Making Lemonade In The Maiatico Building

I had a email recently from a dear young friend complaining that my blog is about ‘all you old farts at Peace Corps Headquarters”‘ and I wrote back, okay, I’d do more items on golf and Tiger Woods. She quickly replied, “Well, then maybe you should stay with the early days of the agency. Anything is better then golf!”

There is a lot one can write about those early days of the agency when the Peace Corps attracted the best and the brightest, or so they claimed. An early document of the agency said that the staff in D.C. and around the world was composed of “skiers, mountain climbers, big-game hunters, prizefighters, football players, polo players and enough Ph.D.’s [30] to staff a liberal arts college.” There were 18 attorneys, of whom only four continue to work strictly as attorneys in the General Counsel’s office and the rest [including Sargent Shriver] did other jobs. Also, all of these employees were parents of some 272 children.

In terms of staff and PCVs, the ratio was quite small. Figures from WWII show that 30Whoswho1

people were required to support every soldier in the front lines. After the war, peacetime ratio was one person in Washington to every four overseas.

The Peace Corps was organized with the goal of ten Volunteers on the job for every administrative or clerical person in support, and that meant everyone, from clerks, typists [remember them?] to overseas staff.

In those heavy early days when HQ was located in the Maiatico Building the agency worked on Saturdays, Sundays, and late into the evening. There is a famous photo that appeared in  a  Washington newspaper of the building all ablaze with lights as the staff worked far past closing time in those early months of ’61.

It was that kind of spirit that made the Peace Corps very special. Or as Kennedy said to the Peace Corps staff early in 1961, “I do not think it is altogether fair to say that I handed Sarge a lemon from which he made lemonade, but I do think that he was handed and you [The Peace Corps staff] were handed one of the most sensitive and difficult assignments which any administrative group in Washington has been given almost in this century.”

In his recommendations to Kennedy about how to set up the agency, Shriver had listed people he thought should be the Director. Included in this list where Eugene Rostow of Yale, Carroll Wilson of MIT, Gilbert White of the University of Chicago, and Clark Kerr of UCLA. All of these men had had experience with small overseas service programs involving the training or replacement of American students in the Third World. Kennedy rejected all of them.

Gerard T. Rice in his book The Bold Experiment, said Kennedy wanted “the Peace Corps to be an adventurous foreign policy initiative and he did not feel that a bookish type of leader would be consonant with that ethos.”

The Peace Corps in these heavy days was being covered closely by the press, especially by David Halberstam and Peter Braestrup of the New York Times.[One rumor that I heard often in those early days was that Halberstam was taken with Nancy Gore, Al’s sister, and that kept him close to the Peace Corps offices, at first only three rooms on the sixth floor of  the Maiatico Building.] The Peace Corps was very much the symbol of Kennedy’s New Frontier in those first months of his administration. On February 1, 1961, the Gallup Poll said that the ‘idea of a Peace Corps’ had an approval rate of 71%, and that was across all age groups.

On March 5, Peter Braestrup reported on Shriver’s formal nomination at Peace Corps director and also the appointment of fourteen new staff members. According to Coates Redmon people were showing up and going to work and did not know if they were being paid. Shriver came to work as a dollar-a-year-man and early on he went to the personnel director, Dorothy Jacobsen, to asked how he should go about getting government health insurance. “You can’t, Sarge,” she replied, “You don’t make enough money.”

Kennedy would sign the Peace Corps Act on September 22, 1961 in the White House. And at some point, JFK turned to Sarge and said his famous line about the creation of the Peace Corps, about how he had given Sarge a lemon and Shriver had turned it into lemonade.

Kennedy was right, and the Mad Men and Women drank the lemonade, and everything else, they could get their hands on.

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  • The focus is all wrong. The ‘lemonade’ was being made by those
    who were the PCVs in the first programs and those who trained
    and led them in the field. Let’s hear from Colombia I, Tanganyika I, and Ghana I (and the other I’s).

  • I spent about ten years working on the sixth and then the fifth floor of the Maiatico Bldg, commending in 1977, as a policy analyst in the Office of Policy, Planning, Budget and Evaluation in ACTION. I was assigned to oversee Peace Corps and VISTA, at least until Peace Corps was able to regain its independence in 1984. OPPB&E, serveed as as an independent check for the director of ACTION on the planning, programming and budgeting that was done by each of their staff.

    Mr. Maiatico would arrive each day a little after noon, with his driver and proceed to the mesanine, between the first and second floor of the building, where he had an office. The building had been rented from him since its inception. In fact, one of the Senior ACTION administrators once wrote a caustic memo stating that for a million and half dollars a year in rent, we could do better. The building included asbestos and everytime renovations were made, up went the plastic sheeting and on came the masks for theworkers makingthe alterations. After ACTION moved out of the building, in 1989 as I recall, the building was simply bulldozed into the ground and hauled away.

    The building had been rented by other agencies before Peace Corps. The Marshall Plan was written there. And, of course, Peace Corps commenced operation on the sixth floor. I have always wondered who sat in those hallowed offices in which I resided. The director of Planning at the time I came to ACTION was Don Romine. He would become one of our assistant country directors in Ethiopia, after having worked in recruitment during the inception of the Peace Corps. Don told me how he and two other staffers assigned applicants to the various projects that were being set up. Don had been working for the NSA as a GS-7 when he was transferred to the Peace Corps. They had a room with a large table in the center. Applications were stacked on the table and there was a paper listing each country pinned to the walls of the room. Each of them would read an application and put it on a stack for a specific country of assignment. If there was any question in their mind as to the placement of an applicant, they would each read it and then make a determination. It was that simple.

    Which brings me to my point, the Peace Corps would not have existed without the staff that was amassed by Sarge Shriver. Probably the most imortant decision made by the Kennedy Administration was to keep the Peace Corps as an independent agency rather than added to the foreign policy establishment. As I recall, it was Lyndon Johnson, who as part of the inner circle in overseeing the implemention of the New Deal, stated that the fastest way to kill a new program was to assign it to an existing agency.

    And, of course, the Volunteers took over from where the staff left off.

    The story of the founding of the ACTION and incorporating the Peace Corps into in in 1971 deserves to be written down, as least from what I was able to learn over the years with ACTION. Nixon was quoted as saying that the Peace Corps was the most overadvetized travel club in the world in the mid-’60s. By 1971, he got his way. However, he got something else out of it. It may be recalled that besides his southern strategy for getting elected, he mobilised the ethnic community to get reelected. Peace Corps had reserve officer positions, with country directors giving FS (reserve) 1 rank, equivalent to a GS-15 in those days. With the creation of ACTION, those country director positions were reduced to FS 2 and the 1s were moved to DC, along with other lower grade FS reserve positions. The advantage of the FS position from a political perspective, in comparison to GS positions, is that a person could be assigned as FS position without specific job-related qualifications, i.e., at least one year of previous experience in the next lower GS position. AS a result, a person with no experience at the lower level could be appointed to an FS position. And, that is what the Nixon Administration did; they appointed people to whom they owed political favors. Specifically, a number of persons who had headed ethnic organizations that had helped to get them elected received appointments. For example, the head of Armenians for Nixon, the Latvians for Nixon, and the Young Republicans were placed. Of course there were qualified Republicans appointed to these positions as well. Don Romine said that there were a total of 154 of these positions and the Washington Post stated 300. Whatever their number, one immediate impact was to not only downgrade the country staff, but Headquarters staff as well.

    Sam Brown, the director of ACTION during the Carter Administration, had the option to eliminate these FS reserve appointees after three years in office, but according to the Washington Post, he chose not to because he realized that when the Republicans came back to power, they would do the same to former Democrats, at least those political appointees who had not “borrowed” in during their tenure.

    There was much conflict between Sam Brown as the head of ACTION and Carolyn Payton the director of the Peace Corps. Sam was more policitically active. For example, he went to Jamaica and made a speech in which he said that the current government should be voted out. One of the Peace Corps country staff at the time said that it took two years to smooth over Sam’s remarks with the government of Jamaica in order to get Peace Corps progamming back on track. Sam and some of his folks traveled to other Peace Corps countries as well, as if on :junkets.” There is a story that Sam Brown was in a hotel in Ghana yelling at Carolyn through her hotel room door.

    The upshot of the conflict was an attempt to get the Peace Corps seperated from ACTION and restored to its independent status. When Paul Tsongas (Ethiopia 1) was in the House, he and Don Bonker, (D) western Washington State sponsored legislation to effect this change even before the Carter Administration; however, they were never able to get a countervailing measure in the Senate. When Paul was elected to the Senate, he sponsored the Senate legislation to match the one in the House to mmmake it happen, which occurred in 1984.

  • After I left the Peace Corps, I helped start TransCentury Corporation which, accoding to the brochure I wrote, was to be an extension of the Peace Corps by other means. Warren Wiggins was the boss,

    The company won a contract with Peace Corps when Joe Blatchford became the Director under Nixon. He envisioned taking the Peace Corps upwards and onwards; our task was managing various seminars composed of RPCVs, current staff, and other pooh-pahs under the rubric, “New Directions.”

    Confession is good for the soul so I must admit that one of the recommendations made by TransCentury was to initiate a new agency – ACTION and to almalgamate Peace Corps with a host of other Great Society programs in one giant agency.

    I rue my part in that decision to this day.

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