Peace Corps  at 50

By Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Although the Peace Corps has been one of the notable successes of U.S. foreign policy since its inception in 1961, a question left hanging at the end of a recent 50th anniversary get-together of 5,000-plus former staff and volunteers was whether the low-level aid and mutual understanding organization could even get off the ground today.  The agency Richard Nixon and others ridiculed at the time as “Kennedy’s Kiddie Corps” barely made it through Congress.  H.R. Gross, the Iowa Republican isolationist and deficit hawk, dismissed it as “a haven for draft dodgers.” He wouldn’t even talk to the corps’ first director, John F. Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver.  Democrat Otto Passman of Louisiana asked Bill Moyers, whose job it was to sell the idea to Congress, “Now, this organization isn’t going to be racially integrated, is it?”

It was Moyers, the author and television journalist, who at the September Washington event seemed most dubious that today’s Congress would establish a government program that supported “the unrealized potential of ordinary people to go out and do good.”  He told a breakfast gathering of Peace Corps old-timers at the Mayflower Hotel that they were living in a time when nearly half the country had “seceded” from the social contract laid out so beautifully in our founding documents, and a reactionary Congress reflected that turning away from our most generous and far-sighted values.  It’s a testament to the soundness of the idea of the Peace Corps that it survives at all, with 8,655 volunteers working in 76 countries, down from a peak of 15,000 in the mid 1960s.  The annual budget of the Peace Corps is what the U.S. spends in Iraq in five hours. 

Barack Obama promised before he was elected to double the size of the Peace Corps, and the stories Moyers told show how important White House leadership was and is.  Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who had brought Moyers from Texas with him, urged Moyers not to try to sell the idea of the Peace Corps to Congress; he said they’d never get it.  LBJ had gotten to know Shriver, and the old Texas hill country progressive had hit it off with the old Maryland Catholic progressive.  Johnson advised Moyers to promote the man, not the concept.  He said “all the outer-office secretaries will swoon” over Shriver, and all the congressmen who want a favor from the Oval Office will line up to vote yes.  The strategy worked, although when Representative Passman complained that the organization would likely “promote miscegenation,” Shriver, the well-prepared charmer, reminded the old racist of the high rate of interracial marriage in his own Louisiana district.  Passman still voted no.        

A man who might feel right at home with much of today’s U.S. Congress was the Peruvian landowner that Peace Corps Latin America chief Frank Mankiewicz sat next to at a formal dinner in Lima.  At the Mayflower breakfast, Mankiewicz, later Bobby Kennedy’s press secretary, described how the big man declared that Peru was desperately in need of more and better large universities.  Perhaps hinting that the rich man might found one himself, Mankiewicz replied that many of the best American universities were private.  “How much would it cost to start one up?” the Peruvian wondered.  Taking a stab, Mankiewicz said $50 million.  “And what,” the landowner asked, “is the return on such an investment in the U.S.?”

As with universities, the return on investment in the Peace Corps has not been in cash.  It’s been in the education of millions of youngsters around the world, in more opportunities, in better health.  Just as importantly, it’s been the understanding of the larger world that over 200,000 volunteers have brought back to the U.S. 

In the current bitter right-left budgeting imbroglio, the Peace Corps 2012 budget has been cut to the point where the corps not only won’t grow, it’s likely to shrink to around 8,000 volunteers.  Sadly, administration efforts to save the Peace Corps have been wan and ineffectual.  Some Senate supporters will soon try to restore funding for a modest increase for the agency.  Will the reactionary, inward-looking spirits of H.R. Gross and Otto Passman prevail?  That will be up to the Senate.  John Kerry?  Scott Brown?  An American institution needs your help.

Novelist Richard Lipez writes mysteries under the pseudonym Richard Stevenson. He was an early Peace Corps Evaluator. Currently, Dick and his partner are traveling in the Middle East.