Still more on the Peace Corps Book Locker!

Questions on the famous Peace Corps Locker came back to me recently and once again I went searching through files looking for lost documents and I came across a letter written to me by Jack Hood Vaughn on December 3, 1999.

For those RPCVs who never received a Peace Corps Book Locker, they were given out to all of us in the early days.  The Book Locker was sent overseas  with the first Volunteers so we might start a small library in our schools, as well as having something to read. These paperback books were to be left behind when we left our towns and villages. Now, of course, PCVs have cell phone and laptops, iPods and iPhones….who needs a book!

Well, we certainly did.

What I had been trying to track down, back in the ’90s, was how did the Book  Locker come to be?

I have heard that it was Eunice Shriver who first had the idea, and she suggested it to Sarge. I also heard from Padraic Kennedy who was then the Chief of what was called the Division of Volunteer Field Support that Tim Zagat, before he went to Yale Law School in 1966, and before he started in 1979 the Zagat Guide to Restaurants, was instrumental in creating the book locker. Tim actually has on his resume that he was the “Director of Reading Material Programs for the Peace Corps.”

When I spoke to Tim Zagat last year about the book locker, his fondest memories of those days when he was still an undergraduate was hiding from Bill Josephson, the Deputy General Counsel. When he was a student-intern working in the Peace Corps Building at 806 Connecticut, he hadn’t been cleared to work and Josephson  knew that, knew him, so whenever Bill came down to his florr Tim took off.

Tim  Zagat did work on that first book locker, but the person most responsible for it, and who had been given the task by Shriver to pick the books forthe Peace Corps Book Locker, was Nathaniel Davis.

Jack Hood Vaughn back then was the Director of the Latin America Regional Office and in his letter to me in December 1999 read:  “Sarge delegated that task to Nathaniel Davis, one of the foreign service officers assigned to a tour of duty in the Peace Corps, both in Washington and overseas.”

Who was Nat Davis, I wondered. I tracked him down in 2000 at Harvey Mudd College in California where he was a professor of humanities and wrote and called him. He never replied to my phone calls or letters.

Researching his history, however, I found that he had joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after receiving a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. (He would also get  a PhD from Fletcher in 1960.)

After serving in the Foreign Service in Prague, Florence, Rome, and Moscow, he became a Soviet desk officer for the State Department, and when Khrushchev came to the US in 1959, he was an escort officer.

Davis went to the Peace Corps in early ’62 as a special assistant to Shriver, and later, I think, he was briefly the deputy director. Interestingly, in the Maiatico Building, a building full of Super Egos, he left no footprints. Neither Coates Redmon or Gerard Rice mention him in their histories of the Peace Corps agency. He is not cited at all in the early pamphlet, “Who’s Who in the Peace Corps Washington” that has bios and photos of the charter members. 

Davis was at the Peace Corps until 1965, then returned to the State Department. His first assignment was Bulgaria, before we even had an embassy in the country. From then on his life as a foreign service officer began dangerous and memorable.

In 1968 he was on the senior staff of the National Security Council when in August terrorists killed John Gordon Mein, our ambassador to Guatemala. Davis took over from Mein before going onto Chile as our ambassador.

He arrived in Chile in 1971, a year after Allende became Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president. Davis’ term there ended amid suspicions of American involvement in the 1973 military coup that resulted in Allende’s violent death. Later classified documents and Congressional hearings would show that Nixon and the CIA had operated spies in Chile, in a plan called ‘Track Two.” The agents were to cultivate military officers in Chile who opposed the governing socialists. Davis knew nothing about it until it came out in Senate hearings in  1975.

Also in 1975 he was named assistant secretary of State for African affairs to Henry Kissinger, but resigned after only four months because of differences with Kissinger and President Ford over covert military operations in Angola.

His last foreign posting was as ambassador to Switzerland from 1975 to 1977.

In his book, The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende, Davis would refute allegations of American collusion in its downfall. However, many believe he was the model for the ambassador in the 1982 Constantin Costa-Gavras film Missing, which was based on a book by the same name by Thomas Hauser.

In 1983, Davis, and two other American officials who served with him in Chile, sued Hauser, Costa-Gavras and Universal Pictures for libel, alleging that false accusation were made of their complicity in the disappearance and death of American journalist Charles Horman during the coup. They sought $60 million in damages for the “public disgrace, scorn and ridicule” they had suffered. The libel suit was ultimately thrown out of court.

Davis would leave the government and spend the next 19 years, until his retirement in 2002, teaching political science at Claremont Harvey Mudd College. He also got involved in the civil rights movement, and with the local Democratic Party. He became a mountain climber. And in 1995 he wrote a history of the Russian Orthodox Church called A Long Walk to Church.”

In May of  last year, 2011, at the age of 86, he died of cancer in Claremont, California. On his death, Kissinger would describe him as a “brilliant career officer.”

What I find most fascinating about the life and death of Nathaniel Davis is that for a very brief time, for only two years, he was at the Peace Corps, yet when he died the headline in the Los Angeles Times on May 21, 2011 read: The longtime diplomat and Peace Corps official also taught political science at Claremont’s Harvey Mudd College for 19 years until his retirement in 2002.

The Peace Corps was just a footnote in this man’s long, successful life where whatever contributions he made to the agency were not even noted by Peace Corps  historians, but nevertheless, in the world at large, in a major U.S. newspaper, the Peace Corps is as important as his diplomatic career, and his tenure as a professor of humanities at Harvey Mudd College.

Think about that when you wonder whether your two years in the Peace Corps was worth your time and effort. In the eyes of the world it surely seems to be.

7 Comments

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  • Yep. I remember exactly where I propped up my little black book locker against the front wall of my one of my fabulous old colonial farmhouses in Kenya…in 1965. I later began to translate some of the stuff intio Swahili for my Kikuyu frijuends. I recall also getting the then standard subscription to what was called the International Edition of TIME magazine priunted on extra-thin paper, I suppose for keeping the airmail cost down. Somehow, I managed to acquire the (in)famous novel of Kenya’s then not-so-distant and bloody MauMau days by Robert Ruark, Something of Value, soon to realize that I was actually working with manhy Kikuyu who were fictionalized in Ruark’s book I(which was banned in Kenya. But I don’t think THAT title would have been included in the book locker.
    David Day (Kenya 2, (65-66) and India 34 (67-68)

  • Thoughts on the book locker.

    I doubt anything by Ruark would have found its way to the book locker. But if one did, I would have suggested the “Honey Badger.”

    Davis would have been aware of any activity conducted by embassy personnel, including those from other agencies, i.e. not State Department. Cultivating key contacts in the host country is the job of all embassy personnel, the goal is to keep informed of what is happening and perhaps influence events.

    My book locker made a wonderful coffee table.

  • Nathaniel Davis was in Chile in August of 1962 setting up the Peace Corps program. I met him shortly after I arrived in Santiago while on vacation as a PCV in Colombia. We had dinner together and I told him that after skiing in Portillo, I would travel to Southern Chile. He joined me on that trip. I shared my experiences of doing community development and he introduced me to the techniques of tasting wine.

    Two years later, during my first year in graduate school, I was invited to Washington by a U.S. Government official to discuss a job in urban community development in Chile. I was convinced that the Ivy League types who took me to lunch in D.C. worked for the CIA. Nathaniel Davis was never mentioned. I’m sure it was a coincidence.

  • My husband Earle and I served in Ecuador #1 1962-64 and were eternally grateful to Nate Davis for the foot locker of books. We were extremely happy to have these books for our own mental health and often shared them with others…leaving behind the books for local people to use as well. Other books we acquired were shared amongst the PCVs in Ecuador by tearing them into thirds and circulating the books only 1/3 at a time to others by regular mail in country so that 3 people could be reading them at once..even tho we started at the 1/3 mark or somewhere else in the book! They were so coveted. among our group in the 60’s.

  • I am still searching for the list of the first (1963) booklocker as there is a title or two that I want to reread. I gave the list that I had been given for the 1964 booklocker to the LA Library and they have saved it for posterity, being exceedingly interested in what was included. I also asked them to chase down one of the books by the storyline and they were unable to come up with a title. My quest continues! As an aside, the booklocker kept me busy the second year and really taught me to read reasonably well, being lesdyxic!

  • David Gurr, If you do come up with a list of titles in any of the 1963 Booklockers, would you let me know? I’d much appreciate it since I’ve been trying to recall the titles that were in the Booklocker I was given. Thanks! Tino Calabia Peru, 1963-65

  • Something is a miss here, as we of Mococco VII had book lockers form 1966-1968. Of course there’s no need for them anymore since the younger generation can’t read.

    M. Tang

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