#24 Mad Men At The Peace Corps: Dave Gelman (Washington, D.C.)

Trouble, however, was brewing for using the Wisconsin Plan at other colleges across the country. And early Peace Corps Evaluator Dave Gelman was warning that unless the Peace Corps gave priority for quality over quantity, the Peace Corps would not only acquire too many “high-risk” applicants but also “drink dry the well of potential recruits.” (Remember when the agency had those–High Risk/Low Gain–Trainees?)

Gelman felt Gale’s method was wrong and warned about the “evils of excess” and the grave danger of becoming over-eager to ‘sign-up’ people for two years of service.

One young applicant expressed his disappointment at the Wisconsin Plan style this way: ‘I thought we were something special. Then I saw that they were just pulling people off the street and testing them later.”

Dave Gelman was a bright and tough son-of-a-bitch. I did not know him, but I watched him in the hallways of the building. He always appeared to be in a bad mood about something. I never once saw him smile. I kept my distance. In fact, if I saw him on an elevator, I won’t get on it.

He had come to the Peace Corps from the New York Post (the old Post, not what you read today) and had been one of three early Peace Corps staffers from what was called the “Post’s Corner” at the Post: Bill Haddad, Ben Schiff, and Gelman. A wonderful writer, his reports of projects were like reading a novel. His evaluation of  Somalia I is something of a classic.

Besides, Gelman, newly RPCVs were just as hard on the ways Washington was recruiting PCVs and selling the agency. Early Peace Corps advertisements, for example, depicted Nepal as The Land of the Yeti and Everest. Remember, Peace Corps Goes to Paradise? That was the first recruitment poster for Micronesia. I remember reading that ‘one’ while still in Ethiopia. PCVs and RPCVs were angry about all the: “you-too-can-be-a-world-saver” come-ons. Evaluators, as well as in-country staff, were hearing protests from PCVs, and HQ was hearing it first hand from RPCVs. The criticism was taken seriously. By ’63, the Peace Corps began to create posters that stressed sixteen-hour days, monotony, and mosquitoes. One new poster of a host country showed two photographs and  was entitled Before Peace Corps and After Peace Corps. It was the same photo.

Volunteers, however, kept applying. Between 1961 and 1964, about 112,000 Americans filled out the questionnaire. In those early years, only about 20 percent of all applicants were deemed of a high enough caliber to be invited to training. Quality was given preference over quantity. Dave Gelman could stop worrying and try to smile.

Nevertheless, from 1964–when forty-six thousand applicants were received–the level of Peace Corps applications steadily declined. By 1965, Bob Gale admitted that “With few exception, we are coming back from schools with fewer and fewer numbers. Results from team recruiting are down 22 percent from last year.”

Then the world changed. LBJ increased the troops in Vietnam; college graduates were looking for places to spend time “out of the draft.” Over the next few years, the Peace Corps increased dramatically. In 1963 there were 6,646 PCVs and Trainees. Three years later (1966) there were 15,556, the highest number of PCVs, ever. The average age was 24, with the highest percentage, over 86%, under 26. All because of the draft and the war in Vietnam.

And all the while, Bob Gale, the Prince of Partying, and his Gang of Recruiters–now RPCVs home from the Third World–were Partying On!

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  • God, does this bring back memories — and a lot of them still painful. For early volunteers, the children of WW-2 vets, whom everybody held in highest esteem, the idea of renouncing American citizenship and going to Canada, was simply not an option. The guys who fought WW-2 would never understand. And as it turned out, couldn’t understand Vietnam either, and the idea of American GIs shooting Vietnamese in their own villages, burning down their houses, and all the crap that came with a CIA-sponsored elective war.

    I was one of those RPCVs who was back, then drafted out of grad school for Vietnam. I knew it wasn’t going to work, and wasn’t the only one. It was a Bird Colonel in the Selective Service System, TDY from the Army, who, in a most candid moment, hearing about my PC Service, told me “Believe me, they don’t want people like you over there !” and petitioned my local draft board to give me six months to enlist in something else. He didn’t need to, but he did. It was another career officer, who enlisted me in the National Guard. And still today, people wonder why I have a certain kindliness for the Big Green Machine. It does have a human face — sometimes. They never wanted a war in Asia. It was civilians, the CIA, and a bunch of opportunists, who did. We need only read what Naval Intelligence officer William Lederer wrote, to understand the truth.

    The same Cmdr Lederer would author “The Ugly American”, which would be a primary rationale for the concept of the Peace Corps. President Kennedy, reportedly had read it. And as the old man later would write: “The only thing that ever worked right in Vietnam was when the Marines (in I-Corps, in the north), given the task of “pacification”, slung their M-16s, and sat down with Vietnamese villagers, like so many Peace Corps Volunteers, to ask them what they really wanted to see. When I read that, it made this RPCV proud.

    And then Kent State. Everybody was horrified of another Kent State. Having qualified “Expert”, and my CO trusting that I could be relied on to keep a cool head, gave ME the job of deciding which Americans would live or die — and like the Vietnamese, die on their own home turf. I think all of the brass was relieved that nobody on my watch died — whilst I was doing the deciding. How I managed all of that, and the intense feeling of personal betrayal by the US Gov’t, still is a puzzle. Mainly, I think, I couldn’t look my Dad, Uncle, the disabled man down the street, and those other WW-2 GI’s, in the face, and repudiate what they thought they had fought to preserve. I just couldn’t do it.

    But more specifically to the Peace Corps, and draft dodging, as I remember, by 1964 and -65 it was certainly a big factor. And after what met me upon return, I can’t criticize the draft dodgers (some anyway) too harshly.

    Many years later, reflecting on all the PCVs I had known, on both sides of the African continent, it seemed that the most successful volunteers were those who had a healthy balance of idealism and recognition of personal benefit from their experience. Those who were in it only for themselves, lost interest early, never really did much, and for them it was an expedient waste of time. On the other hand, those who were obsessed with idealistic hopes and ambitions, had their own problems, finding that host country nationals were, not surprisingly, very human. Ambitions like getting a job at the post office weren’t very inspiring to the super-idealists, and they became disillusioned as quickly as the draft-dodgers got bored. I suspect, the same thing probably is operating still today. Not dodging the military draft, but how to wangle PC service to acceptance at an Ivy League university grad program.

    A volunteer really has to LIKE host country folks, in spite of their many faults and weaknesses, to be a success, I think. Just like Cmdr Lederer’s Marines in I-Corps. Not pander to them. You have to LIKE them. Just mix it up with them now and then — on human terms. I have so many memories of just that, as often as not with my crew and villagers at a village bar after a day’s labor, on payday. I suspect the Peace Corps in Washington would have been appalled at the idea of a volunteer moralizing to a crowd of half-smashed Africans about the way to a woman’s heart — and what they probably were doing wrong. Roars of laughter, and another round of Star Beer for the crowd. Not exactly what an RPCV says to a church group here at home, or at a recruitment event.

    Thanks again to John Coyne, for recording and preserving all of this stuff. How, in today’s world, to appeal to the very special segment of the American population who will make good PCVs, I will defer to someone else. With the uncertainties of this new Trump Presidency, we may be called upon sooner rather than later. JAT

  • A meditation and yoga counselor/ practitioner named “Joy” speaks of no longer paying her storage locker bill with the specter of Trump with his thumbs on the nuclear button because she says these elephants in the room are certainties.

  • The poster was of Chimbote, Peru. I remember it well! We posted it in our site in Colombia. It gave us comfort and not a few laughs.

    One of the real Peace Corps mysteries I would like to see solved is: “Why didn’t the personnel system provide a ladder up from PCV to RPCVto staff so that eventually Peace Corps would be staffed 90% by those who had actually served.?”

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