Bill Josephson Responds to Wendy Melillo’s “How the US Government Sold the Peace Corps to the American Public.”
I have tried to make sure that what I have received is the complete document that she published in Conversation. I’m not sure that I have succeeded.
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.
“Fighting communism” was not a theme 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 cite 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 concerning 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.
General Counsel of the Peace Corps
Co-author of A Towering Task
An attorney with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP
Wendy Melillo Replies
I want to thank Mr. Josephson for his insightful and constructively critical comments regarding my article in The Conversation. I think this is a lively conversation that is worthy of further discussion and study. However, Mr. Josephson made a few points that I respectfully disagree with.
There are three sources in The Conversation article that were used to support President Kennedy’s use of the Peace Corps in foreign policy to fight communism:
- The U.S. National Archives — https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2010/09/22/the-peace-corps-not-so-peaceful-roots/
- The Cold War Logic of the Peace Corps article published in The Atlantic — https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/08/the-cold-war-logic-of-the-peace-corps/309483/
- A quote from historian Elizabeth Cobbs, from her article “Decolonization, the Cold War, and the Foreign Policy of the Peace Corps,” published in the academic journal, Diplomatic History in the January 1, 1996 issue. (Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter, 1996)
The role of the Peace Corps in American foreign policy, which has been firmly established in the historical literature, was not the point of my academic study. My article in The Conversation was based on my study of the Peace Corps advertising from 1961 to 1970 only.
“The toughest job you’ll ever love” slogan was not part of the early Peace Corps advertising during 1961 and 1970. According to this Peace Corps volunteer writing in Peace Corps Worldwide, the slogan came into existence after Carolyn Payton became the director of the Peace Corps in 1977.
Regarding Mr. Josephson’s comments that the early ads did not emphasize myths, heroes and adventures, I hope that he has an opportunity to read my original academic article published this month in Journalism History. Because full access to the academic article resides behind a paywall, I would like to make this link available to Mr. Josephson so that he can read the original study. I think he would find that an examination of the study, including the sources that were used, would be of interest to him.
In my study, I consulted the original memos that the Ad Council used to send the ads to media outlets for publication, what advertising messages the Ad Council emphasized, other internal Ad Council documents and internal Peace Corps documents. Material from four historical archives were included in the study.
I don’t think academics construct “a contrarian thesis for the sake of being contrary.” No evidence has been provided to support such a sweeping generalization.
While I don’t agree with all of Mr. Josephson’s points, I have absolutely enjoyed reading his comments and those of others. I believe the range of comments have richly contributed to this discussion.
Given the widespread debate about the origins of the Peace Corps and what role it played in American foreign policy, I invite any interested Peace Corps volunteer to join me in further research on this particular point at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland (Archives II) when that facility opens again.
There is always more that we all can learn about the Peace Corps and its fascinating history.
School of Communication