New Academic Book Slams Early Peace Corps Volunteers & Agency

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(Thanks to Janet Lee (Ethiopia 1974-76) for the ‘heads up’ on this new book about the Peace Corps.)

How the 1960s Peace Corps’ gendered modernization ideology shaped social movements across the Americas

In a provocative cultural history of the 1960s Peace Corps, Molly Geidel argues that the agency’s representative development ventures legitimated the violent exercise of American power around the world and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.

Peace Corps Fantasies illuminates the normative force and gendered imperatives of U. S. endeavors to fortify liberal internationalism against anticolonial struggles for freedom. -Quote from Alyosh  Goldstein, University of New Mexico

Description of the book on the back cover

To tens of thousands of volunteers in its first decade, the Peace Corps was “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” In the United States’ popular imagination to this day, it is a symbol of selfless altruism and the most successful program of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. But in her provocative new cultural history of the 1960s Peace Corps, Molly Geidel argues that the agency’s representative development ventures also legitimated the violent exercise of American power around the world and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.

In the 1960s, the practice of development work, embodied by iconic Peace Corps volunteers, allowed U.S. policy makers to manage global inequality while assuaging their own gendered anxieties about postwar affluence. Geidel traces how modernization theorists used the Peace Corps to craft the archetype of the heroic development worker: a ruggedly masculine figure who would inspire individuals and communities to abandon traditional lifestyles and seek integration into the global capitalist system.

Drawing on original archival and ethnographic research, Geidel analyzes how Peace Corps volunteers struggled to apply these ideals. The book focuses on the case of Bolivia, where indigenous nationalist movements dramatically expelled the Peace Corps in 1971. She also shows how Peace Corps development ideology shaped domestic and transnational social protest, including U.S. civil rights, black nationalist, and antiwar movements.

The main contention of this book is that the Peace Corps embodied and disseminated a particularly heroic and compelling iteration of modernization theory in the 1960s, due largely to the promise of masculinity and brotherhood it embodied. This gendered modernization project allowed the United States to maintain global hegemony.

Contents

Introduction: The Seductive Culture of Development
1. Fantasies of Brotherhood: Modernization Theory and the Making of the Peace Corps
2. Integration and Its Limits: From Romantic Racism to Peace Corps Authenticity
3. Breaking the Bonds: Decolonization, Domesticity, and the Peace Corps Girl
4. Bringing the Peace Corps Home: Development in the Black Freedom Movement
5. Ambiguous Liberation: The Vietnam War and the Committee of Returned Volunteers
6. The Peace Corps, Population Control, and Cultural Nationalist Resistance in 1960s Bolivia
Conclusion: Heroic Development in an Age of Decline
Publication Year: 2015
Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Molly Geidel holds the equivalent of a tenure-track appointment at the University of Manchester in England. Her official title is Lecturer in Twentieth Century American Cultural History in the Division of English, American Studies and Creative Writing.

14 Comments

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  • Obviously Molly never was in the field of South America where the PCV formed a bond with the poor, discriminated against indigenous residents, whose enemy was the establishment and the landed gentry. Obviously she didn’t read Frank Mankiewicz’s exhortations about what PCVs job was in South America…That’s why when PCVs returned home in the Sixties they joined in the anti-war and anti-racism ranks. I love how England, the greatest Colonial power on earth, is always trying to bring Americans down. Without Peace Corps involvement indigenous Peruvian Alejandro Toledo would NEVER have been able to get educated and hence be able to challenge the corrupt Fujimori Presidency and become South America’s first indigenous President in 500 years…If Molly’s book is not printed on coated paper it would be good for the outhouse.

  • Thanks William, the outhouse is not good enough for her writings! Molly, you are a frustrated uneducated individual who knows nothing about Latin America or the Peace Corps. In 1971 Bolivia did close their program…but it was the film “Blood of the Condor” which was filmed by East Germans and financed with Soviet backing and Cuban involvement. Fidel was primed to get the Peace Corps out of Latin America. Do your homework Molly, or stay out of the kitchen!

    Why does the Communist President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega believe in Peace Corps? And Venezuelan President Chavez invited Peace Corps and their Crisis Corps into to his country after a major flood and natural disaster? They know the value of the Volunteers! Wake up Miss Molly!

    Don’t mess with my Peace Corps!

  • I’m one of those people who believes you can’t knock a book you haven’t read. I am particularly interested in reading the chapter titled, “The Peace Corps Girl.”

    GIRL???? What the fuck?

    However, I do hate having to fork over the price of the book what with the personal insult, so John, you got a way of getting a freebie? How about I offer to review it for peacecorpsworldwide.org? Or maybe I should contact the Times (London) and make that offer. Or how about a former volunteer-now-academic doing that?

  • Absent a Peace Corps Library, there is no way to research and refute such books. I also believe that not every Peace Corps Volunteer had the same experience or venerates the same “staff”. The story of Peace Corps is not monolithic; but rather made up of 200,000 plus experiences and those are the encounters between Volunteers and host country nationals. Not everyone, William Eversen, came home and joined the anti-war movement. Not every Volunteer accepted the romantic notions of Mankiewicz. I would love to read Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s review of this book! As a Peace Corps Volunteer, in my group we were known, in official reports, as “the Health Girls.”

  • At least 158 libraries have purchased this book. If your local library does not own it, request it through Interlibrary Loan.

  • Based on what little I know of the book it does remind me of what became the fashion in Appalachian Studies among academics to disparage the work of ‘outsiders’ who came into the region to ‘do good’ The outsiders were charged with destroying local culture, exploiting the natural resources, and trying to impose other values on a people who already had their own I’m guessing this author is suffering from the same ‘academic’ bias against accepting the plain truth as truth.

  • It should be clear to anyone who was involved in the Peace Corps in the sixties that the policy of the US government was one of perpetual war, first in Viet Nam, later in the middle east. None of these wars was ever declared by Congress, which constitutionally(remember the
    Constituion?) had the sole power to declare war. There always needs to be an enemy: Communism, terrorism, Sadam, Al Quaida,
    ISIS, radical Islam. Terrorism, of course, can never be defeated, so the need for national security is endless.
    Peace Corps allowed the government to hold up to all its humanitarian nature, when, in truth, it energized the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ and expanded the number of consumers of American goods and services.
    “Defending America” costs trillions of dollars annually, while the Peace Corps must scrape and bow for a few million here and there.
    Who is kidding who?

  • The book, as far as I can tell, is a dissertation from Boston University’s women’s studies program. That’s a standard way for a new PhD to get a first book publication. University of Minnesota Press. Not bad. Anyone who has been through the grind of getting a book through a university press knows that the scrutiny is intense (I have recently accompanied Kate Browne on her publishing odyssey at University of Texas Press for her Katrina book). And it looks as if the book (and Geidel’s other publications) were good enough to get her a job. Not easy these days. It is too bad that she chose the Bolivia case. I have run into Bolivians here at Colorado State who sincerely believe that PCVs were sterilizing indigenous women. That’s when I discovered “Blood of the Condor.” But I suppose we shouldn’t be too smug about Bolivians who will not be persuaded otherwise when the good citizens of Houston, Texas, just rejected the Equal Rights Ordinance out of fear that lecherous men claiming to be women (you know, those transgender Jenner types) would insist on using the ladies room in public places. What the fuck!

  • Thank you, Jane, for the information. I think this book may well be a serious academic treatment. I googled Molly Geidel and found this article:

    “Sowing Death in Our Women’s Wombs”: Modernization and
    Indigenous Nationalism in the 1960s Peace Corps and Jorge Sanjinés’
    Yawar Mallku
    Molly Geidel
    American Quarterly, Volume 62, Number 3, September 2010,
    pp. 763-786 (Article)
    Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

    Here is the link: I think it is a copy and paste.
    https://www.academia.edu/7254143/Sowing_Death_in_Our_Women_s_Wombs_Modernization_and_Indigenous_Nationalism_in_the_1960s_Peace_Corps_and_Jorge_Sanjinés_Yawar_Mallku_
    This is about “Blood of the Condor.”

  • Thank you, Jane, for this information and insight. I googled Molly Geidel and found a link to this article:
    “Sowing Death in Our Women’s Wombs”: Modernization and
    Indigenous Nationalism in the 1960s Peace Corps and Jorge Sanjinés’
    Yawar Mallku
    Molly Geidel
    American Quarterly, Volume 62, Number 3, September 2010,
    pp. 763-786 (Article)
    Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

  • I for one will not pay $28.50 to Kindle for a book that believes writing a negative report on America’s Peace Corps sells books. Miss Molly, a Brit feels to side with the East German producers of Blood of the Condor is correct. Never asking as a professional reporter would, where’s the proof, interview the women that were operated on…Miss Molly does not, because it never happened! Except for the Soviet and Cuban propaganda…it had only been a few years after (four to be exact) Che was killed in Bolivia. Do your homework Miss Molly!
    And the University of Minnesota failed by not checking on the facts and claims made by Miss Molly. Is this what they teach at the University?

  • As a PC staff person (HQ and India) from 1964-70, I don’t recognize the language used to describe the Peace Corps in it’s early years.

    One of the best pieces of evidence of the positive impact Peace Corps volunteers had on the lives of those with whom they lived and worked was brought home to me when 25 years later I went to work for a nonprofit international development organization working with local NGOs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Over and over and over again when I met the remarkable leaders of these young organizations, I would learn they had once been taught by a Peace Corps volunteer who changed their lives. What greater legacy from the 60s could we want?

  • Good grief, I never imagined that my PCV friends and I were such an insidious and subversive subspecies of homo sapiens. Ms. Geidel makes us look like we walked straight out of the pages of a Fu Manchu novel.

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