In 1964 Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyasaland (as Malawi was called before independence), living on the edge of “a crack in the earth,” as he wrote in a letter home to The Christian Science Monitor. That same year I was a PCV farther north, up in the highlands of Ethiopia, a few hours east of the Great Rift.
Though our years in Africa overlapped, I didn’t know Theroux then. But I heard of him. By the time he was 23, his outspokenness had already made him notorious within the Peace Corps.
In the fall of 1965, I returned to Ethiopia as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD), and Theroux appeared as a central character in a story that swept through Peace Corps/Africa. The Peace Corps CD in Malawi had been sent home by the U.S. Ambassador, Sam P. Gilstrap.
It seems that the Malawi PCVs had started a Volunteer newspaper called The Migraine, and its editor had written a piece opposing the American presence in Vietnam. When the Ambassador, an old and dear friend of President Lyndon Johnson, saw the newspaper, he expelled the country director, Michael McCone (Staff: Sierra Leone, Malawi, Malaysia 1962-66), for allowing publication of the editorial – which had been written by Paul Theroux.
Will Lotter, Deputy Director of the Malawi Peace Corps project (1965-67), said it was Theroux’s article that first made him aware of the anti-war movement among young Americans. “I came off the Davis campus in California. I had been an athletic coach and Paul opened my eyes to our folly in Vietnam.”
And if they read his editorial, most Volunteers overseas would have agreed with Theroux, though many Volunteers did support U.S. military activities in Asia, at least in 1964. (It wasn’t until 1965-66 that male PCVs began to join the Peace Corps to avoid the draft.)
But what was Ambassador Gilstrap thinking? Didn’t every ambassador know PCVs always mouthed off against U.S. foreign policy, even while eating all the hors d’oeuvres at every embassy reception? If anyone lacked good judgment, it was Sam P. Gilstrap. [We had another example of this a few years ago when the Tanzania U.S. Ambaassador, Michael Retzer, kicked the Peace Corps CD, Christine Djondo, out of the country when she refused to leave voluntarily. When this happened in Tanzania, her PCVs rallied to her cause.]
I remember sitting in the old Peace Corps office in Addis Ababa and reading cable traffic about the Malawi incident. Country Director Mike McCone was back in Washington being interviewed by Sargent Shriver and waiting for a decision on his Peace Corps future.
About that same time, it was learned that a Volunteer in Malawi had been declared persona non grata by Dr. Hastings Banda, the Prime Minister, not for protesting the Vietnam war but for supporting Yatuta Chisiza, a Malawian whom Banda suspected of trying to overthrow his government. The PCV in question was Paul Theroux.[Part 2]