Bill Josephson has more to say on “How the Peace Corps wasn’t sold to the American public”
I disagree with Ms. Melillo’s statement that “Peace Corps advertising emphasize myths about heroes, adventure . . . But fighting communism was among the agency’s original foreign policy purposes, according to Peace Corps historians and other scholars.” Ms. Melillo cites virtually no authority for that statement.
The origins of the Peace Corps include the bills sponsored by then Senator Hubert H. Humphrey for a Point Four Youth Corps, Representative Henry Reuss and others, particularly Congressmen who had had missionary experience.
Point Four, of course, was President Harry S Truman’s proposal for technical assistance worldwide, particularly the developing nations.
“Fighting communism” certainly was not the point of the University of Michigan students who urged President Kennedy, as a candidate, to create the Peace Corps.
“Fighting communism” was not mentioned in President Kennedy’s Cow Palace speech formally proposing a Peace Corps.
“Fighting communism” was not a theme of Warren Wiggins and my “A Towering Task.”
At the very first Peace Corps National Advisory Committee meeting in the Spring of 1961, Secretary of State Dean Rusk astounded Warren and myself with his statement, which I approximate, not having access to the actual quote here in Nebraska, “To make the Peace Corps and instrument of foreign policy would rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.” This statement became a touchstone of Peace Corps policy quoted repeatedly.
Peace Corps overseas staff did not live in compounds as did other United States government overseas personnel. They did not have access to commissaries or post exchanges. A Peace Corps director was not part of a country team.
From the very beginning, the Peace Corps tried to build a wall between it and United States government intelligence agencies. CIA Director Richard Helms instructed CIA personnel to stay away from Peace Corps volunteers and staff.
Peace Corps applicants, who during their military service had served in military intelligence, were not eligible to join the Peace Corps.
None of the ads cited by Ms. Melillo, as she concedes, supports her thesis.
She does not appear to cite the earliest ads, like the classic “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
The only direct support for her thesis that she cites is the quotation from the Peace Corps Handbook for volunteers about studying communism. What she does not note, and may not know, is that this was a requirement, like the Peace Corps volunteer oath, that was imposed upon the Peace Corps by Congress, over the Executive Branch’s objection.
As the war in Vietnam heated up in 1965 and 66, Warren Wiggins and I seriously proposed sending to Vietnam, North and South, thousands of volunteers from as many countries as would join in order by their presence, to try to stop the war. This proposal was seriously considered by President Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, and me, in a long conference, but was never implemented.
The State Department and the Agency for International Development circulated a cable airgram advocating the recruitment of former volunteers to serve in rural development in Vietnam. Sargent Shriver refused to sign it, but it went out without his signature.
Some former volunteers did respond affirmatively and went to Vietnam under the auspices of international voluntary services. Three were captured by the North Vietnamese. The woman was fairly soon release, but the two men were not released until peace came to Vietnam. This story is recounted in IVS’s official history.
I have to wonder if Ms. Melillo, as many academics do, has constructed a contrarian thesis for the sake of being contrary.
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Bill Josephson is absolutely right that Melillo does not cite the documents supporting her statement. She does speak of going to the National Archives and the JFK Library. But, those of us who have done research at the Achives, know there are exacting rules on how to cite documents from those archives. She does not met these standards. I am not sure who the Peace Corps historians are whom she consulted.
Bill Josephson is the absolute authority on the very beginning of the Peace Corps.
Thank you, Bill.
My wife and I served in Somalia from 1966 to 1968. In the evenings, we had many informal talks with Somalis in tea shops. Invariably, the subject of the Vietnam War came up. The Somalis would argue the US was imperialist and we were killing innocent civilians. The greatest lesson in democracy we taught Somalis in these informal discussions was that although we were Americans and technically paid and employed by the US Government, we disagreed with government policy and agreed the US should get out of Vietnam. We had a right in a democracy to oppose our government’s policies and to freely voice our opposition. It took the Somalis we talked to a while to understand this idea. I would like to think at least some of them were influenced by this concept and kept it in mind after the military coup in October 1969.
I graduated from college in 1960, and had been very involved in student government and intercollegiate activity during my college years and the time immediately following; I attended the various meetings held at Yale, Princeton, and American University devoted to the ideal of “youth service abroad” that evolved into the Peace Corps. A central theme throughout this process was NOT anti-communism, but rather the challenges faced by newly-independent nations in the post-colonial era. I remember very well the discussions of the time, and the enthusiasm of many in attendance about the opportunities presented in this new era in developing nations. My own time as a PCV in Thailand (1963-65), and continuing correspondence with friends who served in this same period in Malaysia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and various East African countries, allowed us to continue to share experiences and reflections. For many of us, this has continued to be an important part of our lives, whether in choice of careers or continued involvement in advocacy and volunteer efforts. Whether in public service, in academic institutions, or as part of an engaged citizenry, those who shared the Peace Corps experience brought a significant new resource to American society.
I was among the first Peace Corps volunteers recruited for Colombia in ’61. I recall no training whatsoever on anti-communism.i personally ran into an avowed communist in my first village who wanted to debate me in the plaza. at that moment I was having discussions with some campesinos. I invited the communist to sit down with us to carry out a discussion. He declined immediately saying he didn’t speak to ignorant campesinos. Before leaving he spat on me. I never saw him again, but considered his ideology was verboten in that village after that spectacle. dan wemhoff Colombia I ’61-’63
I served upcountry in Sierra Leone from 1962-64 as a teacher. We were not trained in Communism though we all knew about it. I observed the economic “fight” between capitalistic and communistic assistance to this newly independent country. My students often talked of wanting to study abroad in America or Moscow rather than England. Sometimes I discussed with them our system of government, which we HAD studied during our training. I often visited parliament when in the capital city and knew many of the politicians. When I finished my tour of duty, I spent three days with an envoy from Washington at the request of my director. Later, I discovered that person was most likely a CIA agent using me as an “asset” to gain information. I know that training programs were improved after I served and that during those Cold War years there was much interference in the politics of these newly independent African countries by both the United States and the Soviet Union. However, Peace Corps Volunteers were by policy kept separate from overtly “fighting Communism.” Our very presence, work, friendship, and official “poverty” were supposed to make a statement that was pro-democracy, according to my understanding.