One RPCV View — Elizabeth Kallman’s THE DEATH OF IDEALISM


The Death of Idealism: Development and Anti-Politics
in the Peace Corps
by Meghan Elizabeth Kallman (NPCV)
Columbia University Press
293 pages
April 2020
$28.00 (paperback); $15.39 (kindle); $110.00 (hardback)


Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)

As I read Meghan Elizabeth Kallman’s book, THE DEATH OF IDEALISM: Development and Anti-Politics in the Peace Corps, all I could think was, of course, idealism was challenged by the experience of being in the Peace Corps. It should have been, if you accept the definition of Idealism as: the practice of forming or pursuing an ideal unrealistically, as in the idealism of youth.

Kallman’s book is an erudite, complex treatise on the many ways that idealism was “killed” in Peace Corps Volunteers over the organization’s six-decade history. I’m afraid I can only speak for myself and a few others of my early 1960s cohort in this review, a microcosm in relation to the whole.

Marnie Mueller

I was in one of the early Peace Corps groups, entering on a beautiful, unseasonably warm fall day, November 22, 1963. I had a certain sophistication, but nothing like the sophisticated girl named Ciel with whom I walked up Seventh Avenue toward Central Park that day from our New York City Hotel on 54th Street, and entered a Deli to a barrage of distraught voices saying “the president has been shot in Dallas.” Minutes later the news came over a radio on the counter, announcing through the static that the president had been pronounced dead.

The next I remember is hanging out the window of our hotel room, looking down five stories to the street, and watching people gathering together and dispersing and hurrying on their way. Ciel told me she’d talked on the phone to a former boyfriend, who wrote for Ramparts magazine that the word out was that Johnson had Kennedy shot. “I’m a cynical person,” she said, “and I believe it.” Ramparts, a radical magazine, was new to me, as was the word cynical as a self-identification. My idealistic parents were the furthest from cynical, believing they could make a better, more egalitarian world if they just keep working at it, and I certainly didn’t come up against cynical people during my university years in Cleveland, Ohio. I was struck by Ciel’s worldliness as I tried on the concept of cynicism in my mind, turning it over and over and applying it to what I heard on television that afternoon. Don’t believe what you’re seeing, I said to myself, don’t be taken in by the obvious.

Our group left before dawn the next day to go to Idlewild airport for a flight to Puerto Rico for training. They wanted to get us out of the country as quickly as possible, the people in charge said. As we waited for our flight I noticed people staring at us with looks of sympathy. I didn’t understand until I noted that the tags on our suitcases said Peace Corps. We were Kennedy’s children and we would remain so for years.

But that was the end of our mourning period. By the time we finished the intensive Outward Bound training, we had missed participating in the national sorrow, hadn’t seen Jack Ruby assassinate Oswald, hadn’t witnessed the funeral, hadn’t taken in what would be an iconic image of Jackie, the veil obscuring her face, hadn’t seen John-John saluting when his father’s coffin passed. We’d not had television for the entire month, nor Time Magazine or Life, nor newspapers. Instead, we’d begun our new lives as adults and would for the next two years carry on without coming to terms with the changes initiated in our own country or even incorporating into ourselves the political course in our nation that began with the death of our president. The only image I carry with me after that was our shock in the Dallas airport on a stopover when one of us caught sight in the gift store of an ashtray with Kennedy’s image dead center, for putting out a cigarette.

What I’m trying to say with this personal story is that the death of idealism comes in many forms. And in our case as a group, it happened eight hours into our service, before Peace Corps policies had an effect on us. We were already primed for loss of idealism when we set out. And what I’m also attempting to say, is that it wasn’t the Peace Corps that caused us to lose our political virginity, it was the experience of living among destitute people, and coming up against military juntas, attempted coups, and our own missteps and bone-crushing mistakes. It was the cold war politics of our country and the secret underpinnings of why we were there in the first place. I’ve always said that we were the grunts for our country’s cold war, just as the boys were who were sent to Vietnam. If anything it was that unspoken agenda, which emanated from the top echelons of our government, that eroded what we set out to do in the early ’60s, and left us confused about why many of our endeavors went so wrong.

Kallman writes of that period as though it was the best of times for idealists. She goes on to criticize the “professionalization” of the Peace Corps and from my reading, how that undermined the freedom of volunteers and constrained their idealistic creativity and in a sense brought careerists into the fold as it discouraged idealist goals.

Our group was perhaps anomalous for the time. We were edgy, many with a dark sense of humor, untrained for anything specific, with unusually non-sexist men, and determined, adventurous women. We even had a tough-as-nails white Pachuco girl from LA, complete with gang tattoo, in our group. We were twenty-four women and thirty-two men, a pretty good gender ratio. Of the fifty-six there were two African Americans, one female, and one male. When Kallman writes of the sexist, militarized culture of the early Peace Corps, I have to disagree. We, women, were expected to do all that the men did and many times during the outward-bound section we displayed more physical courage than the men and were applauded for it. We viewed the physical feats as empowering athletic challenges: rock climbing, drown proofing, running a mile each morning, belaying off a 200-foot dam. Were we idealistic? That’s hard to say. We were too busy to speak about our dreams.

We were generalists whose mission was to do community development. My complaint, beyond the geo-political, hidden agenda, was the fact that there wasn’t a certain professional criteria demanded of us. Of the group, I was definitely the best prepared to do community development. My father was a masterful community organizer, and I learned from the earliest age by observing him, how one waits and listens and eats the food proffered by poor people and how important it is to have people speak their minds and needs, even when you as the organizer disagree with them. As a result, I went into my urban community in Guayaquil, Ecuador, well versed in what I had to do. Even with that, it at times was brutal. But too many in our group wandered in a desert of not knowing what to do or how to reach results. Only those who had other special skills like a woman weaver who finally of her own accord went to work with Salasaca tribal weavers, helping them to get back to using organic dyes. Or, Ceil, my friend, who after weeping for 12 hours one Christmas night high-tailed it out of Guayaquil, up to the mountains to use her gift as a brilliant ethnographic photographer to document the craftspeople for OCEPA, an Ecuadorian crafts co-operative organization.

For a while, we had trained with a group of young men whose task it was to set up credit unions throughout Ecuador. They spent their time learning about the principles of the co-operative movement, the economic benefits of co-operatives and gained skillful expertise in community organizing techniques. They went in as professionals. We could have used a lot more professionalism, if indeed, as purported, we were expected to do a job and not just satisfy and indulge our own idealistic desires.

I could say a lot more about how things went bad, and also what went well, for me and our group in Ecuador. Perhaps for another essay. But what I do know is that it trained all of us to be skeptical about surface appearances, whether purveyors of utopian ideals are purporting to save the world, or are on a warpath to destruction. It trained us to analyze and think for ourselves politically and culturally. And I think that holds us in better stead than seeing the world in black and white idealistic terms. Perhaps for me, the most dangerous political action is to blindly follow the rhetorical stances of leaders who say all the right things. You rarely find a Peace Corps Volunteer from whatever decade who falls into that category of naivety.

Marnie Mueller was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp in northern California where her Caucasian parents went to work to try to make an intolerable situation tolerable for the people imprisoned there.

Mueller spent her two years in the Peace Corps working and living in one of the roughest urban barrios in South America, Cerro Santa Ana in Guayaquil, Ecuador. There she focused her organizing efforts around a community center built by the previous volunteers.

 She developed a board of directors from the community, working with them to create a small industry making mosquito nets for sale, establishing a pre-kindergarten for neighborhood children with breakfast for each child, an automotive repair school for men, a library, a soccer team that competed in a citywide league, and political actions pertaining to dire sanitation issues in the neighborhood. Additionally she, with other volunteers, created a summer camp for boys and girls.

Returning to the United States, Mueller worked as a community organizer in El Barrio East Harlem and in the South Bronx of New York City. From there she became the Director of Summer Programming for the City of New York, responsible for scheduling all outdoor events from the Philharmonic Orchestra in Central Park to Jazz in the Streets in all five boroughs of the City. She went on to become the Program Director of the Pacifica Radio affiliate in NYC, WBAI-FM. 

She is the author of three novels: Green FiresThe Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She is a recipient of an American Book Award, the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teenage, a New York Times Book Review “New and Noteworthy in Paperback,” and a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” choice.


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  • Thank you, Marnie. Your writing is by far the best I have read in response to the Kallman book’s findings. Perhaps those of us who experienced the events of the early Peace Corps in 1963 with Outward Bound Training, unstructured community development projects, and the assassination and its aftermath were sui generis, but you capture the feel of many who were “asking not” at that time. In evaluating something as profound and as nebulous as the Peace Corps or even a specific project, it may take one to know one. You did so eloquently.

  • Thank you for your essay. Truly you captured the essence of the earliest PCVs… And indeed, as a PCV you were better prepared to serve than I was… I was part of that initial experiment, too… serving in Colombia 1962-64. Today’s PCVs and their projects are different… I think that what we did in the earliest days helped to establish a PC that today has made significant contributions to development in global understanding.

  • Marnie, you could have been writing about the early 60s Peru groups, starting with the same 54th St. hotel in NYC and outward bound in Puerto Rico with all the same physical challenges. We missed so much history in the U.S., but we were learning the whys behind the poverty and want in Latin America. I think those experiences and that idealism–a form of collective conscience, perhaps–has made it harder for us to bear current political developments and the warping of democratic values or “ideals.”
    Patricia (Silke) Edmisten, Peru, 1962-64

  • Thank you for your beautiful essay. I recognize my group – all women and in country almost a month before the assassination – in your excellent description. We had the designation Health Education/Rural Community Development and were ill equip[ed for either. But so many persevered, Schools were built. One woman of my group decided to start a Each One Teach On Laubach literacy program and did – in prisons all over Colombia. One of my best friends and her site partner had a radio show in a small town on the Magdalena River. They talked about sex education. It was the best of times and the worst.

    Joanne Roll Colombia XI 1063-5

  • Dear Carolyn, Ted, Kay, Patricia, and Joanne, Thank you very much for your supportive comments. It was very heartening and affirming to know I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. It always takes a little courage on my part to hit send to John with whatever I’ve written. In community with you all, Marnie

    • I think the EPCVs and all the “younger kids” who served from 1990s forward should be included in your question to Dr. Kallman. I hope you get an answer to your great question!

      • I certainly didn’t mean to exclude anybody, including the EPCVs. It just seems to me (paraphrasing Mark Twain) that rumors of the death of idealism are greatly exaggerated!

        Also, I do not believe that idealism and professionalism are mutually exclusive, nor that they represent opposite poles of a continuum. But that’s just me!

  • What an incredibly insightful and illuminating essay by Marnie Mueller. She is always thoughtful and articulate, bringing to whatever subject she is describing, her considerable wisdom and perspective. Thanks for sharing.

  • Although “unrealistic expectations” is a valid definition for the kind of idealism that dies a quick death in individual PCVs, there is another deeper level to idealism in Peace Corps Volunteers and the premise of Kallman’s book, anti-politics, misses it completely.

    As Marnie eloquently describes it, without question, reality bites PCVs hard from the beginning. However, if their idealism completely died in that experience, wouldn’t they have been Mommy-vacced (evacuated because they couldn’t handle the difficulty of their fruitless yet perilous job) long before COS? And if Kallman presumes decade after decade of RPCVs merely toughed it out, why do so many RPCVs choose idealistic service careers upon return home? Let’s see a breakdown of RPCVs’ career choices before we accept this alleged “Death of Idealism”. It’s a great title, nonetheless, even if it’s not true.

    Mostly, I am passionately opposed to the premise of Kallman’s book for its contrarian notion of “anti-politics”. This is more of the same Orwellian/Ayn Rand BS the boys in the back room have been pushing on us; another contrarian line to add to a growing list:
    “humanitarian wars”
    “racism would go away if you would stop talking about it.”
    “Political Correctness is against my constitutional rights (to discriminate).”
    “Mother Teresa was a terrible person because she made a career out of other people’s poverty”
    So now here comes Kallman taking on Peace Corps with anti-politics: “development workers give legitimacy to corrupt leaders thereby hindering development”
    I suspect it’s the work of geniuses in the back room at Rand Corporation and other (deep state) think tanks trying to figure out a way to own everything. If Peace Corps is shuttered, then Don Trump Jr and Ivanka can take US tax dollars to build sewers across Africa for billions in profit. From that point on, every time an African flushes the toilet he/she pays the Trump family a nickel. Lol! You gotta admit, Trump has always been the king of crap!

  • Here’s what I would say as an RPCV (late 1990s) to Dr Kallman:

    In terms of your overall argument, I don’t disagree with your characterizations of the Peace Corps and the contradictions inherent in its mission. But I know that, as an organizational sociologist, you’re trained to focus on the ways that organizations mold individuals’ ideas and actions, and I suspect that this orientation led you to overstate the Peace Corps’ power to shape its volunteers’ worldview and experience. Throughout the book you seem to privilege this top-down bureaucratic perspective when in fact PCVs–from my limited experience–tended to regard the PC bureaucracy as at best unhelpful and at worst harmful to their interests, and actively resisted many of the directives and recommendations from the country HQ (let alone from DC!). I’d be willing to bet that many PC field staffers, as former PCVs themselves, similarly find ways to circumvent or at least soften Washington’s directives (one of the staff members you quoted appeared to hint as much). They understand Paul Theroux’s maxim on Peace Corps service that “it’s better to be neglected than manipulated.” In sum, there’s a wide gap between what the organization wants done and what the volunteers in the field are willing to do, between how the organization represents its purpose to the public and to Congress and how its personnel in the field actually understand and embody its purpose–and I don’t think your analysis in the book always does that gap justice.

    For what it’s worth, when I was a PCV I generally found our group bitch sessions (yes, we had them in the 90’s too!) quite helpful and productive. No, they didn’t always provide structural critiques of power, but sometimes they did, and they always helped me work through and reframe the challenges I was facing in my particular post. And if the Peace Corps bureaucracy had tried to organize, steer, or in any way influence the content of those sessions, as per one of your recommendations, I think PCVs would have immediately avoided them.

    As for Peace Corps service making volunteers more conservative, I’m unconvinced by your evidence. I would certainly agree that many PCVs come away with a view that much US foreign aid is wasteful and ineffective and winds up doing more harm than good, though that doesn’t strike me as an exclusively conservative stance.

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