On The Eve Of The Great Peace Corps Rally

This Friday morning, this morning before the big RPCV rally in Washington, D.C. at 2 p.m. in Freedom Plaza (14th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW) to support “Obama’s Peace Corps Vision” the question– which we have never answered–remains: What Has The Peace Corps Done For America?

In 2011, the Peace Corps will be fifty years old. This agency is generally seen as the shining achievement of Kennedy’s brief presidency. But what is the legacy of those Volunteers? What lessons can America, and the rest of the world, learn from Volunteers who have served overseas over the past five decades?

In the first days of creating the Peace Corps, John F. Kennedy remarked to Harris Wofford that he saw the real benefit of the agency to be in how these former Volunteers would vote on foreign affair issues once they returned home. Kennedy envisioned hundreds of thousands of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers contributing to American society, not only in how they voted, but how they lived their lives.

Sargant Shriver always believed RPCVs would have their greatest contribution in the way they raised their children. It would be the children of RPCVs who would change the world because of how intelligently they were raised.

Since the summer of 1961, perhaps  210,000 Americans (more or less) have been Peace Corps Volunteers. Now, at the agency approaches Senior Citizenship, it is time to make an assessment of an agency that many (but not all) Americans think is the best foreign aid venture America has ever done. From these Volunteers, and from their experiences, there is much that Americans can learn about the world.

But how has two years in the developing world changed America? How has it changed the way Americans view other countries? Has the Peace Corps provided a new vision for our neighbor down the street?

My guess is not very much.

The way Americans joined the Bush Administration’s war in Iraq shows that RPCVs–and what they learned overseas–did not have much influence with that neighbor down the street. RPCVs have not been a political or social power in the United States.

Back in the 1960s I believed in time most congressmen and women, and most Senators, would be RPCVs. I was wrong. (Of course, it is painfully true that those people serving in Congress aren’t army vets either. They are simply politicians! Hey, it’s a job.)

The fact is that most Peace Corps Volunteers serve overseas and then come home and put away the experience, all those photos from the developing world, and only think about the Peace Corps when they tell their kids good night stories. “There was the time I was riding through the jungle and a spitting cobra….!”

You can put a lot of children to sleep on Peace Corps stories.

But you can also do more.

When Marian Beil and I started our Peace Corps Writers newsletter back in the late 1980s it was our hope that we would encourage, promote and enlarge the number of stories written by PCVs and RPCVs about the Peace Corps, and that these stories would educate Americans about what it meant to be a PCVs, what it meant to live in cultures vastly different than our own, and what we could learn from other societies.

There are perhaps a 1000 books written about the experience. It is too few, of course, but some of these tales have moved beyond the Peace Corps. They have found a place on the shelf of contemporary American literature.  They have become part of the legacy of letters in our culture. Why, Peace Corps books are being read in local book clubs. Now, that’s progress!

For those Americans who still read, whether it is a paperback novel or on a Kindle, we have a lot to say. And Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) perhaps said it best:  “We are torchbearers of a vital tradition, that of shedding light in the mythical heart of darkness. We are descendants of Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other men and women, expatriates and travel writers and wanderers, who have enriched our domestic literature with the spices of Cathay, who have tried to communicate the ‘exotic’ as a relative, rather than an absolute, quality of humanity.”

So, go to the rally tomorrow in D.C. and cheer on the MorePeaceCorps campaign, and then go home and do yourself, and all of us, a favor and write down your tales from your Peace Corps years. Educate someone, even if it is just the neighbor down the street.

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  • John, to your point about how “activist” we RPCVs have been here in the States over the years: I learned a lesson that helped me crystallize my own thoughts on the subject when I was an ACTION recruiter and hung out 24/7 with former VISTAs on drives. We had a lot of time to compare notes…and personalities.

    Even as we described our respective programs to potential recruits, we RPCVs and former VISTAs, it was clear that while our goal may be the same–effecting change–our methods were radically different. In the Peace Corps, to be effective we were expected to go along to get along–adapt to the local culture so that we would rub as few people as possible the wrong way. It was entirely the opposite for VISTAs. Their primary job, at least back in the late 60s-early 70s, (and which made the program so very unpopular among the powers-that-were) was to rouse the rabble, teach them their constitutional rights and empower them to go up against The Man. We were both agents of change, but PCVs must be adapters, people who basically get along, while VISTAs had to be more on the abrasive side and always searching for the next injustice to fight.

    So Peace Corps and VISTA attracted two very different types of personality, and we naturally carry those traits with us in our various walks of life post-PC. If we RPCVs have effected any change at all in the U.S., (our numbers at 200+K are still small, alas), it has been quietly, (dare I say passively?) often through mere example. Certainly through our books, but, as you say, books only touch the relatively few who read them. But by nature we aren’t activists. We could never have succeeded as PCVs if we were.

    It’s a whole ‘nother story with former VISTAs. I’m not aware of any studies, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there are more of them among the ranks of today’s professional politicians than than there are of RPCVs.

  • Ralph–Much of what you say is true, but lets not forget the Bruce Murrays in the Peace Corps, those who rallied against the Vietnam War and lost out to the Peace Corps Administration, i.e., got kicked out!

    There were also some (at least one) CD who joined local demontrations against the war. I’m thinking of Joe Murphy in Ethiopia back in the early ’70s….He drove C. Payne Lucas, then head of the African Region, crazy, I’m sure.

    Also, I know of PCVs who were ‘involved’ in political actions overseas, particularly those serving in southern Africa. There weren’t many, but there were some. Then we have Paul Theroux, the most famous of these political-action types, who was also kicked out of Malawi by the government, theirs nor ours. But then, again, Paul wrote all about it!

    I rest my case. More Power to the Writers!

  • Dear John,

    Like so many of my “Recovering Peace Corps Volunteer” friends, we still revel in our experience, communicate it, stay connected with our overseas families, continue to serve them, along with our respective communities, all in the name of that great American experience called Peace Corps.

    RPCV children hear more than bedtime stories about their parents’ experiences; they inherit global values and vision.

    RPCV politics may not be as vast and potent as you would wish, but I would guess that most RPCV votes went to Obama because of our wish to restore a sense of American honor in the world at large.

    Peace Corps’ mission is accomplished in increments. During almost fifty years it has touched so many people. If there have been 210,000 volunteers, I’m imagining that each volunteer has a relationship with at least ten people abroad. Do the math. That’s quite an impact.

    Quiet as it is and slow-moving as it is, I’m proud to be part of that movement and have full faith in its ever-expanding future.

    Leita

  • Hello John,

    I thought all of this discussion was supposed to be ended.

    I would simply add my principal point from before, that concerning RPCVs becoming what Shriver and JFK envisioned, IT ALL DIED IN THE RICE PADDIES OF VIETNAM, and Woodstock was the funeral. The entire generation walked away from the idea and hope that they could be heard and make a difference — in national policy. You were a gov’t functionary back then, John, and missed the whole scene — except for conversations with the few individuals you cite. Paul Theroux, whom you cite, was my roomie for a brief time, and, having been evicted from Malawi, spent the subsequent critical years in E Africa teaching, missed the Vietnam call-up, and saw the Vietnam War inevitably as a sort of abstraction.

    My second point has been that trying to resusitate something which is fundamentally dead is futile, and that come the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps the entire thing, including the relationship of citizen to government, has to be reevaluated, as a basis for a new approach. It’s already happening, and you see more and more fiscal and personal incentives offered, which back in the 1960s weren’t necessary because PCVs simply BELIEVED IN IT. It’s an entirely new age today.

    Why would anyone expect young Americans to believe in the moral substance of the country, when half the Congress does not ? And the same can be said for Democracy — after Florida, 2000.

    Young Americans will join the Peace Corps today, I think, for a very existential and personal reason, and hope to do some human, individual good. But the idea that it’s all for flag and country DIED IN VIETNAM.

    That’s my opinion, anyway. Military credentials upon request.

    John Turnbull NMPCA Santa Fe

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