A Critical Review of Wendy Melillo’s, “Democracy’s Adventure Hero on a New Frontier: Bridging Language in the Ad Council’s Peace Corps Campaign 1961-1970”


A Critical Review of Wendy Melillo’s,

Democracy’s Adventure Hero on a New Frontier:
Bridging Language in the Ad Council’s Peace Corps Campaign, 1961-1970

published by Taylor & Francis Online

by William Josephson

Retired Partner,
Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP
Founding Counsel, Peace Corps, 1961-66

Ms. Wendy Melillo’s, Democracy’s Adventure Hero to a New Frontier: Bridging Language in the Ad Council’s Peace Corps Campaign, 1961-1970, begins with the assertion that the Peace Corps “would be the only new proposal to emerge from a tight race in which the Massachusetts Senator [John F. Kennedy] won the popular vote by a slim margin.”  Yet, subsequently, she acknowledges his commitment to rethink Mutual Security military and foreign aid programs of the 1950s.  She never mentions Kennedy’s commitment to close the “missile gap.”  Although she mentions Sputnik, she does not mention his commitment to catch up to the Soviet Union in the space race, which of course led to the United States putting the first person on the moon.

Wendy Melillo Farrill Associate Professor
School of Communication at American University

Ms. Melillo’s thesis is perhaps best described:

Under the guise of promoting democracy and peace abroad, the campaign helped garner more than 14,000 [actually more than 15,000 at its height in the middle 1960s, and cumulatively far more than that for the total for Ms. Melillo’s 1961-1968 period], American volunteers in training or working overseas in fifty-seven countries from the start of the program in 1961 to November 1968, while artfully masking the true purpose of the program – to slow or halt the march of communism in the Third World.[1] (emphasis added)


The initial question, which Ms. Melillo never addresses, is what is wrong about “the promotion of democracy abroad”?  At least prior to the Trump Administration, the United States was still doing it.

Similarly, what is wrong about trying “to slow or half the march of communism in the Third World”?  To some extent, the United States is still doing that, for example, in the Ukraine and on the South China Sea.

Yet, Ms. Melillo seems to think these are illegitimate purposes, without ever actually saying that they are.

Ms. Melillo’s thesis continues:

This study will demonstrate how the Ad Council’s internal planning documents prior to the launch of the campaign used direct language to show that the Peace Corps’ purpose was to slow or stop communism while building global support for America’s democratic system.

Yet, the outward facing Peace Corps ads, the language and images used were more indirect and coded to create a contextual meaning based on myths about the hero, frontier conquest, adventure and renewal.  The Peace Corps campaign that the Ad Council launched in 1961 used bridging language that masked the campaign’s true purpose while calling for the promotion of democracy abroad.[2]

Ms. Melillo’s section that begins “Development Strategies in American Foreign Policy” lacks context.  President Dwight David Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were determined to contain the Soviet Union, and to a far lesser extent, at that time, China.  In this respect, they continued the policies adopted by President Harry S Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) already existed.  To it were added the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).  The principal countries of CENTO were Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.  The principal countries of SEATO were Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines.  Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) were covered by bilateral treaties with the United States.  Vietnam was a French colony almost to the end of the 1950s.

In the 1950s the Marshall Plan statutes of the late 1940s were transformed into a series of Mutual Security Acts with emphasis on Military Assistance, Defense Support which was a form of cash subsidy for the military budgets of the treaties’ members and Special Assistance.  What remained of President Truman’s Point Four and Development Assistance was meager.

President Kennedy honored his commitment to try to rethink Mutual Security by proposing and enacting the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, of which your author was a drafter.  It provided for the Agency for International Development designed to change Mutual Security priorities in favor of Third World economic development programs, although it is debatable how much they actually changed.

Instead, Ms. Melillo discusses The Ugly American.[3]  Its protagonist, commonly thought to be based on Colonel Edward Landsdale,[4] believed, like the Peace Corps, in on-the-ground hard work, living with the common people.  Like the Peace Corps, he rejected Americans living overseas in compounds with access to commissaries and post exchanges, diplomatic privileges and immunities or some variation thereon, cost of living allowances, educational allowances, and hardship post allowances.  These policies are discussed in the sections of the Peace Corps Handbook in the appendix to this article.

Peace Corps volunteers and staff were also to have nothing to do with their respective Country Teams and with the Central Intelligence Agency or with other American or allied intelligence agencies.

Ms. Melillo’s section, “The Advertising Council’s Wartime Roots” contains much research, which your author assumes is accurate, except that it seems unlikely that the Advertising Council in 1943 changed its name to the War Advertising Council and, also in 1943, deleted “War” from its name.[5]

Ms. Melillo cites no source for the crucial sentence, “the Ad Council knew that young Americans would not be motivated to join the Peace Corps to fight communism.”[6]  The only source she cites for the paragraph which contains this sentence is the 1962 Peace Corps Handbook.  Her use of this citation lacks context.  The requirement in the Handbook, that trainees study communism was, like the Peace Corps oath, imposed on the Peace Corps, over its objection, by Congress.  In reality, the Peace Corps strove to limit the implementation of that requirement as best it could, consistent with its obligations under the statute and to Congress.

Ms. Melillo obviously had access to the Handbook itself, but she did not quote it.  This is what the Handbook actually says:

    1. To inform the Trainees of Communist ideology and tactics.

The training course includes the study of Communism as an ideology and as an organizational weapon, as well as a study of the history, techniques and special vocabulary of Communism in the area of assignment.  A study of Communism is an essential part of the intellectual equipment the Volunteer will take overseas.  We know that the Communists are against the Peace Corps and its program.  In trying to discredit us, they call us spies and agents of imperialism.  It will be very important to be prepared to deal with Communist attempts to provoke you or to deflect you from your goal.

We hope you will represent your country, honestly and with dignity, and that you will explain American principles to the honest doubter and the curious.  We believe you are likely to be most effective if you speak of the things you have done and seen yourself.

Bear in mind, however, that our purpose is service.  We hope to answer our detractors to hard work and accomplishment, not in political debate. (Emphasis added)

Our friends abroad must judge us for what we do and what we are.

A copy of the relevant sections of the Handbook, including those that talk about how volunteers are expected to live and work with their host country counterparts, is included as an appendix to this article.

Ms. Melillo’s “Findings and Analysis” section cites only one Peace Corps document to support her thesis, in footnote 33, remarks by Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps Director at the Fourth Anniversary Assembly, State Department, September 22, 1965.  That speech occurred four years after the Peace Corps was launched in 1961 and long after the Ad Council created the Peace Corps’ advertising campaign, when, unfortunately, the war in Vietnam was heating up.

She quotes Peace Corps Director Shriver as saying “the United States cannot win the war in Viet Nam and lose the war in Watts,” a reference to the Los Angeles riots.  Again, this lacks context. By September 22, 1965, Sargent Shriver had headed President Lyndon Baynes Johnson’s task force that led to the enactment of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, its creation of the Office of Economic Opportunity, and his appointment as its Director, while continuing to serve as Director of the Peace Corps, holding both offices until Ambassador Jack Hood Vaughn was appointed Director of the Peace Corps in the spring of 1966.

By September 1965, the French had long been driven out of Vietnam, the country had been divided into North and South and since 1960, and responsibility for democracy in South Vietnam have fallen to the United States.  After the presidential election of 1964, the attempt to preserve South Vietnam was becoming an overriding aspect of American foreign policy.  This was not true when the Peace Corps was launched in 1961 or in the subsequent three years.  The Vietnam War created many difficulties for Peace Corps volunteers and the organization itself.

In footnote 43, Ms. Melillo cites a luncheon address “What Makes The Peace Corps Work” to the Society for International Development on March 17, 1964 by Warren W. Wiggins who by then was probably Deputy Director or on his way to becoming Deputy Director.  He had been the Peace Corps Assistant Director For Program Development and Operations since 1961.  What Ms. Melillo seems not to realize is that Mr. Wiggins was actually quoting a speech that Secretary of State Dean Rusk made at the spring 1961 first meeting of the Peace Corps National Advisory Council to the effect that to make the Peace Corps an instrument of United States foreign policy would be to rob it of its contribution to that policy.  This quotation was seminal guidance to the Peace Corps, which referred to it time and time again.  Secretary Rusk’s quote is inconsistent with Ms. Melillo’s argument that the Peace Corps and its Ad Council campaign were instruments of the United States’s Cold War foreign policy.

Ms. Melillo states that the Peace Corps Ad Council campaign became a way for the American government to respond to Russian technological advancements with the 1957 launch of the satellite Sputnick.  Hard it is to believe that the Peace Corps advertising campaign could ever have been seriously regarded as such a response.  President Kennedy’s commitment to put a person on the moon seems a far more likely candidate.

Another key sentence is, “throughout the decade, references to communism would continue to be wrapped in more coded language. . . . the ‘evil’ Lincoln referred to in the quote was a ‘coded’ reference to communism.”[7]  The Lincoln speech she references was given to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859.

The issue that these repeated references to codes raises is how to prove or disprove that language that on its face seems straight forward and exemplary, in fact deliberately carries another, possibly very different, meaning.

Your author lacks the cryptographical knowledge and experience of the founder of American cryptography, William Friedman and his similarly qualified wife, Elizebeth.  Their classic book, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, published by Cambridge University Press in 1957, and reissued April 14, 2011, demonstrates that there was no coded language in Shakespeare.

This article accepts, as it previously said, as it previously said it would, the accuracy of all of Ms. Melillo’s citations to Advertising Council internal documents.  But none of the Advertising Council’s Peace Corps documentation or advertisements cited by Ms. Melillo ever refer to communism or anything akin to it.  Ms. Melillo never links the Advertising Council’s Cold War documents to the Peace Corps or to the Peace Corps advertising campaign.  There is no smoke, and there is no gun.  No court of law would let Ms. Melillo’s case go to a jury.  Her proof is circumstantial.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Circumstantial evidence can be very powerful.  But she never supplies the necessary connection.

Also, there is a living eyewitness whom Ms. Melillo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, never interviewed, Bill Moyers, the Peace Corps head of recruitment and congressional relations in 1961, later Deputy Director until President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 when he went to the White House as Press Secretary.  He saw Ms. Melillo’s summary of her article posted on John Coyne’s Peace Corps Worldwide blog, where I also first saw it, and Mr. Moyers commented favorably on my short reply, also posted on Mr. Coyne’s blog.  Ms. Melillo then invited me to read her article in Journalism History.  I sent Mr. Moyers the same draft of this article that I sent to Ms. Melillo.  He had no comments.

Ms. Melillo has a paragraph which ends with a citation to footnote 47 and a reference to the “Peace Corps Career Planning Board.”  This was a proposal of the Peace Corps, that was rejected by Congress, and never resurrected, on the then good Republican ground that if the Peace Corps volunteers are as capable as the Peace Corps says they will be, they will have no trouble finding post-Peace Corps employment, which, in fact, proved to be true.

Ms. Melillo could have made an argument from the explicit Battle Act waiver in the Peace Corps Act.[8]  The Battle Act[9] in general precluded the United States from providing assistance to communist countries.

The Peace Corps included a Battle Act waiver in its proposed legislation, and Congress enacted it, so that, for example, if a communist country asked for Peace Corps volunteers, the Peace Corps could respond affirmatively.  The Peace Corps wanted to be free to respond, for example, to a request for volunteers from Cuba, as it did much later when it sent volunteers to the People’s Republic of China.  In fact, Czechoslovakia in 1961 did inquire about the possibility of receiving Peace Corps volunteers.  The Peace Corps responded affirmatively, but Czechoslovakia did not pursue the matter.

The Peace Corps wanted many programs in countries headed by persons who some might think were communists like Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, Suharto’s Indonesia or Sekou Touré’s Guinea, which Peace Corps Director Shriver, George Ernst Carter, Jr., an African expert fluent in French, and your author (decent French) visited in the fall of 1961.  The Peace Corps began sending volunteers to Guinea in 1963.  The first volunteers to serve overseas were in Ghana, and volunteers also served in Indonesia.

Finally, Ms. Melillo’s use of the phrase Manifest Destiny to characterize the purpose of the Peace Corps seems unfortunate.  Manifest Destiny was conceived in 1839 by John L. O’Sullivan in an article he wrote or someone else wrote and he published when he was editor of The United States Democratic Review, titled The Great Nation of Futurity,[10] was explicitly to promote democracy throughout the world.  So, the United States has been promoting democracy for 180 years.

Why unfortunately?  Like many shorthand political slogans, by the end of the 19th Century it had been perverted into a justification for American Colonialism.  One has to wonder, therefore, why Ms. Melillo chose Manifest Destiny to describe the Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps certainly was anti-colonial.  “Selfless Services” might have been better.

Democracy’s Adventure Hero reflects much archival research and creative analyses.  Nevertheless, most of her Ad Council Cold War documents pre-date the Peace Corps, and the vital connection is never made only to be inferred if one wishes to do so.  The argument that the Peace Corps was a Cold War weapon and/or an American imperialistic program would have been quite damaging to the Peace Corps had it been made in the early 1960s.

Because of COVID-19, some 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers and staff were evacuated over a very short time earlier in 2020.  The Peace Corps hopes to be able to resume operations under the administration of President Elect Joseph Biden.

Publication of this Critical Review could be a useful corrective to any revival of these old unfounded arguments put forth by the enemies of peace and service.  The statutory purpose of the Peace Corps remains unchanged over these 60 years, “world peace and friendship.”

[1] Wendy Melillo (2020): Democracy’s Adventure Hero to a New Frontier: Bridging Language in the Ad Council’s Peace Corps Campaign, 1961-1970, Journalism History, DOI:10.1080/00947679.2020.1724589.

[2] Melillo, Democracy’s Adventure Hero 2.

[3] William J. Lederer & Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American, New York, W.W. Norton, 1958.

[4] See Max Boot, The Road Not Taken: Edward Landsdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam, Liveright Publishing Corp. (2018) 326.  Mr. Boot, a distinguished journalist and historian, is now the Jeanne Kirkpatrick Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

[5] Melillo, Democracy’s Adventure Hero 6.

[6] Id.

[7] Melillo, Democracy’s Adventure Hero 14.

[8] Section 18, 22 United States Code section 2517 (2016).

[9] The Mutual Defense Assistance Control Act of 1951, 22 United States Code section 1611 et seq., 2016.

[10] For a comprehensive discussion, see Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford University Press 2007, especially chapter 18.

             © 2020 by William Josephson, All Rights Reserved


Leave a comment
    I recall Robert Klein saying “first in the field” about our Ghana I group end of the summer in 1961 along with talking about his book BEING FIRST, if that might round out his intentions.

    There was also the designation of Thomas Livingston (PhD later in African History, Columbia U I think) as “the first” of Ghana 1 to be posted to his school and thus “the first PC volunteer” in the field (and as such was invited to the White House for the big celebration of the Peace Corps–President and Mrs Clinton were the residents at that time, and a big coffee table book was soon after published with a big photo of Tom Livingston and Georgianna Shine McGuire, another of Ghana 1 looking so very lovely, yes lovely is the word and in a royal yellow Carolyn Herrera top that would have cost $10,000 new but she scored for pennies in a thrift shop in the Washington D.C.area, and Tom looked glowing as well. Wish I had bought that book but it was expensive even then maybe 20 years ago.). Well those are the breaks, and Dr Thomas Livingston died several years ago (I went to his funeral).

    Well, all I can say is that we were there at the beginning as were a lot of others and representatives of the other groups were there in the Rose Garden on the afternoon when our smiling 50 left afterwards on that 2-engine Convair heading for Accra. And it was thrilling looking out over the Atlantic for hours until we sighted the first of the Azores islands (seeming from the air to be so very far apart) where we re-fueled probably at the last one. And then off to Senegal and were gob-smacked by seeing the first jut-out of AFRICA and Dakar high up over the great wall of cliffs (that nobody had talked about — like those cliffs in Dover or in western Ireland).

    Then I guess we got more fuel + supplies for the US Embassy and maybe others and quickly left for GHANA. Funny NOW to think that we PC volunteers mostly in our 20’s were the “payload” of some kind. It is like a COMEDY in the sense Dante used it for his Divine one. We didn’t fly to the sun or the moon, but it was our grand flight out and up up and away in our beautiful balloon (as the song of some years later now comes to my inner ears to accompany my memory).

    I didn’t stay long in my secondary school in Acherensua, Brong-Ahafo having had to ET as my dad in Dallas was dying and I was needed. I was the only college graduate in a family of 7 siblings some quite younger.

    That early departure is probably the reason I remember the beginnings of the Peace Corps so well, even going back to June 1960 when I first met JFK and others (including Harold Stassen, a Republican of some great note then) running for primaries and in the Fall when Kennedy answered a question by Louis Lyons on his New England News segment at WGBH-TV (then on the MIT campus in Cambridge–right at the Charles River Bridge to Boston)–about what was to become later called THE PEACE CORPS. I’ve told it before more than once ever here in a reply over the recent decades here on this very site now called for sometime PEACECORPSWORLDWIDE.ORG

    (C) Copyright Edward Mycue 29 August 2020

  • Thank you, William Josephson for your compelling critique of Wendy Melillo”s book. I have long advocated for a Peace Corps Library, with Research Librarians, who could direct “researchers” to actual documents of the Peace Corps by Peace Corps staff and Volunteers. There is, however, a Peace Corps Volunteer Communityy Archive at American University. Wendy Melillo is an Associate Professor of Journalism at American University. As far as I could determine, she evidently never visited the Peace Corps Volunteer Community Archive housed at American University or mentioned it in her research. I don’t think she is even aware of its existence.

    Background on the Peace Corps Community Archive:
    Ghana I RPCV Robert Klein, author of “Being First” and creator of the RPCV Oral History Project, housed at the JFK Library and currently at the University of Kentucky, Bob had a very ambitious plan for a Research Library and shared it with RPCV Pat Wand, Librarian Emeritus at American University. Sadly, Bob died before he could see his dream of such a Research Center fulfilled.

    However, a group of RPCVs was invited by Pat to American University in the summer of 2012 and the result was the initiation of the Peace Corps Vounteer Community Archives at American University, I was lucky to be invited to participate at the meeting. The archives has a wide collection, now, of Peace Corps Volunteer documents and memorabilia and continues to accept contributions from RPCVs. The archive is listed in American University’s Special Collections.

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