Former Peace Corps Carrie Hessler Radelet happened to be in town. She joined Former Peace Corps Director Nick Craw (1973-1974), and Former Peace Corps Director Richard Celeste (1979-1981) in an informal panel. Over 90 RPCVs listened to the trio discuss their time as Directors and their hopes for the future of Peace Corps.
Peace Corps had lost its independent status in 1971 when Nixon placed all Volunteer agencies under one umbrella agency, ACTION. Peace Corps lost its logo and its formal name and became officially Division of Overseas Operations. Nick Craw was Director during this regime. However, he reported, during the intense Watergate affair, 1973 -74, Washington was so occupied with the scandal on the Hill that Peace Corps was basically left alone.
Nick named the Country Management Plans as his best achievement. He wanted to give In-Country staff more say-so in planning and budgeting. Carrie said the plan was so good that it was still in use at the agency. She also volunteered Craw was a legend in Peace Corps circles. In addition to a degree from Princeton and an Harvard MBA, he was a two time national sports car champion. On occasion, he even wore his driver’s outfit to work. He was remembered, according to her, as the only “Bad*&@“ Peace Corps Director!
Dick Celeste spoke of his tenure, 1979 to 1981, in more sober terms. He recalled dealing with three hostage situations. The first was Peace Corps, held hostage in ACTION. He was unable to gain independence for the agency, but it was a start. The Peace Corps name was restored and the Director was once again, the Peace Corps Director. He negotiated unceasingly with the State Department over Peace Corps priorities chief among them was El Salvador.
The country was unstable. A Peace Corps Volunteer was taken hostage along with other women as they worked together in a town market. The women were held for a few days and continued to work during the day and were evidently unimpressed with their captors, who lost interest and left. The Volunteer was returned to the states, but Celeste negotiated with the State Department to keep some Volunteers in-country.
Training programs were redirected and no replacements were planned. On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated in San Salvador. As a result of this tragedy, all remaining Volunteers left and the program in El Salvador was closed.
The third hostage situation was long standing. A Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia had been taken by a marxist guerilla group in February of 1977. The United States government does not negotiate with terrorists nor hostage takers, so Peace Corps could do nothing. It was the Volunteer’s mother who never gave up and persisted in trying to obtain her son’s release. Finally, Washington columnist Jack Anderson was persuaded by her pleas. He arranged for the Vounteer’s release in February of 1980.
Dick Celeste spoke, finally, of the importance of Peace Corps maintaining its independence within the State Department. He was unable to obtain this during his tenure. But, he said, he left a memo for the new Peace Corps Director recommending steps to secure that independence.
Reagan appointee, Loret Miller Ruppe was that next director. She was successful in restoring Peace Corps independence.
Carrie Hessler Radelet, (2009-2014 Deputy Director; 2014-2017 Director) was the longest serving among the three. She spoke of the creation of “A Comprehensive Agency Assessment of 2010” as one of her proudest accomplishments. It established the foundation for future programs, including more partnerships and the inclusion of non-RPCVs in the expanded Peace Corps Response. Carrie also spoke of the redesign of the application process, with the reduction of paperwork. For the first time, applicants were allowed to choose what country and program had their interest.
Closing the Peace Corps program in Jordon was her most difficult decision, Carrie said. Volunteers felt very safe in their sites and did not want to leave. But reports persisted that they might become targets. It was with great reluctance that she ordered the program closed. She joined her fellow Directors in also urging the continued independence of Peace Corps. Current legislation in the US Senate would strip Peace Corps of this status and place it in the State Department under the direct supervision of the Secretary of State.
Finally, in another happy coincidence, NPCA President Glenn Blumhurst was also in town. He spoke to everyone about plans for The Peace Corps House to be NPCA’s new home in DC. He hoped it would become a focus for all Third Goal activities. He promoted the events of the coming weekend of September 22nd in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center for Perfoming Arts Reach pavilion. Peace Corps will be showcasing Third Goal activities and the documentary, “ A Towering Task,” will premiere. RPCV Alana deJoseph, producer of the documentary waved to the crowd from the audience. He also said the NPCA advocates would be monitoring the legislation in the Senate and would keep the RPCV community informed.
It was a great night. Thank you to RPCVCO President Charlie Hunt and his team for organizing the event and to the Posner Center for International Development for hosting.
As for the three Directors, they should take this show on the road!