The FBI Goes After RPCVs

[In the late ’80s, I got a call from the writer Karen Schwarz. She had just signed a contract with William Morrow to write a book about the Peace Corps and her editor told her, “Start with John Coyne.”

Her editor was an old friend of mine and he had already heard ‘one too many of my stories about the Peace Corps so he was happy to send Karen my way. Karen had never been in the Peace Corps. She interviewed me several times and I gave her a few names and contacts of people she should call, and off she went to write WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE PEACE CORPS published by Morrow in 1991. It is the first and only oral history of the agency.

After her book’s publication, Karen told me she had come on some interesting information about RPCV and the FBI in her research and she was kind enough to write a short piece for Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) and my newsletter, (now renamed RPCV Writers & Readers) at the clever suggestion of Marian’s husband Don Beil (Somalia 1963-65). Don thought the new name would make the newsletter more inclusive, and he was right.

Karen’s piece appeared in our July 1992 issue.]

RPCVs and the FBI

By Karen Schwarz

Can you imagine FBI agents keeping tabs on board members of the National Council of RPCVs? Is it conceivable that a member of your local RPCV group would pass the group directory to the FBI field office in your area?

It may sound farfetched and not a little paranoid, but that’s exactly what happened in 1969, the year a group of RPCVs defied a State Department ban and traveled to Cuba. I learned about this while researching my book, WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE PEACE CORPS.

The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), the first national organization of RPCVs, actively opposed the Vietnam War. Their copious writings – newsletters, information kits, analytical papers-portrayed the goals of U.S. foreign policy as exploitative. The true function of the Peace Corps, they believed, was to mask this imperialism by putting a warm and friendly face on America’s presence overseas.

CRV members were among the marchers showered with tear gas at the 1968 Democratic convention, and in 1970, they occupied the Peace Corps building in 6a00d8341c00e653ef00e54f9fa21d8833-800wiWashington for 36 hours to protest the student killing by National Guardsmen at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, as well as the invasion of Cambodia.

I learned about the FBI’s surveillance of the CRV by filing Freedom of Information Act requests back in 1988. The documents, which filled a small carton the size of a phone book, did not arrive until July, 1991, when my book had already been published.

The FBI placed the CRV and other antiwar groups under the category of “New Left-Foreign Influence.” In numerous documents the FBI described the CRV’s objectives as “establishing contacts with revolutionary groups, aiding guerillas, destroying existing governments and transmitting information to Soviet bloc countries.”

CRV leaders did meet with representatives of North Vietnam while they were in Cuba, and one actually visited Hanoi, but the idea of the CRV destroying governments and transmitting information is absurd. This was an organization run on $5 dues from a membership of graduate students, social workers, and school teachers.

new-small-peace-corpsBut by defying a State Department ban and spending four weeks in Cuba, as guests of the Cuban Government, no less, the CRV distinguished itself as no run-of-the-mill antiwar group. Keep in mind that this was just seven years after the Cuban missile crisis and the U.S.-Cuba relationships were strained.

In true cold war style, an FBI special agent reported to 22 field offices that CRV members would be gathering in Austin, Texas before going to Cuba for a two-week “indoctrination” course. (The CRV called it an “orientation.”)

Cases were opened on all 39 travelers and, as one document shows, the FBI observed their day-to-day movements in the weeks before their departure. One such report describes members getting into a friend’s car. The license and registration were trace and included in the report along with a few details about the owner of the car.

An FBI contact working for Braniff Airlines provided the FBI with the minutia of their reservations; every change prompted a new cable. How each of the passengers paid for their tickets were noted. FBI agents were stationed at the airport to photograph the group and photocopy their tourist cards.

What is particularly disturbing about the documents I received is that they indicate a heavy reliance on informants-more than a few members of CRV were actually cooperating with the FBI. One list of informants is four pages long, and every name is blacked out.

On a lighter note, FBI agents assigned to monitor the CRV were often lazy. If they had no new information to write up, they would simple summarize the contents of a recent CRV newsletter. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to paraphrase-they just re-typed the newsletter or submitted the newsletter itself stapled to a cover sheet. A fun fact buried in one of these newsletters is the mention of Paul Tsongas’ (Ethiopia 1962-64) taking over the job as treasurer of CRV’s Boston chapter.

Much to my disappointment, the documents contained no bombshells. I paid over $200 in fees for this matter, and would have appreciated it if the FBI’s black marker had skipped over something. The FBI saw fit to withhold 63 pages of F.O.I.A. documents that they deemed should be kept secret “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” because their disclosure would constitute “unwarranted invasion of privacy” and reveal the “identity of a confidential source.”

As I read the FBI dossiers on CRV leaders I was reminded of how quickly thing changed in the 1960s. When these individuals had proudly answered John Kennedy’s call, the FBI had done routine checks on them before they went overseas. Then, when they came home questioning the decisions of America’s leaders and scrutinizing the values of democracy, the FBI took a much closer look-and these RPCVs found a totally different place in the history of the Sixties.

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  • “The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), the first national organization of RPCVs, actively opposed the Vietnam War.”

    Not exactly. I disagree with the this characterization as being the “first national organization of RPCVs….”

    I objected strongly, in letter to the CRV, to the title “Returned Volunteer” because I felt that it was attempting to speak for all Peace Corps Volunteers. In the ensuing correspondence, I was assured, over and over, that the Committee was open to all “Volunteers” and did not speak only for Peace Corps Returned Volunteers. But, as Schwarz’s article illustrates, it didn’t make any difference. It was one of many examples, in my opinion, of the exploitation of the Peace Corps “Brand” for one group’s political agenda or commercial interests. I hated it then. I hate it now.

    I was newly returned from my host country when this committee formed. I had just escaped the public fear and uncertainty created by the then emerging Marxist insurgency in my host country that was one factor that was to destroy the little domestic stability that the people of that country had been trying so hard to achieve.

    In a widely used text in graduate schools of public administration and political history, there are glaring historical errors about Peace Corps. Charles Goodsell is the author of “Mission and Mystic.” He describes the “culture” of various “successful” government agencies of which Peace Corps is one. On page 233 of his book, he wrote that anti-Vietnam Peace Corps STAFF occupied the building, one weekend, during the Nixon administration to protest the Vietnam War. I wrote to Goodsell and identified his error. It was not “staff”, it was CRV. Goodsell was not initially impressed. I cited John Coyne’s postings on the topic.

    Ironically, the best documentation is from Schwarz:
    “What You Can Do For Your Country – An Oral History of the Peace Corps”
    Karen Schwarz is the author and the book was published by
    William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York 1991

    Chapter 8: The Committee of Returned Volunteers: “Confessions of an Imperialist
    Lackey” pp 133 -135 describes the occupation of Peace Corps Headquarters by the
    Committee of Returned Volunteers.

    I did get this reply from Goodsell:
    “Thanks, Joanne. I will keep that reference on hand in case of a second edition. Charles”

  • I oppose the Forces of War utilizing the Peace image of the Peace Corps by pretending that PCVs are for war. Imagine 1st Amendment protesting against an illegal, insane, and losing war (that destroyed America, its people, its economy and its prestige) is bad.

    When you can’t stand up for peace, you need to fight for peace at all levels, against all apologists for war. In the Sixties, if more people had not been intimidated by the war machine the Vietnam war would have ended sooner and less damage would have been done to the Planet and its people.

    Fuck the FBI and all those who think they can hide behind security concerns while doing harm to those in the vanguard of Peace. JFK started the Peace Corps to create a new generation of peace minded citizens, at home and abroad.

  • Great story, Karen. Here’s another example of government abuses and why we should be concerned about NSA and other federal surveillance. David

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