One of the early staff of the Peace Corps that I spoke to about the post card incident was Warren Wiggins, then the Associate Director for the Office of Program Development and Operations, and later to be the Deputy Director. Wiggins told me that the staff in 1961 were waiting for something to happen overseas with the Volunteers. Too many young people were overseas, he said, and there “had to be” an incident of some kind. On the afternoon of October 15, 1961, they got their incident when word reached Washington about Marjorie Michelmore and her postcard.
Gathering at HQ on that October Sunday afternoon, the senior staff was initially worried about Marjorie’s life, as well as the lives of the other Volunteers. Wiggins also realized that “The Peace Corps could be thrown out at any moment. It could be the domino theory–first we’re kicked out of Nigeria, then out of Ghana, and so on. Anything was possible.” It would be the end of the Peace Corps before it had really started.
At first there were rumors. One was [it was incorrect] that the U.S. Ambassador in Lagos, Joseph Palmer, was trying to force Marjorie out of the country against her will. Then the Peace Corps heard from Marjorie herself. She cabled Sarge Shriver telling him that it would be best for the Peace Corps, and best for her, if she came home immediately. The word was cabled back to Africa from PC/HQ: get Michelmore out of the Nigeria.
Wiggins always said Shriver was calm and cool in such moments of crisis. You know, Hemingway’s grace under pressure. But the courtly, as I recall him, Tim Adams, who had just come to the Peace Corps from the San Francisco Examiner to be the new public information officer for the agency, told Coates Redmon that by Monday morning when the story broke in the press there was, “panic in Shriver’s heart. There really was. That postcard had created a cause celebre. It was temporarily the talk of the universe.”
Shriver, however, was determined to outsmart the press. He didn’t want them meeting Michelmore when she arrived in the U.S. after a long overnight flight from Africa. He was afraid of what she might say. And what would they ask her about the new Peace Corps? Were these young white American kids up to living in Africa? Anything was possible and it would all be bad for the Peace Corps.
Shriver came up with a plan: Michelmore would fly from Lagos to London, then fly directly to Bermuda, and onto San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she would join up with Trainees at the new Peace Corps Outward Bound camp. She would then “impart cultural sensitivity caveats to the Peace Corps trainees.”
Tom Mathews, deputy director of Public Information, was dispatched to Bermuda to pick up Michelmore when she arrived on the island and fly on with her to Puerto Rico. [Marjorie’s escort officer from Lagos was a guy named Dick Ware, a tall, good looking black man who was an AID official in Nigeria, and who was about to joined the Peace Corps Staff. He would make sure to keep Marjorie away from the press leaving Lagos and on the layover in London.] All bases were covered.
Then, two nights later–the night Marjorie and Dick Ware are flying across the Atlantic– shortly after 2 a.m. EST, Tim Adams, got an urgent call from Wiggins. Warren had heard from Tom Mathews in Bermuda. The island was socked in and Marjorie’s plane was being diverted to Idlewild in New York. Shriver, Wiggins said, wanted Tim to get to New York before her BOAC plane landed. Sarge Shriver wanted to make sure that the first Peace Corps ET, Marjorie Michelmore, was kept away from the American press.[Part 3]