Early Peace Corps Books

In the first days and years of the Peace Corps there were many books written by people who had never been PCVs, never worked for the agency, never worked overseas, and never volunteer for anything, but were academics or free lance writers who saw a great new subject areas that they could write about, especially since no one knew anything about who, what, where, when and how the Peace Corps might develop or what would happen to all those bright young people joining up and going off to live in the middle of nowhere.

 A small cottage industry of ‘Peace Corps books’ began in the publishing world at a time when there were no Volunteers.

Over the years I have haunted yard sales and bookstores and now the Internet  and have collected enough of those books to cause my wife to roll her eyes whenever I come home clutching another history or anthropological study of the first Peace Corps years. The best books, of course, are those  coffee table size ones full of photos of  hard-working PCVs with happy faced HCNs. It is enough to make you want to barf.

Here, in no particularly order, are a few ‘classic’ titles of those early book treasures.

The very first book on ‘us’ was New Frontiers For American Youth by Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birkey published in 1961 by the Public Affairs Press of Washington, D.C. This book is based on the work they had done at the Colorado State University Research Foundation funded by a grant from the  the U.S. Congress. While it is full of information about ‘what the Peace Corps is all about” there were no Volunteers interviewed or were they consulted (at the time there weren’t any PCVs).

However, this book has reprinted some great early newspaper and magazine  cartoons featuring PCVs. The Peace Corps was a new subject for cartoonists, too, and they cut us to the bone. These cartoons are almost worth the price of the book, which by the way in 1961 was $4.50. And it was a hardback.

That all said, Maurice Albertson of Colorado State was a great believer in the Peace Corps, an early and strong supporter of the agency, and an important voice in outlining what the Peace Corps would become over time. We owe him a great deal.

Co-author Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, by the way, would go onto write her own book on this early study entitled Peace Corps Pioneer or “The Perils of Pauline“. Pauline would do several training sessions of early Volunteers. Her book was self-published in 2003 when she was living in a retirement community in Arizona. 

Also published in 1961 was Charles E. Wingenbach’s paperback: The Peace Corps Who, How, And Where with a Foreword by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and a quote from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on the jacket.  This paperback adds little to what is known about the agency in those early years, but it does gives a quick summary of the first weeks and months in 1961 when the agency was being constructed.

One of my favorite books from this period is a novel by Wiliam Sayres entitled Do Good. Sayres was another anthropologist who had gone to Harvard (where else?) and was one of the Peace Corps Trainers of the first PCVs to Colombia.

Sayres’ novel is about a new PCV who goes to a Latin American village. The flap copy reads, “a Harvard anthropologist laconically unfolds the story of a Peace Corps reject coming of age in the bush….Peter is a twenty-two-year-old American, a seeker of Basic Truth, a pussy-cat Quixote. Peter has come to help.”

It has been my experience that many anthropologists disliked those first PCVs. They saw us coming into their private domain and playing around with their toys, i.e., HCNs. I’ve never met an anthropologist back then who had kind words to say about the work of the Peace Corps. I am sure, of course, that friendly anthropologists are there, and also quite a few RPCVs came home again and became anthropologists.

Meanwhile, we have more books about  the Peace Corps written by non-volunteers. U.S. Peace Corps: The Challenge of Good Will by Susan Whittlesey and published in 1963 by Coward-McCann. This is an ‘inside-out’ book as Susan was on the staff of the old (very old) Peace Corps publication called The Volunteer. It was a monthly magazine and she hustled this book ‘on her free time’ it says (well, she won’t get away with that today, given our Peace Corps lawyers!). She uses in her book the Peace Corps photos of  early great Peace Corps photographers: Paul Conklin, Phil Hardberger, and my favorite photographer, Rowland Scherman.

Susan didn’t go to Harvard. She went to Smith College, and before going to the Peace Corps she worked for the Berkshire Eagle, once a great newspaper in Pittsfield, Mass, and did a number of international tours, but never was a PCV. Her account (with plenty of photographs) is really a YA book for high school students, as were many of those first publications about the Peace Corps. These books were aimed at the ‘youth market.’ Remember the first name for the Peace Corps was “Youth Peace Corps” until Kennedy took ‘youth’ out of the title when he made his famous speech at the Cow Palace outlining his new agency in the last days of his campaign for the presidency. 

Another early book was a collection of letters called, of course,  Letters from the Peace Corps, selected and edited by Iris Luce and published in 1964. Luce was working then for the Division of Volunteer Support and  reading early letters by PCVs sent back to Peace Corps Headquarters. She self-published that book.  I am particulary fond of Luce’s book as it has one of my letters in it (page 49). Also published in ’64 was Sargent Shriver’s Point of The Lance, a collection of his speeches and commencement addresses that gives a positive Shriver view of the Peace Corps. This is a useful book to understand the thinking and vision that Shriver (and his writers) had about the new agency.

There are other early books that I will detail in my next blog, but these are a few of the very first in the long hisotry of the Peace Corps.

What these writers were trying to do was tell our stories even before we had a chance it tell it ourselves. Next time, I’ll talk about the books written by early PCVs, and how we began to write our own history in poetry and prose and now on the Internet with blogs from all over the Third World. Who would have imagined that the Peace Corps story would begin with letter home written on thin aerogrammes that would take days to reach American and now is immediately told and available in cyberspace?


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  • I thought I knew something about early Peace Corps books, but based on your account I have not even scratched the surface! One of my favorite early Peace Corps mentions – although not a book – takes place in the last volume of the 12 volume Time-Life American History series published in the early 60s. At the very end the author optimistically predicts that the country’s “deep vein of generousity and idealism” will enable it to meet any and all challenges the future holds. Illustrating this conclusion is a full page picture of a young and handsome Peace Corps trainee in whose reliable hands our future is presumably assured.

  • Andrew E. Rice the other author of New Frontiers For American Youth, like Maurice L. Albertson, was also a great supporter and believer in the Peace Corps. Rice founded the Society for International development and was the Director for several decades.

    The last Aerogram I bought was over a dollar. I am not sure the P.O. has them available now!!!.

  • Thanks John. I have a copy of Swartshez’s What You Can Do for Your Country and am very interested what you have to say about it. There was also a history of the early ACTION days with all of the bureacratic infighting, e.g., Sam Brown standing outside of Caloryn Patten’s hotel door in a Ghana hotel, screaming through the door. Sam also encouraged the government in Jamaica to be voted out of office in his speach there, which took numerous years to reverse the negative feelings on the part of the government.

    As you may recall, the Peace Corps became independent again, when Paul Songas (Ethiopia 1) was finally able to sponsor a Senate resolution to accomplish this. He had spent his earlier years in the House with Don Bonker (D-WA) sponsoring the same legislation but without a sponsor in the Senate, so it died. A former RPCV and Gov. of Ohio (Richard ?) was able to assist Sam in torpedoing the Senate resolution before Paul’s election as a Senator, but he never was able to get confirmed as the permanent PC director following Patten’s resignation.

  • I was intrigued by your observation about anthropologists unfriendly to early PCVs… I can counter that with the opposite perspective. We were met on arrival in Nepal (Nepal-2, ’63-65) by one HCN and two expat (U.S.) anthropologists working for USAID, each of whom confessed to have been eagerly awaiting our arrival. They became mentors to several of us. Even in our US-based training (U of Oregon), we were strongly influenced, encouraged, and inspired by anthropologists. After arriving in Nepal I was posted to a remote village with an anthropologist (BA degree level) and early in that experience I decided to go on and get an advanced degree in anthropology. Both of us subsequently earned PhDs in Anthropology (and, later, we both turned to writing as a second career). Our advanced study and career decisions were strongly reinforced all the way by our cultural immersion and languages learned while PCVs, and by the several anthropologists we met in the field. I am surprised to hear that some established anthropologists saw us as interlopers of a sort. That was surely not my experience in Nepal…

  • Dave–I know Karen Schwarz and her book: What You Can Do For Your Country. It is, as you know, an oral history of the agency, and not a history, and by chance (and the fact that I knew her editor at Morrow) I was the first person Karen interviewed for the book.

    I am not sure of some of your observations about how the Peace Corps became ‘independent’, though I have heard about Sam in Ghana.

    Dick Celeste never was a PCV, though he was director of the Peace Corps under Carter and then governor of Ohio, an Ambassador in India, and now president of a small college in Colorado.

    Celese was, when he was in his midtwenties, an assistant to Betty Harris (and in the Peace Corps) and this would have been in the early ’60s. I’m told Celeste and Bill Josephson, more than our fellow Ethiopia I PCV, and later senator and presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas were the ones really responsible (with Carter) of getting the Peace Corps out from under the ACTION umbrella. But I could be wrong about that chain of events. John

  • Wow! You guys sure know how to mess up a perfectly quiet, although rainy, day in Kentucky. Try as I might – using my Peace Corps library and my faltering memory – I have failed in my attempts to answer two questions: (1) What really happened between Sam Brown and Carolyn Payton; and (2) Who gets the credit for rescuing Peace Corps from ACTION.

    I am not aware of a book which spells out the history of the Brown/Payton saga. There is an intriguing footnote in Zane Reeves The Politics of the Peace Corps and Vista which cites an article by Michael Lerner in the New Republic, “Peace Corps Imperiled” (November 25, 1981) which deals with the dispute. I have not read it. All of the sources I checked are united in saying the relationship was dreadful, and that Payton upheld Peace Corps’ traditions as Brown tried to change them. Ultimately, as these things go in Washington, she lost. It sounds as if there are some juicy stories yet to be told, or at least to reach me.

    As I recall the time sequence Peace Corps was merged into ACTION in 1971 (my arrival that year had nothing to do with it!); in 1982 Congress passed some sort of ‘autonomy’ legislation that took ACTION out of direct control; and finally in 1986 congress passed further legislation that ensured Peace Corps independence. I have always believed that John Dellenbeck used his Republican contacts behind the scenes during the mid-1980s to get independence written into law. I think he wrote about it in an essay contained in Viorst’s Making A Difference, a collection of essays celebrating 25 years of the Peace Corps. However, I also believe that many others including Tsongas, Ruppe, Rockefeller, etc. can legitimately claim some of the credit. Like the Peace Corps itself renewed independence had many fathers (and mothers)

    .By the way, have you anthropologists read Anthropology and the Peace Corps edited by Schwimmer and Warren?

  • I haunt archives in search of the public records of the Peace Corps. My intent is to have a verificable hiistorical framework on which to hang our memories. I would recommend college archives, the private National Security Archive at George Washington University, as well, of course, as NARA II at College Park, Maryland.

    The archives at Colorado State University yields more information about Pauline E. Birkey. Her report entitled “West Pakistan Peace Corps Project – Final Report” (November 1963, Fort Collins, Colorado, describes a unique partnership between the Peace Corps and the Colorado State University). Not only was Maurice L. Albertson as well as Birkey involved in the early formation of Peace Corps program and training, but after training the Volunteers for Pakistan I, CSU had a Peace Corps contract to administer the program incountry. This report describes that effort.

    A recent and personal memory now of Maurice L. Albertson. In August of 2008, the local arts and cultural affairs group in Fort Collins, Colorado, held a “Celebration of Peace Corps.” There were 200 or so RPCVs there to celebrate ourselves and our wonderful experience. We even stood in a Rocky Mountain meadow and sang with the Kingston Trio ( yes, that Kingston Trio) “Where have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Kumbaya.”
    It was a great time, until Maurice L. Albertson, 90 years old and a few weeks from his death, stood up in a workshop, trembling with outrage, and said “The people in the world are still poor. Peace Corps was supposed to be about them, and not you.” He, of course, had a plan on how to revigorate villages and passed it out to us.

  • Joanne–the Kennedy Library, as you know, has many of the documents. The Smithsonian has some early stuff, and the documents signed by Kennedy, etc., are in the National Archives. I think they have been moved to Rockville, MD.

    It would be interesting to see if UCLA and other colleges and universities that trained PCVs from 1961-67 kept their records.

    One of the mistakes (I t hink) that Shriver made was not have a Peace Corps archives…he was afraid, he often said, that the Peace Corps won’t keep itself new and didn’t want to build in a history. The problem, of course, was that new directors kept coming and going and with the five year rule they often tried something that had failed once or twice before.

    The Peace Corps did have something of a library/resource room but during budget cuts, it was cut. I am not sure if they have a library now or not.

    There was also an office called back in the ’90s the Center for Field Assistance & Applied Research that collected lots of valuable stuff that was being done in the field, and it was a real source of treasures. Not sure if that office is there, but all of that material could just be put up on the Internet for everyone, everywhere to use.

    When Fritz Fischer, an assistant professor of history and history education at the University of Northern Colorado, wrote his book Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s (Smithsonian Institution Press) he used the old (and wonderfully written) reports that came out of Charlie Peters Division. I am not sure where those documents are today, but they are are treasure.

    Regardless of how ‘bad’ some of the Peace Corps histories are, they are, nevertheless, glimpses at the agency through time.And well well worth saving.

  • John, Thank you for the information about all the other places for public records. I do know about the Smithsonian collection and it is just great. Their box list with the titles of all the items in their collection is available online, although the documents are not. I have found that almost nothing is available online and it is a question of traveling to the library or archive to actually view the materials.

    The Charlie Peters evaluation reports are archived at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD. Their record list of Peace Corps documents is available online. The record group is 490. The folder labels are Country Evaluations. I have copies of the ones from Colombia. My favorite is from Evelyn Reed and begins along the lines of “Peace Corps Colombia is a mess.”
    My not so favorite one includes a list of “marginal Voiunteers.” I shattered the sacred space on the second floor of the Archives, when I read my name on that list.

    The University of New Mexico’s SouthWest Research Center has documents from the Training Center for Latin America from the sixties.
    They were found in boxes in the trash to be thrown away and someone rescued them. That collection is invaluable. The correspondent alone between incountry staff, training staff and Volunteers was conducted a fever pitch and recreates those early and important days. Unversity of Oklahoma has archives from a project called “Peace Pipe” which attempted to bring Native Americans into the Peace Corps. Of course, the Friends of Colombia created a Peace Corps Colomiba Archive at American University.

    I have no idea what Peace Corps has at the agency itself. I don’t think they know either. Thank you again.

    We need a Peace Corps Library, not in the agency, but perhaps within the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, where all these documents could be collected.

  • Peace Corps Library is a great idea, but we would have to get a ‘library’ to do it. Since more and more libraries have less and less books, it might work.

    The Smithsonian only wants ‘objects’ while the Kennedy Library in Boston only wants ‘papers’. I have my historical documents collected because of my Peace Corps publications (RPCV Writers & Readers) at the university where I got my masters degree. That university also trained several groups of PCVs.

    Several years ago (maybe 15 years ago now) I suggested that all writers send their published books to the NPCA so that our organization could have a bookshelf of books. I am not sure if writers are still doing that or even if the NPCA wants books sent to them.

    I would continue to suggest that RPCVs send their letters and other documents to Boston and the Kennedy Library. We know that they have a collection and I am told it is used by students.

  • I agree that a “library” would have to do it. At one point, the Kennedy Library was not accepting any more hard copy documents from Volunteers. Indeed, that is what prompted the Friends of Colombia to start their Peace Corps Library at American University.

    I envision such a library under the auspices of the Library of Congress or NARA just to perserve the public nature of the documents. I am now coming up on the first anniversary of my FOIA appeal to Peace Corps to just find out the final disposition of Peace Corps records from Colombia.
    I am not too good at this getting stuff done.

    I hope that this is the correct thread to name my favorite Peace Corps books. “Green Fires” by Marnie Mueller is classic, does not have one false note, and beautifully documents Peace Corps in a time and place in a way which makes it timeless. As for the all time Peace Corps book, my nomination is Mosquito Coast . The chapter on leaving Boston is all anyone needs to know about Peace Corps.

  • The Kennedy Library is collecting orginal documents from the Peace Corps, letters and such. Not books. They have enough books, and they don’t want artifacts.

    I agree with you about Marnie Mueller’s book. It is very good. As for Mosquito Coast, which is is about ‘other countries’ it is not a memoir, also it is not about the Peace Corps, which it was written by a PCV.

    For some reason I am failing to make myself clear about what I’m doing with my lists and nominations. I had the first selection of book just ‘novels” i.e., fiction and said that Wiley’s book was the best “Peace Corps novel” and by that I meant IT WAS ABOUT THE PEACE CORPS, written by an RPCV.

    I am not going to do memoirs but will break them down by regions. Memoirs are non-fiction as you know (i.e., more or less TRUE) and they are about the PEACE CORPS.

    What is unclear? (Besides me!)

  • While recruiting at Stanford University in 1968 I met Robert Textor who had edited a book entitled “Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps”, published in 1966 by MIT Press. The book was dedicated to the Peace Corps Volunteers who had died in service, 41 by count, two of whom were in my group in Turkey. The forward was written by Margaret Mead and the book includes stories from PCVs, academics, many offering fascinating and valuable history of the early Peace Corps. I would gladly contribute it to a Peace Corps Library which would be an excellent 50th anniversary project. Any takers…?

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