Ohio, when the FBI sought to confirm that I grew up there. Two agents knocked at the home of my parents’ next-door neighbor, Helen Davis. The agents flipped open their badge holders.

“FBI. Do you know John Long?”

“Never heard of him!”

The agents left. Davis phoned my mother: “Dorothy, the FBI is after John, but I took care of it.” I was eventually cleared anyway.

I was soon designated to sign Shriver’s name to successful applicants’ invitations to serve. This was done by hand, rather than by a machine; the Peace Corps sought authenticity. Our short-handedness was such that when a new staffer, Jerry Flynn, received his security clearance on a Friday evening, several of us drove to suburban Maryland, dragged him from his TV and whisked him to our office to start work. Flynn took over the signing until we received a dreaded “declination,” a rejection of an invitation to serve, that said, “I refuse to go into the Peace Corps in response to an invitation from someone named Jerry Shriver.” We got the signing machine.

After President Kennedy was assassinated, thousands of people applied to the Peace Corps in his honor. Our bigwigs worried that Selection couldn’t keep up and would lose potential volunteers to graduate school or jobs. My assignment then was in the operation that triaged cleared applicants toward the most appropriate projects. The operation had become a bottleneck. My immediate boss, a Ph.D. psychologist, folded under the pressure and fled. I, the college dropout, inherited the bottleneck.

This is where I managed to make my biggest contribution. The application had more than 200 items, three or four of which were of top importance, but which could be outweighed by many unimportant ones. Fortran programs and the State Department basement full of IBM mainframes weren’t coping. I created a form on an 8½-by-11-inch sheet of paper with the important items arranged in a grid to be check-marked by hand: Which of our 18 basic skills does the volunteer offer? In which of our four regions does the volunteer wish to serve? What foreign language does he or she speak? We slapped that form on the front of each file, cleared the backlog and got everyone invited to a project within a few days. Shriver sent us a case of Champagne. Bill Moyers, who had been Peace Corps deputy director and had become a special assistant to President Johnson, invited our group to the White House. In the Oval Office, Moyers sat in the president’s chair and impressively shuffled through the stuff on LBJ’s desk.

In January 1966, I left the Peace Corps for journalism. I covered the organization’s 25th-anniversary celebration for the Courier-Journal. I got Shriver to sign his new book. I showed him how I could have signed it myself.

In September 2011, my wife, Paulette, and I attended the Peace Corps 50th anniversary celebration, which ended with a march of former volunteers and staff, under the flags of our countries of service, from Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial.

Because I had served in Washington, we looked for the American flag, which we were told would be up front, but which was propped against some shrubbery, as the scheduled flag bearer hadn’t appeared. I volunteered to carry it until the intended person surfaced, especially because it was Sept. 25 – 50 years to the day since I walked into that file room. I helped lead the entire march, alongside the Peace Corps director and Harris Wofford, one of that handful of people who had sketched out its future in those meetings at the Mayflower Hotel. Sarge didn’t live to see that day.

John C. Long was a member of the founding staff of the Peace Corps, from September 1961 to January 1966. From 1968 to 1998, he was a writer, editor, manager, and ombudsman at the Courier-Journal. Later he was an editor for 10 years at The Wall Street Journal. He teaches journalism at St. John’s and Hofstra universities in and near New York City.

 

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  • Another correction with this recollection: Long writes: ” I joined the staff. On Sept. 25, 1961 – three days after Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act, making it a permanent government agency – I reported for work as a file clerk. The first volunteers hadn’t yet been deployed.” Yes, they had.

    Ghana I arrived in Ghana on August 30, 1961. Colombia I arrived in-country on September 11, I believe. I do not have the date for Tanzania I, but I think it was “on the heels” of these groups. The dates of Ghana I’s arrival in-country and that of Colombia ‘s I arrival for training before Ghana I’s arrival in training has been the basis for the longest on-going feud as to who were the “first Volunteers”. Sadly, Bob Klein, Ghana I, died while the debate rages on and was not resolved.

    I think our Peace Corps history should be protected. But, there is no law that says written “history” has to be accurate.

  • John Arango and Joel Riley, very early PCVs in Colombia, might have the answer to this controversial question concerning which group was the first. Subsequently, both were administrators for the PC in Ecuador. John Arango was PC Ecuador country director from 1969 to 1975. Joel Riley was Cuenca, Ecuador regional director from 1968 or earlier to 1972. Elizabeth “Betsy ” Davis, who was the first woman PC Ecuador country director and was earlier a PCV in Brazil and then Ecuador, and personally knew John, might also know which was first.

    • Beverly,

      Thank you for the updates about John Arango and Joel Riley and Elizabeth “Betsy” Davis. It is always good to know about RPCVs who went on to be PC staff.

  • Beverl,

    It is not a question of fact. It is a question of who gets to call themselves the First Peace Corps Volunteers. Colombia I claims that distinction because it entered training, first, on June 26, 1963, earlier than Ghana I. Ghana I, however, was the first Group of Volunteers to actually arrive in a Host Country on August 30, 1963, days before Colombia I arrived in Colombia.

    It is an argument without resolution because one group would have to concede that the other was first and that is never going to happen! It was quite bitter at times, but now Bob Klein of Ghana I, who titled his memoir of Ghana I, “Being First” has died and is no longer here to carry on.

    Both groups, however, had deployed and arrived in-country before September 25, when John Long was hired by Peace Corps and that was my point. He was not hired before any Volunteers had deployed.

  • It was Ronald A Schwarz of Colombia I who argued that Colombia I should be considered the “First” Peace Corps Volunteers.
    I have not heard from him in years. I know that he was working on a book about Colombia I, but I don’t know the status of his effort.

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4001585.html Article about “Being First” by Robert Klein.

    http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/467/4004130.html Rebuttal by Ron Swartz.

    Both groups were Pioneers and we are fortunate to be their successors.

  • PEACE CORPS AND ITS BEGINNING EXPERIENCED REMEMBERED BY Edward Mycue (PEACE CORPS, GHANA ONE , AUGUST 1961)
    I. Before Peace Corps began, as a WGBH-TV (then located on the MIT campus) & as a Lowell Fellow (Lowell Institute for Cooperative Broadcasting) intern in 1960-61, I met (as switcher/technical assistant director) candidate John Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Stassen, Adlai Stevenson and others who discussed ideas related to what would be known as the “Peace “ on Nieman Foundation curator Louis Lyons’ 14 minute 25 second news and interview programs on WGBH-TV the then New England Television, NET, on MIT’s campus across the Charles River in Cambridge, that preceded PBS) and also worked on putting together at WGBH-TV the broadcast about the Peace Corps that aired on the networks in the Spring 1961 including our station’s footage from Washington, D.C.

    II. When the test was first given at Harvard yard, I took it. I got and accepted the call to go to U.C.-Berkeley for training for the Ghana 1 contingent (the first of several that went out then); in due course, after meeting the President in the Rose Garden and in his White House Oval Office, we left for Accra from Washington, D.C. in late August 1961 in a two engine prop Convair across the Atlantic stopping for refueling in the Azores, and again in Dakar, Senegal rearing up above ocean and rain forests before coming down over the beaches of Ghana.

    III. I’d come up to Boston, a graduate student from North Texas State College in Denton north or Dallas Texas to Boston University’s Graduate School of Public Relations and Communications that included a 3-day-a-week Lowell Fellow internship at NET, the New England Television’s WGBH-TV in Boston (before the days of PBS, the Public Broadcasting System) in June 1960 and among my other jobs was as the camera switcher and assistant director on the Louis Lyons twice weekly interview and news programs. During the Democratic and Republican parties’ Presidential primary season and came across talk of what came to known as the “peace corps” idea.
    theLouis Lyons program, in response to Mr. Lyons’ question got the reply from JFK that he thought it a among those good plans that he endorsed, adding with that J F Kennedy smiling-almost winking-nearly chuckling-with the now famed comment that “When I am President….” he’d establish it.

    IV. And he did.

    ©Edward Mycue 27 February 2016 San Francisco, California mycueed@yahoo.com tel. (415) 387-2471
    3595 Geary Blvd, Apt 320, San Francisco, CA 94118

  • I have two stories about the mandatory FBI background check. In 1962, I dropped out of college for 6 months to travel in western Europe. Because my father was born in Moscow, I decided to detour to the Soviet Union. Just before heading to Russia, I met a British couple whose politics were so far left it scared me. They warned me against visiting the Soviet Union, convinced that such trip would doom any career I planned or even end any chances I had of getting a job in post-McCarthy-era America. I thought such fears were nonsense, and I went anyway. But I became alarmed when, a year later, my appointment to join the Peace Corps staff in Washington got held up because of troubles with my clearance. I was told that my visit to Moscow was holding up the FBI clearance. It eventually came through, but the warnings of those Brits haunted me.

    The second story has to do with the FBI background check itself. I remember my mother telling me that one day in 1963, a lonely FBI agent showed up at the house, wanting to confirm that I grew up where I said I had in southern California. As my mother told it, this sweet young agent knocked on the door — a Jewish boy from the Bronx — asking questions about me. She was sure he was undernourished and lonely on the West Coast, so she fed him and spent the afternoon reminiscing about ghetto life in New York. Even though it was delayed, I eventually got my clearance.

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