Nixon’s Peace Corps Director, Joe Blatchford, dies

 

In Memoriam: Former Peace Corps Director Joseph Blatchford

by Steven Boyd Saum (Ukraine 1994-96)

The Peace Corps community mourns the loss of Joseph H. Blatchford, third director of the Peace Corps. He took on that role at a time that heralded, he said, a “new world and a different America from 1961” when the Peace Corps was launched.

Joseph Blatchford was appointed to lead the Peace Corps by President Richard Nixon in May 1969 — and he headed the agency during turbulent times of Nixon’s first administration. Tapped for the post at 34 years old, he came with nearly a decade’s experience of organizing international volunteers: In 1961, he had launched the organization Accion to send U.S. volunteers to work in Latin America.

Some of the initial luster was already off Peace Corps when Blatchford took on the director’s role. That was true in the U.S. — deeply divided over the war in Vietnam — as well as internationally, where countries were increasingly seeking Volunteers with greater skills and expertise.

Blatchford called for a “wider spectrum” of volunteers, seeking, as the New York Times noted, to enlist “trade union members and blue collar workers, mature persons in mid-career, not just fresh college graduates.” He also floated the idea of a “reverse Peace Corps” to bring volunteers to the U.S. to help in domestic antipoverty programs.

New Directions

Blatchford introduced changes to the agency under the banner of “New Directions.” That included the creation of an office for minority affairs. “I think that the people who characterized the Peace Corps as an organization made up primarily of lily-white, middle-class people may have had a very valid point,” he told an audience at Harvard University in 1970. “But I think that has changed. We have a tremendous need for Blacks and other minorities, particularly in places like Africa and Latin America.”

It was also during his tenure as director, in May 1970, that a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers occupied Peace Corps headquarters for several days in protest of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. That was the same U.S. military campaign that led to the tragic shootings at Kent State University.

In the fall of 1970, writing for the journal Foreign Affairs, Blatchford asked, “Are we seeing the beginning of the end for the Peace Corps, or is it perhaps the end of the beginning?” He noted, “The American people, in a public opinion poll, declared the Peace Corps to be the best investment among our foreign assistance programs.” But, he said, “To attract Volunteers from a wider spectrum of American society, the Peace Corps has to broaden its appeal.” He put in place policies to allow Volunteers to serve with families. And he recognized that when it came to building true partnerships with countries, “if the Peace Corps has done better than some agencies, it is still behind the times.”

At a time of national turmoil, he also raised a question that resonates many decades later: “It is common for Americans to ask today, ‘Why go overseas when there is so much to be done at home?’ The answer to the question is also best exemplified in the nearly 40,000 Volunteers who have now served in the Peace Corps and returned home. After living among the poor abroad and struggling in the agonizing process of change, they are not satisfied with ‘band-aid’ cures.”

He acknowledged the “bitter disillusionment over the Vietnam war among the Peace Corps’ traditional college constituency. For many of these students the Peace Corps is tainted by the war, an arm of the Establishment, merely the most tolerable part of an intolerable government.”

And he recognized the perception that the days of the Peace Corps might be numbered. “Some think the President will allow the Peace Corps to die of inattention. In the Congress the Peace Corps could fall victim to partisan politics.”

That didn’t happen. But under Nixon Peace Corps was folded into a new umbrella agency, ACTION, along with other domestic agencies including VISTA and Teacher Corps. And Blatchford was named head of ACTION.

Blatchford’s life story includes a remarkable television moment as well: As Director of the Peace Corps, in 1972 he appeared on “The Mike Douglas Show,” which was being guest-hosted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. One fellow guest that day: rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.

That same year saw President Nixon reelected in a landslide. All agency heads were asked to submit their resignations. The story is that Blatchford told a colleague, “But I thought we won.” Along with a pro forma resignation, he submitted a real resignation letter, and he stepped down at the end of the year.

Click for more on Blatchford at this post

 

 

 

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  • John Coyne:Is the story true that Joe Blatchford ordered all records of previous volunteers destroyed
    _-possibly on orders from :higher up” in the fear that if the records existed, there might be an anti-Nixon effort on the part of RPCV’s. I heard this story from a well placed source in Washington. Was it accurate?
    Saly this also meant that those of us who served prior to 1969 are not able to find most of our Peace
    Corps colleagues. Yes, there are two editions of a privately printed “Who’s Who in the Peace Corps” dated as late as 1999, but even the publishers of that book admitted that it was far from comprehensive.

    Walter P. Blass, Country Director 1966-68 Afghanistan

  • Walter, not sure that is true. I had heard it as well. Back in 1964, the story was that our records had been shipped to a warehouse in Saint Louis and they were destroyed in a fire. I do know that Carol Bellamy, using SS # of PCVs, pulled together the names and addresses of all RPCVs.

    • Great article, thanks for sharing. I graduated college in spring 1970, right after the four Kent State students were murdered, when Nixon was invading Cambodia widening the Vietnam War, and after several tumultuous years–the worst being 1968–and I recall well the ambivalence toward the Peace Corps then and the feeling that one might better serve in the U.S., dealing with the many issues here. It was a personal dilemma, part of me really wanted to join Peace Corps. I chose to join VISTA instead and was a volunteer sponsored by the Legal Aid Society in a low-income are in Yonkers, NY. I extended for a second year to continue working with Legal Aid, the Urban League, and local community residents on a large urban renewal project there to gain citizen input. One unexpected and amazing thing was that our citizens group ended up hiring the great Jackie Robinson’s construction company to build the new housing units; Jackie Robinson attended one of our community meetings, which was awesome. Sadly, he died later that year or early next. I left before construction started, replaced by another VISTA, but the housing units were built and are still serving the community. As for the Peace Corps, the dream never died. I joined five years later to serve in Thailand (1977-80). Both were truly life-changing experiences.

    • At one point, I did a FOIA asking about Peace Corps Records stored in St. Louis and destroyed by fire. The response was no Peace Corps Records were stored there. I also tried to get my Peace Corps medical records and was told Peace Corps had no medical records for me, from my time in host country.

  • I am so sorry to hear of Blatchford’s death. I wrote about him in my memoir, In Search of Pink Flamingos. In the early 70’s he came to visit me as a volunteer in my remote village in Zorgowee, Liberia. I even have a photo of us together. Another volunteer told me of his encounter via a phone call in the US when he was encouraging the trades people to join the PC. He was a special caring man.

    • I was the PC/Washington Liberia Desk Officer during the whole of Joe Blatchford’s tenure as director of ACTION, Nixon’s multi-armed agency which included the Peace Corps. I accompanied him and Africa Regional Director Hank Raullerson on the visit Sue speaks of to Liberia. I seem to recall that it was his first trip to visit a Peace Corps program. As is the case these days, but not nearly as vindictive, Nixon was opposed to virtually any part of government that was a favorite of JFK. Thus many staff members were fearful as to what Blatchford’s marching orders were when he assumed the mantle of Director from Jack Vaughn. I for one was pleasantly surprised when our worst fears were not borne out. Rather, Blatchford’s ‘New Directions’ breathed new life into Peace Corps programming with many more skilled PCVs, older Volunteers and families. PC/Liberia certainly benefited from these ‘New Directions’. A half century later, I must admit that I do not recall the visit to Zorgowee Sue, but do recall a welcome banquet hosted by the Governor of Bong County in honor of Blatchford and his entourage. Little ole junior me was indeed impressed!!

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