Doing the Blitz
Peace Corps Recruitment in the ’60s
by Hal Fleming (Staff: PC/W 1966–68; CD Cote d’Ivoire 1968–72)
IN 1966, I CAME DOWN TO WASHINGTON from New York. It was a time in our country when the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War divided the nation. I had been tapped to work as a staff member in the Public Affairs and Recruiting office for the Peace Corps.
On my very first work day in Peace Corps/Washington, I was told to join Warren Wiggins, the Deputy Director of the Agency, in his government car for a one-hour ride to a conference for new campus recruiters at Tidewater Inn in Easton, Maryland.
Wiggins, preoccupied with his opening speech to the conclave, said very little to me except to read out a phrase or two of buzz-word laden prose, mostly unintelligible to me as the new guy, and ask for my comments. At the Tidewater Inn, Mr. Wiggins rose to the podium and hardly got through a page of his much-worked speech to the 200 assembled in the main hall, when the pointed interruptions and questions began.
Although a bit baffled by the lack of respect and believing all government employees meek and accepting, I was equally at sea in trying to understand the basis for the complaints.
The main gripe among the articulate and forthright assemblage of mid-twenties, new hires was that in their very recent overseas experience, Peace Corps Medical officers were prohibited from distributing contraceptives to PCVs although there was no such ban with regard to the U.S. Military. While in the late 1960s the HIV/AIDS pandemic was very much in the future, in most areas where Peace Corps worked, other, more common sexually transmitted diseases could be a major problem.
The second gripe centered on the Vietnam War and the Peace Corps unwillingness to take a stand when most of its potential and active clientele had strong anti-war views. It was considered a question of credibility.
Wiggins survived the cries of hypocrisy and double standards by appealing to their loyalty to the much-admired Peace Corps, by cautioning them not to throw the baby out with the bathwater by censuring the Agency for policies beyond its immediate control.
At the ensuing luncheon and in the ante-rooms, I had opportunities to engage my new colleagues in less heated discussion and returned to Washington much in awe. I had none of their battle scars, had not worked to better the world in far off places, had not lived in the proverbial mud hut, and could not converse fluently in any language but English, certainly not Swahili, Tagalog, Hindi or Amharic. I was awed by the RPCVs in the room, and many of these new Peace Corps employees were about to come to work for me as Recruiters.
Peace Corps “blitz” recruiting*
Peace Corps, then at its peak, had over 15,000 overseas or in numerous stateside training programs, and my office, one of the largest in Washington, had a staff of 200, half of whom were out-posted to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, and, added on my watch, Atlanta. We were the largest “employer” of recent college graduates after the U.S. military, and in those booming late 1960s our “suitcase recruiters” visited 900 colleges and universities each academic year, some of them, like UCLA, Berkeley and the University of Michigan, two and three times. Each recruiter in the 9-month academic year logged about 100,000 air and car miles, slept in cheap motels and noisy student unions, and worked six days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. Like the circus, they packed up after the last Saturday event and traveled to the next college town on Sunday. There were also the talk shows, the newspaper articles, the celebrity photo ops, all of which stretched a 24-year-old’s limits of organization, persuasion, and directorship, but all typically came off smoothly.
De-bureaucratize the Peace Corps
The Recruiting machine required precise scheduling, advance visits, analysis of the graduating college seniors and their skills, and the production and just-in-time shipment of recruiting materials including everything from portable booths, brochures on the overseas experience and skill needs, handouts, posters and importantly, applications.
My particular contribution to the effort my first year in Washington was — with the help of our resident graphic artist — to de-bureaucratize the brochures and application forms by adding color, front cover pictures of Africans, Asians and Latinos being helped by Peace Corps Volunteers, and the like.
I also headed a new division called Applicant Services geared to keeping those who had applied as a result of campus visits “reinformed” about Peace Corps, and where their particular applications were in the selection and assignment pipeline. The Agency had in place a time-consuming, cumbersome, hand sorting process led by distinguished academics who had screened and selected the first team of U.S. astronauts. Attesting to the Agency’s popularity among young Americans, tens of thousands of applications clogged the system, many from high school students and university underclassmen not yet ready or able to join up.
I joined the Director of Administration and Finance in a walkthrough of the office where dozens of clerks sorted piles of applications. A four-part carbon paper summary form was key to the current system. The green tissue paper copy was routed one way; the pink that way and the white to another table. I asked the perplexed Chief of the unit what happened to the buff-colored copy. She yelled down the line of desks “where does the buff go?” No one was certain. I soon headed up a task force to quickly redesign the application for computerization, enabling our information officers and the Selection and Training staffs easy access to those who would be graduating in the coming months as well as those with special skills.
Compared to the ponderous and many-layered ways of other federal agencies I would come to know well in later years, Peace Corps moved quickly and cost-effectively, its imperatives being the academic year and the goal of putting thousands into training during the three summer months. New ideas were readily accepted, and the Agency itself had few traditions, cast-in-concrete regulations, and government lawyers to encumber it. We were known as the hot outfit, and everyone clamored for a job.
In addition to my hectic headquarters duties that first year, I was called upon to join recruiting teams on campus, to give talks in classrooms and give more formal speeches. My first assignment took me to Texas Southern University in Houston where I joined four of our recruiters from the euphemistically called Specialized Recruiting Unit, which targeted predominantly black colleges and universities. The team of former Volunteers — all attractive young Afro-American women — met up with me at our Houston motel the Sunday before our campaign at Texas Southern began. I recall being more apprehensive about traveling South given the unease in the region about civil rights and the pressures for desegregation, rather than about my credibility with students and faculty. Also, my father, who had been born in the then-British West Indies and raised in the East, cautioned me about going south of the Potomac River, and I never had except to National Airport in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
The “Specialized” recruiting team caused quite a stir at the motel and at dinner. Although the reservations had been guaranteed through Washington and the facility, part of a national chain, advised of our mission, we were probably the desegregation test case. A sales convention was having its kick-off dinner at the same time we sat down to eat, but I believe the stares from the white businessmen had more to do with speculation about my particular role in hosting the four animated and photogenic young women, than with any real discomfort at being in the same dining room with blacks.
Because my staff of information officers and recruiters included many who had gone out in the first Peace Corps days, they had received much coverage in their hometown newspapers and in the national media for being the first Volunteers in some of the world’s remotest areas, for living — in some cases — under extremely primitive conditions, for being America’s new goodwill ambassadors, and, hopefully, for providing practical and lasting help to those Africans, Asians and Latinos they served. Too many still in college or in high school, these first waves of Volunteers were larger than life, heroes, and heroines of a bright new age.
Unfortunately, the recruiters’ many accomplishments overseas and all the attendant adulation soon became overshadowed by America’s darkening clouds. Anti-war protests triggered police brutality and worse. With the Civil Rights movement, surfaced deep-seated bigotry. Two days before my recruiting visit to Houston, white State Troopers turned on and shot students at South Carolina A&E, a predominantly black land-grant college. In my brief two years at Peace Corps/Washington, we would be further shocked and embittered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. All of my beautiful, bright-eyed Peace Corps boys and girls would be stunned by what was happening to America, and they saw it every day going from Williamstown to Cambridge, from State College to Ann Arbor, from Southern to Grambling, from Santa Cruz to Berkeley.
On the West Coast, which in the late 1960s produced almost 40% of our “prime” applications from the big state universities in California, Washington and Oregon, the campus anti-war radicalism, epitomized at Berkeley, began to infect some in our San Francisco office, creating anxieties at headquarters about a possible shortfall in our recruiting targets. For the first time in my professional career, I had to play the heavy and fire people. I identified ten of the most bitter and disillusioned from our San Francisco office and they left without much protest, realizing the damage they were causing but being unwilling to moderate their militancy. I then moved in substitutes from the “true believers” in the Chicago and Washington offices, who relished a change of venue. I experienced a number of sleepless nights about the lives I had altered in this personnel shuffle but became forever marked in my Foreign Service career, for better or for worse, as a task-oriented manager.
Among the many Peace Corps Recruiters working for me during this period were: Phil Sheller (Thailand), Jon Sutinen (Kenya), Phillip Yocum (Liberia), Jan Pawlowski (Jamaica), Robert Read (India), Elaine Sutinen (Kenya), Ann Buessing (Iran), Robert Casey (India), Alan Corner ( Sierra Leone), Gloria and David Myklebust (Cameroon), Jon Keeton (Thailand), Priscilla Luders (Malaysia), Frank Garcia (Guatemala), Vern Fulcher (Ethiopia), Robert Fogg (Turkey), Ken Hill (Turkey), and Maureen Orth (Colombia). Never before (or since) have I worked with such dedicated and talented young people.
The Numbers Game
In spite of the unrest across the country and the soul-searching within our own ranks, we managed to significantly surpass our recruiting quotas and fill our training targets. Some said our numbers were so high because young men were joining the Peace Corps to evade military service since most draft boards quietly and unofficially acknowledged volunteering in such programs as Peace Corps and VISTA as an alternative to military service. In answering Congressional inquiries on this suspicion of draft dodging, we pointed out that we were consistently recruiting males and females in a fifty-fifty ratio. If anything the number of female applicants showed a slight increase. These numbers tended to diffuse the criticism but did not mute the clamor of some right-wing conservatives who had no love for anything that smacked of foreign aid, as well as anything associated with the late John F. Kennedy.
On any given day from September 1967 to May 1968, we had teams of recruiters on 30 to 40 campuses across the country. The leaders of the various teams called into headquarters almost every evening with their application results as well as the news on campus protests and more violent student confrontations with authorities. Various offices of the U.S. Congress would also call in to confirm reports of troubles at universities in their respective home districts, and between five and seven P.M. most evenings at PC/W, I was on the phones. The news media also learned that we were a timely source of such information. The offices of several “bachelor” Congressmen also called regularly not to learn about campus riots but the whereabouts of recruiter Eileen, or Sue, or Sally. We had among our recruiters and information officers some of the most glamorous women in Washington, for they had been hand-picked for their looks as well as their brains.
Black Like Me
There were sharper confrontations along the way. Along with Marine Corps recruiters, one of our teams was locked up overnight by student protestors in an activity center at a Mid-western university. A gray government sedan acquired from the local Government Services Administration, GSA, motor pool in Atlanta Georgia was riddled with buckshot when leaving a campus. One of our black women recruiters traveling alone in Mississippi fought off a rape attempt by several white airport workers.
On one swing through the South, Washington asked me to make an urgent side trip to a Peace Corps training facility outside of Baton Rouge. A burning cross had been placed outside the girls’ dormitory and the hundred plus Trainees and staff were understandably quite distraught. The facility, a former U.S. naval officers’ training school complete with several red brick campus buildings, was being used at the time to train health workers, largely female and mostly white, destined for French-speaking Africa. As in all training programs, some of the language, technical and cross-cultural staff were drawn from the African government agencies for which the Volunteers would be working.
The area had a Cajun-speaking population, and Trainees were placed with families on the weekends to attune their ears to a French dialect. Segregation, however, persisted in the area, and at the nearest shopping area, the laundromat among other businesses remained off-limits to our African guests. On arriving to investigate the cross-burning incident, the training director, a Harvard academic who had never before been to the deep South, recounted the story of how the burning cross had been discovered in the early morning, and how after one call to the State Police the response was almost immediate. I advised him that I wasn’t surprised by the swift action for in that part of the South, the State Troopers and the Klu Klux Klan were often odd bedfellows if not synonymous. The cross burning provoked a flap in Washington and among Baton Rouge’s elected officials with whom I met, for the African instructors traveled under diplomatic auspices. As a positive outcome to the tense affair, however, the “No Coloreds” signs in the nearby laundromat and the one general store came down.
Icing on a rotten cake
University administrators at some of our important schools became unsettled by the campus unrest and barred Peace Corps along with other Federal Government agencies from campus and classroom access. Several of the better-organized protest groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, singled out Peace Corps for an attack, labeling it “the icing on the rotten cake of American imperialism.”
Flying High with Pan Am
The most dramatic of these confrontations occurred at Columbia University during the Fall of 1967. Being barred from recruiting on campus, we were able to acquire several New York City buses through the good offices of Pan American Airlines. Pan Am earned about $2 million a year in late 1960s dollars flying groups from training sites to various overseas posts. TWA and Eastern also competed with air chartering new PCVs to their assignments overseas. The quid pro quo for Pan Am’s helpful intervention was a placard for display on the side of the buses reading “Join the Peace Corps, You’ll Go Far and Pan Am Makes the Going Great.”
The Deputy Head of the Agency was not amused, saying that Peace Corps would be open to criticism by appearing to endorse one particular airline. I countered that in New York, the advertising capital of the world, such marketing tie-ins were commonplace, and no competitor would protest. Others agreed, and we went forward with our plan.
We arranged for police permits to park the two buses right by the main gates of the University at 116th Street and Broadway, and we gathered up a first string team of recruiters from our Boston and Washington offices. Within minutes of opening up our mobile recruiting stations and turning on our loudspeakers, a dozen SDS agitators appeared and began blocking access to our buses. Almost immediately on that bright fall New York City day a counter-picket formed. These were international students from Latin America, India and Africa. They said in effect to the stunned and speechless SDS group, “Leave these people alone. They were our teachers.”
Without lifting a hand to stage-manage the event, I watched the SDS protestors melt away; several even filled out applications to join up, and the four day stands on upper Broadway was a success. The poster version of the Pan Am placard became a hot ticket item with college students, and no competing airline lodged a complaint.
Peace Corps cinema verite
Nevertheless, one of the central issues the Peace Corps constantly faced during this era was how, as a U.S. Government agency, could it distance itself from the official policies related to the war in Vietnam, and so maintain credibility with its main clientele — the college student of the late ’60s. Our challenge in Public Affairs was to develop all the print and electronic materials for recruiting taking these currents into account. We also had help from the public service window of the Advertising Council of America. Additionally, we contracted for one or two films a year on Peace Corps life overseas.
Despite our popularity and ready access to the media, the Agency for the first time since its establishment had to deal with the troubled domestic reality all around it. We also faced up to the reality of the sometimes disillusioning overseas Volunteer experience. This disturbed some of the staff who felt we should stick to the optimistic and often sugar-coated messages of the past. The Advertising Council understood our dilemma and was quick to respond. For the ’67–’68 recruiting year, we produced several public service spot announcements. The best of these — and one that garnered several awards — was done in cinema verite style showing young adults playing a parlor game. The question addressed to the participants was simply “What is Peace?” All provided thoughtful definitions, but the one that became quoted throughout the dormitories and study halls was simply “Peace is the absence of war.” The tagline on the spot read, “This message brought to you by the United States Peace Corps in collaboration with the Advertising Council of America.” This was a bold statement for its time, and while my neck was on the line for pushing the agency toward this veiled criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the few angry calls from the Congress and the State Department were drowned out by applause.
RPCVs produce a poster
We were somewhat less fortunate with a poster produced by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Committee of Harvard which found its way into our general campus recruiting kits. Far less subtle than our “Peace is the absence of war” message, it showed a line drawing of a carbine and a shovel and read “M16s jam, Shovels Don’t. Join the Peace Corps.” In addition to all its woes in Vietnam, the Pentagon was faced with the malfunctioning of its standard issue rifles. An exasperated Secretary of the Army telephoned me pleading “please don’t do that to us.” Subsequently, there was a witch hunt by the Congress to see if any appropriated U.S. funds had been used to print these posters. None had been, and we dropped the posters and were spared.
Yankees Go Home
A controversial feature-length documentary made during this period depicted the darker side of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. The film, made by an award-winning Hollywood group, showed no smiling, clean-cut Americans surrounded by happy, appreciative Africans, but those in realistic work and social situations. Some Volunteers were positive about their accomplishments, while others expressed self-doubts about their effectiveness, about themselves, about their ability to understand another culture. Some Nigerians criticized the Volunteers for doing jobs as teachers or health workers they themselves could do. In a closing frame, one Nigerian held up a quickly scrawled sign to underscore his views: “Yankee Go Home, but Leave Your Cigarettes Behind.“
The Agency’s senior staff was mortified by the film, while the recruiting staff of former volunteers thought the views expressed, while not necessarily universal, rang true. Adding to the furor, the Agency Director banned the film from use in recruiting adding to the furor. The African program chief, C. Payne Lucas, who would go on to found and manage the private voluntary organization, AfriCare, also thought the film misrepresented the views of the Nigerians, but finally agreed to let the film be shown as a test case to a group of returned volunteer graduate students at the University of Michigan. He was invited to Ann Arbor to moderate the discussion after the screening on whether the volunteer experience in Africa had been accurately portrayed. The debate concluded that while no one film could capture the highly variable world of the Peace Corps, the film added to the agency’s credibility by presenting both positive and negative perspectives. Vindicated, we were allowed to show the film on selected large campuses.
Chicken every Sunday
Recruiting had its lighter moments. To the tune of the jingle “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” we saw the “USA in our GSA,” the gray official cars from the government services motor pools of the day. I recall coming back to Washington from LA on an infamous Red Eye Special with three of our most charismatic recruiters whom passengers assumed — on that run — must have had something to do with the movie industry. Always working, we managed to get ourselves upgraded to business class at no extra cost, and also obtained dutifully completed and signed applications from three of the six stewardesses on that flight. At one West Coast university, a fast talking recruiter got the entire graduating class of forestry majors to apply and take the foreign language aptitude test as well, describing to them a ground-breaking reforestation project in Greenland. The Peace Corps never had a program in Greenland.
Most graduating college seniors were not that specific about where they wanted to serve overseas since they had little knowledge about most countries in Asia, Africa or the Americas. Almost all, however, in ordering their priorities asked about the food. To address these concerns about basic needs, we produced several taped interviews with our recruiters for distribution on campus radio. In one such interview which I conducted, a petite, attractive Afro-American woman who had been a business skills teacher in Belize described her diet as provided by her host family:
On Mondays we had white beans and rice.
On Tuesdays, it was red beans and rice,
And on Wednesday they served black beans,
And of course rice.
Then on Thursday it repeated with white beans and rice.
Friday again the red beans and rice
Saturday supper was black bean and rice.
Then the former teacher of typing and accounting paused, her eyes moistened and she became more animated. “But on Sundays we had chicken!”
Greatest Recruitment Year
In the spring of 1968, despite problems with morale, changing messages and turbulent college campuses, we were on course to chalk up the most successful recruiting year in Peace Corps history, success being defined as the number of “prime” applicants available for summer and fall training programs. From well over 100,000 completed applications we were able to draw from an actively interested and available pool of 36,000. In the 32 years since this record has not been surpassed. By now, however, my sights were increasingly focused on French language training and the Ivory Coast, or Cote d’Ivoire to which I had been nominated to become Country Director.
In, Up, and Out
At the end of March 1968, I made my last big swing through our regions.
In Atlanta, T.M. Alexander, Jr., a graduate school friend who was financial adviser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, invited me to a midnight supper on the occasion of Dr. King’s return from a desegregation march in Alabama. In the dimly lit church basement, I recall how tired and ashen King and his lieutenants appeared as they walked slowly to their tables. Andrew Young, whom I would get to know in the mid-70s when he was a U.S. Congressman, and Ralph Abernathy were among the solemn band. There was no opportunity for introductions or discussion as the exhausted ministers ate quickly and in silence, and left the room as quietly as they had entered. The scene I witnessed in that bare dimly lit church basement at midnight was profoundly inspiring for I had participated in the March on Washington and was raised by a family active in Civil Rights. At that moment, however, I had no intimations that I had been present at a last supper.
I left Atlanta for Chicago and then went on to San Francisco where the entire 40 strong, revitalized West Coast team would be together for the last time in the Bay area. Consequently, much planning had gone into holding a retreat near Carmel. I finished my recruiting chores at Berkeley early on that April 4th and was programmed to go into the city to give a talk to a two-hundred-strong group of Trainees being sent to Hilo, Hawaii for three months training before being assigned to programs in the Asia/Pacific region. I was then to go on to the retreat. It was a beautiful West Coast day as several of us drove across the Bay Bridge with the radio blaring out The Mamas and the Papas on “California Dreamin, ’ in our sedate GSA issue car. With the ambiance, my attractive escorts and the music, I had a hard time concentrating on my notes for the talk, but all my fantasies of the mellow West Coast were cruelly interrupted by a news bulletin informing us that Dr. King had been shot at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. We were stunned, I doubly so, for I had sat with the man only ten days before at that silent midnight dinner.
We headed to the Peace Corps office on Market Street to cancel my talk to the Hilo-bound Trainees and to call Washington for instructions. Headquarters, confused and disbelieving, spoke of rioting in parts of the city and elsewhere in the United States. The National Guard had been called out and offices were sending workers home. “Stay out there until further notice,” I was told. “Keep the office and the team together.”
Feeling helpless, we decided to continue on with the retreat since we would be out of the city, and hopefully out of harm’s way. One of our recruiter’s father was on the Carmel Town Council which controlled twelve thousand acres of woods and parkland of Big Sur near the famous Esalen Institute. It was to these acres that some sixty of us, including secretaries and significant others, gathered. Instead of heading to the rustic cabin on the property, we drove up the dirt tracks to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Cars went as far as possible and then we all hiked up to a grassy knoll. Startled wild boar crashed about us in the brush, but we all sat silently, not greeting one another, deep in our thoughts about the day’s events. Was this the end of the Civil Rights movement? Would there be an all-out civil war? Sixty young adults, and I — at 34 the old man — sifted this tragedy over and over to ourselves as we watched the spectacular sunset below us, a large orange disc dropping slowly into an unruffled, flat sea. Little else is so ingrained in my Peace Corps memories as the profiles of these bright, exceptional Americans against the backdrop of that sunset. They in their mid-twenties had experience more of the world than most people ever would in their lifetimes. They symbolized the nation’s idealism and humanitarian concern for peoples of all races and creeds. Now with yet another assassination of an American hero, could we possibly sustain what they had worked for? Shaking us from our private thoughts, two US Navy jets streaked low over the flat Pacific, the vanishing sun reflecting off their sleek, dark blue aluminum skins.
College campus “blitz” recruitment at the Peace Corps was created 1963 by Bob Gale. Gale had come to the Peace Corps from Carlton College, where he had been vice president for development, and at the Peace Corps, he initially worked with Bill Haddad, head of Planning, Evaluation and Research, as chief of special projects. In that role, he tried “blitz” recruitment as an experiment in April 1963 at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. After early successes with this strategy, Shriver made him Director of Recruitment for the agency. The most successful of the early “blitz” recruiting trips was in October 1963 to California when Gale assembled five advance teams and five follow-up teams. Teams were staffed by PC/W senior staff and each team spent a week in southern California and then a week in northern California, visiting every major campus in both areas. Shriver came out during the second week of the “blitz” and spoke at Berkeley and San Francisco State, among other colleges, always receiving tumultuous receptions. On this trip, the advance team collected two hundred completed questionnaires from interested students, and in the second week, seven hundred more. At that moment in Peace Corps history “blitz recruitment” became a reality. It remained in force until the Nixon years when the Peace Corps became part of Action. President Nixon moved toward decentralization of the government and Action created regional and sub-offices around the nations for the recruitment of Vista and Peace Corps Volunteers.
Hal Fleming, who headed the Peace Corps Public Affairs and Recruitment in the mid-’60s and later was the Country Director in Cote D’Ivoire. As a Peace Corps writer, he published several short stories, poems, and two novels: The Brides’ Fair, set in Morocco, and Once Upon A Storm, a Civil Rights era mystery. In his career, he was on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Child Health International. He also published and lectured on International Development and U.S. participation in the United Nations. In February 2014, he died of heart failure at his home in Great Falls, Virginia.