Director Richard Celeste was to find the independence of the Peace Corps threatened by the political situation in El Salvador. Ambassador Devine reportedly advised that it was time for the Peace Corps to leave. Celeste disagreed in a defiant memo to the State Department. Celeste then outlined when the Peace Corps should stay and under what conditions Volunteers should leave, and who should decide. His analysis is historic: the sense of which rings right thirty-two years later.
First, the memo to the State Department, December 18, 1979, (DNSA/GWU, Collection: El Salvador – The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977 – 1984. Item Number: ES00326)
TO: Brandon Grove, Deputy Assistant Secretary, ARA
FROM: Richard Celeste, Director, PC
SUBJECT; Peace Corps Presence in El Salvador
I have not seen the most recent cables from El Salvador, but it is my understanding that Ambassador Devine first recommended that the Peace Corps reduce its presence in El Salvador to 10 PCVs and 4 or 5 FSN staff members, and that he has subsequently recommended the complete withdrawal of Peace Corps.
Although I have asked that Paul Bell continue to discuss this issue with you and Brewster Hemmenway, I do want you to know that I have not agreed to either the “draw-down” to 10 Volunteers, or to the total withdrawal of the Peace Corps from El Salvador, and I intend to appeal this issue to the Secretary and, if necessary, to the President. Frankly, it goes to the heart of the Peace Corps mandate and its relevance in the 1980s.
cc: Warren Christopher
Deputy Secretary of State
Paul Bell, RD/LAC
bc. Robert Pastor
National Security Council
In a second memo, on December 20, 1979, entitled, “Proposed Withdrawal of Volunteers from El Salvador,” Celeste writes to the Secretary of State and discusses the fundamental purpose of Peace Corps and when and if it should leave a country. From that memo: (DNSA/GWU, Collection: El Salvador – The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977 – 1984. Item Number: ES00331)
1. Proposed action to withdraw all Peace Corps Volunteers from El Salvador (and possible other countries) is detrimental to the long term interests of the United States and to the stability and effectiveness of the Peace Corps. I strongly oppose the proposed withdrawal.
Further on Celeste writes:
5. The fundamental premise which sets the Peace Corps apart from our embassies, AID and other foreign policy instruments is that the Peace Corps is not to be used as an instrument for leveraging immediate foreign policy goals. As a consequence, Peace Corps Volunteers are not usually perceived as being part of our nation’s formal presence in a host country. The proposed action of withdrawing all Volunteers from El Salvador, when many believe they should stay, may do fundamental damage to that perception which has protected our Volunteers in the post — their unique role as Americans who are not representatives of our government’s interests but of our people’s goodwill. In Santo Domingo in 1965, the sign said: “Gringo go home. Cuerpo de Paz stay.”
Then Celeste writes:
7. Peace Corps Volunteers establish personal relationships with the people with whom they live and work, which transcend nation, race and ideology. Withdrawal in troubled times casts a shadow over those relationships. Put simply: Peace Corps Volunteers are not, and must never become, fair weather friends.
Celeste concludes by outlining the conditions under which Volunteers should be withdrawn. From that discussion:
a. The Volunteer can no longer do productive work and the meet the goals of the Peace Corps Act. This determination may be reached by the Volunteer, Peace Corps staff or host country counterpart.
b. The Volunteer decides that there is sufficient danger that he or she no longer wishes to continue at that site or assignment. For example, 30 or 40 Volunteers in El Salvador who have expressed such concerns have been transferred or offered early completion of service during the past six months.
c. The Volunteer lacks sufficient language skills or strong host country relationships to handle a potential crisis. This determination is reached by the Peace Corps staff.
d. The Peace Corps Country Director, in conjunction with host country officials and Embassy staff, determines that the threat of violence or the level of violence makes effective support for our Volunteers no longer feasible.
Celeste’s passionate defense of the Peace Corps and its purpose evidently found support within the halls of Washington. But for Peace Corps Volunteers in El Salvador, the situation was not so clear. They wrote a letter to Celeste expressing their frustration with Peace Corps administration. That letter is next in “Part Four of Leaving El Salvador the First Time 1979 – 80.”