Why did the Peace Corps suffering such a decline in interest in the early ’70s, especially from younger potential PCVs? Why did the agency begin to ‘disappear’ after the assassination of JFK? Was it the focus of New Directions on ‘experienced’ and skilled volunteers? The War in Vietnam? Or did the ‘married couples with families’ change the image of the Peace Corps?
(The ‘new and very brief and unsuccessful focus on married couples did give the agency our famous writer Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 1971-73) who served with her husband and young son and that experience produced some wonderful Peace Corps stories, including, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage.)
With the decline in interest in the Peace Corps, one might ask: why was it so initially successful?
Here’s one reason why.
The central image of the Peace Corps in the Sixties was captured and promoted ‘free’ on radio and television thanks to Young & Rubicam and other ad agencies that gave the Peace Corps a name recognition that vied with that of Smokey the Bear.
As Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her book, “Free ad copy was sent to all national print media, all television station, 1,000 radio station, all college newspaper, and all major municipal transit authorities—which posted over 80,000 signs in buses, train, and subways during the first year.”
The Ad Council and ad agency Young & Rubicam developed a campaign that captured the spirit and the nobility of purpose of the program. Ad agency Ted Bates & Co. created the slogan that conveyed its hardship and rewards — “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” The ads challenged young people and began attracting volunteers to the program almost immediately. In 1962, shortly after the campaign began, more than 30,000 people applied to the Peace Corps. By 1965, more than a thousand people a week were clipping and mailing coupons from the ads.
Peace Corps HQ was able to build on this PR campaign. The agency had three other important elements to grow its brand, as we would say today, and as Cobbs Hoffman points out in her book.
These characteristics typified not just the Peace Corps but the whole generation.
Add to this Sargent Shriver. He was a positive and engaging force inside (and outside) of HQ. Everyone, and I mean everyone, called him “Sarge.” He drew people to his side and to his ideas.
There is the story Bill Moyers tells of what Vice President Johnson told him when Shriver and Moyers were walking the halls of Congress seeking congressional votes for the new Peace Corps. Johnson said to Moyers, “don’t sell the Peace Corps. Sell Shriver.” It was an easy sell.
Senator Russell Long of Louisiana chastised those who ridiculed the new Peace Corps and called their cynicism “shameful.” Barry Goldwater told a group of Ivy League alumni in early 1962 that “the Peace Corps is beginning to remove the doubts from the doubters’ minds…I’ll back it all the way.”
My favorite story, however, about Shriver, and why all of us in that first generation of Volunteers who served under him would have followed him down any path, is the story of when Sarge was shown the first draft of the new agency’s organizational chart. Shriver studied it a moment, and then picked up a pencil and drew a large box in the center, labeled it volunteers, and connected every other box to it. It was this belief of Sarge that the PCVs were the center, the most important part of the agency, which made all the difference to us serving around the world. It was this belief that made the Peace Corps what it would become for all of us.