Cold Hand of History, The Peace Corps Part 7

This essay on the Peace Corps is entitled, “Passing the Torch and Lighting Fires: The Peace Corps.” And as I said it was written by Gary May. The essay is based on interviews he had with Ethiopian PCVs in the 1980s, as well as one Evaluation Report and a Close of Service report done in 1964. It is the last chapter in a scholar text entitled, Kennedy’s Quest For Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-63, published by Oxford Press. It would appear to suggest that this is the story of the Peace Corps during the first decade.  It is meant to ‘sum up’ the work of Peace Corps Volunteers, to explain what the Peace Corps was all about  under Kennedy, Shriver, and Wofford, the driving force in the creation of the agency. This is not true, of course, It is one partial description of the work of PCVs in one country.

There are, of course, other academic books written by scholars and journalists about those first projects. For example,

The Peace Corps by Glenn D. Kittler, Paperback Library, Inc., 1963
The Story of the Peace Corps by George Sullivan, Introduction by Sargent Shriver, Fleet Publishing, 1964.
Point of the Lance by Sargent Shriver, Harper & Row, 1964
The Peace Corps: Ambassadors of Goodwill by Henry B. Lent, The Westminster Press, 1966.
Volunteers for Peace: The First Group of Peace Corps Volunteers in a Rural Community Development Program in Colombia, South America, by Morris I. Stein, John Wiley & Sons, 1966.
Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps by David Hapgood and Meridan Bennett, Little, Brown and Company, 1968.



May’s essay, however, focuses directly on the views of RPCVs as they look back at their tours from roughly twenty years later.

One recollection point was January 1963 when the Peace Corps teachers, all two hundred plus, assembled in Asmara, the second city of the Empire, for a series of workshops. For most of the PCVs, this was a real pleasure, an Italian city in Africa, with palm-lined streets, Italian shops, restaurants, and the Kagnew Station, the US communications center in Africa, which had a PX and  was officially ‘off-limits’ to the Volunteers, but you know, PCVs.They wanted cheeseburgers, hot fudge sundaes, and a chance to watch “Twilight Zone.”

Gary May would quote from Peace Corps files on the conference “That first morning…was rather shattering, one Volunteer noted. “In the months since we had last been together, we’ve had pretty rough going-we’ve taken a beating and looked it. Most of us have lost weight, a few gained, but we’re all different. We’ve toughed…for better or worse.” During the working sessions, Volunteers discussed the subjects they taught and prepared reports for the Ministry of education. “We put our battered heads together and…talked about the problems that plague us.”

Gary concludes: “The Americans also discussed their conflicts with students and headmasters. Science teachers noted “that some students tend to act as though they control school practices. They contradict and, teachers.” Mathematics teachers believed that the students “need discipline and from time to time punishment…” English teachers complained that “discipline is poor because the teachers cannot enforce disciplinary measures and are often not backed up by their headmasters.” But most criticized the common practice of corporal punishment as ineffective.”

In November, the PCVs were crushed again with the news of Kennedy’s assassination. “The shock of last night’s news has left me numb with…horror and grief,” wrote Carolyn Wood from Asmara. “It feels like we have lost the living symbol of everything the United States stand for.” Linda Bergthold wrote her family, “We just could not visualize the strong, vigorous President lying bloody and dead somewhere.”

On the 25th, that Monday, the Emperor decreed a national day of mourning, a high Coptic Mass was held, attended by the royal family and member of the Ethiopian government. Then the Emperor flew to Washington to join the mourners. The next day 278 Volunteers returned to their classrooms throughout the Empire and continued their work for the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.

End of Part 7

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