RECENTLY I INTERVIEWED STANLEY MEISLER, the author of the forthcoming book When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years. (The book will be published in February but you can go on-line now to Amazon.com and order your copy.) I asked Meisler in this season of thanksgiving to give his view of agency, and asked him what he learned doing his research for this important book. Here is what Stan had to say.
From the advantage points of time and distance how would you sum up the value (if any) of the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps has created an incredible resource of 200,000 Americans who know the developing world intimately. Take Africa, for example. In 1960, who in the US knew anything about Africa? Some missionaries. Some academics. When the Peace Corps was starting, I received a phone call from Berea College.
They were going to train PCVs to go to Senegal, and they asked me to run the program. I had just come back from ten months or so of travel in Africa under a Ford Foundation grant and had spent three months in Senegal. I turned them down, explaining that I did not know much about Senegal: I had only spent three months there, mostly in Dakar. Almost two years later, I went to work for the Peace Corps and flew to Senegal to do an evaluation. When I found some PCVs who had trained at Berea, I told them how I had almost run their training program but declined because of my limited experience in Senegal. They laughed at me. “Your three months,” I was told, “were three months more than anybody on the Berea training staff had ever spent in Senegal.”
Nothing like that can ever happen now. Our embassies and AID missions in Africa today are chock full of RPCVs with enormous and intimate knowledge of Africa. There is no shortage of people who know Africa, and that’s because of the Peace Corps.
The question of the impact of the PC on other countries is harder to measure. Much of what Volunteers do is just not quantifiable. PC annual reports can recite the numbers of fish ponds built or the kilos of honey created, but I have never been satisfied with those recitations. I feel the impact is so much greater. How do you measure the impact of the PC when two Volunteers befriend a poor adolescent boy and he grows up to become President of Peru? Or how do you measure the impact of a PCV teacher who inspires a young Filipino? Or how do you measure the impact of a Volunteer nurse who shows Afghan nurses that demonstrating love and concern to a patient is part of the job? I simply have never doubted the enormous impact of PCVs on their hosts.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman makes the point in her 1998 book on the agency All You Need Is Love that the “idea” of a Peace Corps was in the air and that other nations, even before the United States, were fielding corps of volunteers. Since then, all of these projects and programs have been branded ‘peace corps like.’ Why did the US claim the movement of young people going to the developing world to help others?
Most of the early Volunteer programs that I came across were private and very small like the British and Quaker programs. The French had a program that allowed military conscripts to chose alternate service in French foreign assistance. So you could not really call them Volunteers. (I remember running into a young French conscript happily living in Harrar because that is where Rimbaud lived after writing all his poetry.) What made the Peace Corps different was that it was big, fully supported by the government, and cheered on by many prideful Americans. I think it was first in this regard.
Of course, there was a special confluence of events for the Peace Corps: a dashing President, his dynamic brother-in-law, and a great outpouring of enthusiasm from young Americans. I remember, when I was the Paris correspondent of the L.A. Times, wondering why that wonderful organization, Doctors Without Borders, had started in France, not the US. I had the feeling that young educated French still had that powerful urge to serve while most young educated Americans had given that up for a powerful urge to make money. Then again, perhaps I was wrong, because a lot of young Americans still joined the Peace Corps.
Leaving Shriver off the table, what Peace Corps Director made the greatest contribution to the advancement of the agency, in the United States and overseas?
I guess it was Loret Ruppe. Everyone feared that she was some kind of Reaganite hack. But she turned into a beloved leader. She pulled the Peace Corps out of ACTION, and she defied her Republican Party by ruling that the appointment of Peace Corps directors overseas would be made without any suggestions or interference from the White House. She also had no doubts in her mind that her main job was to help the PCVs and their work. The right-wing Heritage Foundation issued a report calling her a thorn in the side of Reagan. That didn’t influence Reagan. He, just like the PC staff and Volunteers, loved her.
Having said this, I would like to throw in a word for Jack Vaughn as almost as important. Jack knew that he was taking over a highly successful agency but one in need of improvement. So he made the improvements — more intense training, better site selection, smaller programs — while making it still seem like Shriver’s Peace Corps.
Going back to your old job, how important was the Evaluation Division in making sure that the Peace Corps was kept on the straight and narrow?
I consider it a key factor in pointing out all the early problems of the Peace Corps. Originally Shriver set it up with the idea that he would become informed of scandals and failures before Time magazine got hold of them. But Charlie Peters turned it into far more than that. Time, in fact, never had any trouble finding scandals. But Evaluation gave Shriver and Vaughn an insight by a neutral source into how well the Peace Corps was doing overseas. If you are in Washington creating a program or overseas running the program it is very hard to find anything wrong with the program: programs all seem well above average to those creating and running them. But Charlie sent journalists, lawyers, RPCVs and even novelists who knew little about the programs and instructed them to come up with an honest and unbiased view of what was going on overseas. And an evaluator came to every country every year. The evaluation reports now in the National Archives are an incredible store house of well-written, anecdote-filled pictures of the early PC. Evaluators soon found that PCVs were the best people to let them know what was really going on. But Evaluation ended with the Nixon Administration. Now the Inspector-General’s office sends evaluators out when word seeps back that there is some problem overseas. There is no periodic evaluation. I sometimes wonder how the director of the PC can really find out what is going in so many different countries these days without periodic evaluations by outsiders.
You have heard a lot of stories about PCVs and overseas staff, as well, as HQ. Take a few great stories from the books, or tales that didn’t make your book?
One good story that didn’t make my book centers on an Evaluation failure. Charlie Peters invited the novelist Mark Harris to do an evaluation in, I think, Liberia. Harris had written the wonderful baseball novel, Bang the Drum Slowly. Before he went out, Harris, who had a nebbish manner like Woody Allen, asked me if I thought it was a good idea for him to take his typewriter along. I told him it wasn’t. You are so busy listening to PCVs and taking notes all day that you barely have time to read them before you fall asleep each night in your hotel room, I said. There’s no time for any other writing. Harris thanked me and said he would probably take his typewriter anyway.
Soon after he finished the evaluation, Harris published his memoir, Twenty-One Twice, about his time in Africa. He took his title from the fact that he was now twice the age of most of the PCVs. His memoir is full of meanderings about his own feelings and full of scenes with PCVs banging on his hotel door to talk to him while he yells at them to leave him alone so he can work on his typewriter. There is a great scene in the book in which Harris hands Charlie his evaluation which says that everything is wonderful in Liberia. Charlie glares at him and asks, Are you sure you went to Liberia? This was not considered a successful evaluation.
RPCV Michael Schmicker’s memoir about his Thailand days, Land of Smiles, which he wrote under the pseudonym A. A. Maytree, is full of good anecdotes. One that I didn’t use because of space problems involves the US military. During the Vietnam War, there were 50,000 US military based in Thailand and another 6,000 came every month for R&R from Vietnam. The military had pressured Kevin Delany, the PC director, to let the big US general talk to the incoming PCVs so that the Peace Corps and the US War Corps would understand each other better. Delany reluctantly agreed. The general welcomed the PCVs and offered them his insight into the people of Thailand. “You may find the Thai people are not very swift,” he said, “but they’re great little people.” Delany never allowed a general near the Volunteers again.
Warren Wiggins, when I interviewed him in the mid-nineties for Peace Corps Writers said that the Peace Corps couldn’t be started today, that it came about at a perfect moment of time and opportunity. We have had, however, other creative ventures, Teach For America, for example, and lately Charter Schools. If you were reinventing the Peace Corps, what would it be?
I have always felt that the Peace Corps can only be reinvented by the Volunteers themselves. All the good changes that I have seen over the years — in-country training, intensive language study, isolated assignments — have come about through pressure from the Volunteer community. All the best ideas of the evaluators in my days were put into our heads by the volunteers. The dumbest ideas — like sending Volunteers into Eastern Europe to spread capitalism — have come from directors and other policymakers who really did not understand the Peace Corps. So I’d like to leave the reinvention question for RPCVs. I wasn’t a Volunteer. Besides, I don’t think the PC needs reinvention. The original format — enthusiastic Volunteers, with strong and wise support, spending enough time at their site so no one can call them tourists — still makes a lot of sense to me.
Have you ever read “A Towering Task,” the concept paper by Wiggins & Josephson that launched the Peace Corps?
Oh, yes, I’ve read it several times. I always marvel at how nonsensical much of it was. It envisioned sending 50,000 teachers to India and 17,000 to the Philippines. That would have been madness. But the report had two vital suggestions: the Peace Corps needed to be large enough to make an impact and it needed to be created quickly by executive order. Harris Wofford and many others these days like to say that JFK envisioned a PC of 100,000 Volunteers. That may have been true later, but, at the beginning, he envisioned a Peace Corps of a few hundred Volunteers closely supervised by AID. He was afraid these inexperienced young people running around the world might cause him a lot of headaches. But starting with a few hundred would have been just as disastrous as trying to send 50,000 PCVs to India. What “A Towering Task” did was give Shriver the rational to create a large Peace Corps as quickly as possible. I think Donovan McClure was very right when he said that if the report hadn’t reached Shriver, he would have ordered something like it through his hotel’s room service.