Angry Young Men At The Peace Corps

Peace Corps HQ was not for the faint-hearted. It was not for the flower children of the early Sixties, or for those who talked peace and love and sang Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land to Rose — everyone’s favorite elevator operator — when they went to work in the morning.

In his book on the early days of the agency, Gerard Rice talks about how the senior staff meetings were among the most brutally frank in Washington, and Sarge, too, wasn’t above the fray. For example, in September 1961, young Bill Josephson rebuked Shriver and John Corcoron, associate director of Management, for revising an organization chart without prior consultation with the rest of the senior staff.

There were more than one Super-Ego at the conference table and around the building; everyone was out to prove he or she was The Best.

And the ‘best’ meant to get the best PCVs. I remember in the fall of ’64 spotting the desk officer for Nigeria, one of the top women in the agency, going down to the Selection Division after hours, pulling open the cabinet drawer, and fingering through the files, grabbing for her country the ‘pick of the litter’ to send off for Training to Nigeria.

Tom Quimbly, who was the CD in Liberia, years later admitted “stealing” for his country twelve of the best Volunteers from Harris Wofford’s Ethiopia consignment early in the spring of ’62. And then there was Don Romine, an assistant to Wofford, he took out a Selection Officer for dinner and drinks just to try and persuade the guy to add more Volunteers to the Ethiopia One project that was set to go into Training at Georgetown University in the summer of 1962.

These sorts of things were happening all over the building. On one level there was a certain playfullness about it. You know, guys on campus rushing the girls’ dorms to steal panties, but there was another aspect, and that was John Alexander.

No one liked John Alexander. He was one (if not the most) disliked men in the entire Peace Corps. Eccentric, loud, (he rivalled Haddad and Gale with his temper-tantrums) and ruthlessly in ways to get what he wanted for the African Division. He was also head of  PDO’s coordination section. This unit in the agency had the authority to either approve a proposed program or quash it as unfeasible. It was, this Office of Program Development and Operations (PDO), at the very heart of the Peace Corps. For example, PDO was responsible for the negotiation and establishment of overseas programs. Warren Wiggins was its first associate director, and it was organized into a general Division of Program Development and Coordination and four regional offices: Latin America, Africa, the Far East, and North Africa/Near East/Asia and Pacific. Alexander ran Africa. Alexander also ran the ccoordination section.

Now these regions and other offices were always at each other’s throats.  For example, PDO battled with Planning and Evaluation over the later’s ‘unscientific’ methods of assessment. They didn’t like what Charlie Peters’ Evaluators were saying about their programming.

Also, lets not forget, most of PC/Washington thought that they were the ‘real’ Peace Corps and PCVs were  just “abstract addendum’.

The Volunteers in the field (US!) considered ourselves the real Peace Corps, on the cutting edge, and were downright hostile toward the paid, professional ‘bureaucrats” in Washington.

Shriver, of course, liked this. He enjoyed the constant argument and debate over Peace Corps policy. He saw this as the way to maintain the vitality of the organization, both in Washington and overseas.

Meanwhile, back to John Alexander.

Alexander was eccentric and ruthless and he was head of the PDO’s coordination section, that meant the unit which had the authority to either approve a proposed program or quash it as unfeasible. (You can see where this is going!) And the meetings that he was in control of were called in-house, the ‘murder boards.’

Now, Jack Hood Vaughn, as regional manager of Latin America, was on the short end of the stick. So in 1965 when Vaughn becomes head of the Peace Corps replacing Shriver, he begins his tour by walking floor to floor to greet everyone as the new director (a Peace Corps gesture that sadly has disappeared at this ‘family’ agency) and on one floor, chatting with an old friend, he remarked, “I heard that when President Johnson appointed me, Alexander said, ‘well, that’s it for me at the Peace Corps’.”

Vaughn smiled and added, “I’m going downstairs now to tell him that he’s right.”

As the Beatles said back in the Sixties, “All You Need Is Love.”

P.S. Maureen wins the book. She picked Alexander!

7 Comments

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  • Hooray! I think having worked in evaluation gave me an edge in knowing about the power and the popularity of John Alexander!

  • Maureen, your prize is Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) new book: How To Cook a Crocodile. It is the first book to be published by our new imprint, PeaceCorpsWriters. Bonnie was a health and nutrition Volunteer in Lastoursville, in the middle of the rainforest, and like so many PCV before she emerged from this experience having learned more than she taught. Unlike other Peace Corps authors, though, I tell my tale in a new way: as interconnecting essays with recipes. We expect to publish the book this fall. John

  • Hey Coyne:
    If Tom Quimbly stole 12 of the best from Ethie I, what does that say about all of the 250+ that were left? You guys chopped liver?

  • Don Romine always said that the best group of volunteers that he saw in all of his years at Peace Corps/ACTION, were the 300 plus that were recruited for Ethiopia I. Romine told me that at the outset of Trainee placement, he and two others selected all of the trainees for each country. Each of them would read an application stacked on a large table in the center of a room. They would then and place each successful applicant on a stack for the countries that were piled on the floor around the walls of the room. If any of them wasn’t sure of a candidate’s suitability or where to place one, they would have the others read the application and, if the candidate was judged successful, place their file on the appropriate country stack. Given the level of excitement that Peace Corps serice generated in those days, they had the pick of the litter.

  • All well and good…but if you didn´t bring Rose a donut your day would be nasty. Sam Brown (head of ACTION under Carter) forgot to say good morning Rose…she left him off on the wrong floor! I hate to mention, but Latin America had some great programs!
    Bob Arias
    RPCV Colombia 64-66
    Response Volunteer, Paraguay 2010-2011

  • I just saw John Coyne’s post, so I am a little late in joining this discussion. I was a young Antioch College intern assigned to John Alexander in the Africa Division in 1962, and then returned to work for him in PDOC after graduation from 1963 to 1965. Coyne’s blog brought back a lot of memories about those early days, and the battles between John Alexander and the other regional directors. In assigning PCVs, John was always partial toward Africa (because he thought teaching were the preferred assignments), and clashed regularly with Frank Mankiewicz regularly. I don’t remember Alexander getting canned, by Jack Vaughn, but he probably landed on his feet back at AID. Would love to know where some of those early Africa desk officers and PDOC staff are today — Cynthia Courtney (Nigeria), Francesca Gobbi (French Africa), Walter Davis (West Africa), Phil Dusault, etc.

    David Raphael
    Portland, Oregon
    PDO/PDOC 1962-1965

  • I am terribly confused. As one of the “300” (funny, the same number of Greeks held off the entire Persian army at Thermopoly) was I one of the “cream of the crop” according to Dave Gurr or “chopped liver” as stated by “Donbob?”

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