The story of the Peace Corps stamp (see the blog entry on March 10, 2011) sent me off into the attic to find my own ‘First Day Issue’ copy of the stamp.  As I recall it was given to me by Don Hess, the Peace Corps Director in the summer of 1972 while I was in Washington during a pre-staging trip.  Holding it in my hand brought back many fond memories of a time when first class postage was 8 cents!  It also brought to mind a problem I have of long standing. 

I don’t think there is any doubt that Peace Corps was not on Nixon’s favorites list, but I have always been puzzled by the frequent comments from folks who weren’t there that he tried to kill the agency, and that it had fallen on hard times during his tenure.  On the ‘hard times’ bit I would refer you to a comment made by David Riesman, an academic with a long-standing advisory relationship with Peace Corps during the 1960s, who said in 1972 “The decline and fall of the Peace Corps is in the eye of the beholder . . . .  The Peace Corps has really not changed that much and it certainly has not changed for the worst. . . .  It’s less erratic too, and many of the problems that were concealed under the life of spontaneity, glamour, and enthusiasm of the Shriver days, have been wrestled with more seriously since.” 

 At about the same time (late 1972) a bi-partisan delegation from the House of Representatives visited several East Asian Peace Corps programs and concluded in its report, issued in 1973, that Blatchford’s New Directions were making a significant and positive contribution to the work of the Peace Corps in the countries that were examined.

 The real danger for the Peace Corps during the early 1970s came from several Democratic congressmen and Senators.  Chief among them was Congressman Otto Passman who tried mightily to cut drastically the Peace Corps budget mid-way through a fiscal year, which, if successful, would have led to the end of many country programs.  Ironically, it was Nixon who signed off on a compromise with Passman to reallocate other foreign aid money to the Peace Corps, thereby permitting the agency to abandon its already formulated plan to close countries and bring volunteers home.  It was during this time, and before the compromise, that a famous Bill Mauldin political cartoon was published showing a near dead dove in a hospital bed (labeled Peace Corps) with a bloated eagle (labeled military budget) hovering over him and lamenting “poor little guy . . . . How could anyone starve in this land of plenty?”

 Another thorn in the side was Democratic Senator William Fulbright, then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who scheduled hearings to consider the abolishment of the Peace Corps because “it was an idea whose time is past.” In this instance it was Republican senators Charles Percy and, of all people, Barry Goldwater who championed the Peace Corps and saw to it that Peace Corps budgets increased in the years immediately ahead.

(I’m not here to praise republicans or to damn democratics; I’m just presenting facts that are often overlooked when it comes to assessing the Peace Corps in the seventies.)

 It has always troubled me that the ‘keepers of the flame’ insist upon maintaining the fallacy that Peace Corps was ‘damaged goods’ during the Nixon/Ford years, and that in doing so they (probably inadvertently) disparage the service of volunteers from that period.  The thousands of volunteers who served during those years have every right to be as proud of their service as do those from every other era.  I also maintain that the Peace Corps staff members from those years were every bit as much filled with the ideal of ‘making the world a better place’ as were their predecessors and successors.  As I stated in the introduction to The Peace Corps Experience “The strategic decisions made [during the late-60s/early-70s] shaped the Peace Corps that followed.  Yet [these changes] were so badly misinterpreted that what was actually key to the agency’s survival was labeled a threat to its well-being.”  The story of this non-existent threat goes on unabated much to the detriment of Peace Corps history.

 I fear that I will lose the struggle to rehabilitate the image folks have of the Nixon/Ford years in the Peace Corps, but on behalf of all of us who were there, it is worth the effort.