Cold Hand of History,The Peace Corps Part 2

As we know the Peace Corps was crafted by 20-24 men in two rooms of the Mayflower Hotel in thirty days following Kennedy’s inauguration. Using Warren Wiggins and Bill Josephson’s “The Towering Task” as the blueprint, the agency was established by Executive Order on March 1, 1961.

Shriver and a half dozen staffers then left on a round-the-world tour to get nations to take PCVs, now that we had an agency. When they reached India, Shriver received word from Wiggins that a draft of Kennedy’s Special Message to the Congress on Foreign Aid indicated that the President believed the Peace Corps should be part of the new Agency for International Development (AID). It should not be an independent agency.

Shriver called Wiggins and Moyers to get to Lyndon Johnson, who supported the Peace Corps, and have him “plead their case” to Kennedy. Johnson did corner the President, and Kennedy is alleged to have said, “Let them [i.e.Shriver] put the son of a bitch [i.e. Peace Corps] through Congress.”jfk-shriver

And Shriver did. Famously walking the halls of Congress with Moyers late into the night,  Shriver convinced Congress and the Senate of the value of the Volunteers. The Peace Corps was approved as an independent agency by a wide margin on September 22, 1961.

Gary May writes in his article on the Peace Corps. “Within twenty-seven months, there were almost seven thousand volunteers working overseas in forty-four countries….More than 50 percent were involved in education….Education was the Peace Corps ‘biggest activity’ during the Kennedy years because the agency’s political, bureaucratic, and ideological interest coincided with the needs of many Third World countries. Nowhere was this more true than in Ethiopia.”

That said, the Peace Corps is famous for picking on its own scabs. In an Evaluation done in 1967, Bennett and Carroll (five years after the arrival of the first teachers in Addis Ababa) said that it had all been a big mistake. They accused the Peace Corps of “misunderstanding Ethiopia’s fundamental need for agricultural assistance.” Bennett and Carroll argued that the agency had chosen the ‘institutional answer-the secondary schools-to the problems of Ethiopia.” These two Evaluation did not believe, as earlier Peace Corps directors, especially Wofford, had: that education was “fundamental” to Ethiopia’s progress.

More than a few Ethiopian PCVs agreed, Paul Koprowski, who was stationed in Asmara, wrote a letter home in May 1964, saying, “The sadness of the Peace Corps is that we are educating these people for nothing. Our students have nowhere to go, no jobs, no hopes of any.”

When a student-led revolution finally toppled Selassie’s government in 1974 and a Marxist regime sympathetic to the Soviet Union took power, many volunteers wondered,” May writes, “if the Peace Corps by commission or omission had contributed to the outcome.”

Bob Savage, and Ethie 1 PCV  joked to Gary May in 1987, “We did such a good job that a few years after we left the whole place went Communist. It’s amazing what a group of determined amateurs can do when they really try.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the Ethiopia I Volunteers had to go through Training at Georgetown University in the summer of ’62. Now that’s a story!

End of Part 2

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    I. (As we rose, we changed from birthslug, toddler, kiddo, preteen brainiac out through serious awkwardness into some normatively developed willfulness. Who we were, became will swell, seek, range, swim within the scale our mature notions permit, wading through translucent lives.)
    II. Before it began, as a WGBH-TV (then located on the MIT campus) as a Lowell Fellow (Lowell Institute for Cooperative Broadcasting) intern in 1960-61, I met (as switcher/technical assistant director) candidate John Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey, Harold Stassen, Adlai Stevenson and others who discussed (on Nieman Foundation curator Louis Lyons’ thrice weekly 14 minute 25 second shows on WGBH-TV the then New England Television-NET that preceded PBS) its establishment; and also worked on putting together at WGBH-TV the announcement program that aired on all major commercial networks in the Spring 1961 under the direction of the cameraman and director from our station who’d gone and gotten the footage in Washington, D.C.
    When the test was given at Harvard yard, I took it. I got and accepted the call to go to U.C.-Berkeley for training for the Ghana 1 contingent (the first of several that went out then); in due course, after meeting the President in the Rose Garden and in his White House Oval Office, we left for Accra from Washington, D.C. in late August 1961 in a two engine prop Convair across the Atlantic stopping for refueling in the Azores, and again in Dakar, Senegal rearing up above the Ocean before coming down over the beaches of Ghana.
    III. It seems simply solipsistic to think the Fall of the House of Selassie had anything to do with the Peace Corps being there. “Absurd” may be a more accurate term than “simplistic” self-referencing. Did other places fall to pieces because of the Peace Corps? “Indeed” vs. “In dead”. A mountain explodes while you were there: did you make it happen? Wake-up. Snap out of it! (as Cher snaps and slaps at Nicholas Cage in the characters they play — Loretta and Ronnie — in the now decades-
    old movie playing on TV lately, MOONLIGHTING). It’s 56 years for me since I came up from North Texas State College as a graduate student to Boston University and as a 3-day-a-week Lowell Fellow intern at WGBH-TV in Boston in beginning the June of 1960 and the camera switcher on the Louis Lyons twice weekly interview and news programs during the Democratic and Republican parties’ Presidential primary season and came across the concept and talk of a “peace corps”– idea and proposal. When John Kennedy having achieved the nomination as the Democratic candidate he returned to Louis Lyons show and in response to Mr. Lyons, also the curator of the Nieman journalist foundation at Harvard, queried about such a proposal got the reply from JFK, that he thought it a one of those good plans that he agreed with, adding with that Kennedy wit and near chuckle the “…when I am President….” he would establish it.
    And he did. Oh, and I feel sure that he never considered nor suspected that decades hence American foreign policy would be recalled as shook-shaped by jejune albeit serious participants in glorifying or sorrowing bad-bladder-dream memory or memoir.

    Edward Mycue 2 February 2016 San Francisco, California

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