Peace Corps At Day One, # 3

According to the 1st Annual Report to Congress for the Fiscal Year that ended on June 30, 1962 there were 7 major problems facing the Peace Corps in March 1961, the day President Kennedy signed the Executive Order establishing the agency.  

1) Were there enough qualified and talented Americans willing to respond to the Peace Corps invitation to service?

2) Would foreign governments request these Volunteers to fill their middle-level manpower needs?

3) Could the right Volunteers be selected?

4) Could they be adequately trained to avoid the pitfalls of Americans who had failed overseas before?

5) Would they have the stamina to stay on the job?

6) Could the Peace Corps undertake its mission independently or would it be entangled in existing red tape?

7) Would Congress approve the Corps at all, an even if it did, would enough money be appropriate for a new world-wide undertaking involving thousands of Americans in difficult, new roles aboard?

There were other problems, too. How would the Communists react to Americans fanning out through the backlands of the world? How would our own foreign service view the sudden influx of Americans without diplomatic training? Would the private agencies and religious missions throughout the world resent the Peace Corps, feeling their work would be usurped by government? What about the sickness overseas? Who would assume responsibility for Peace Corps health?

The largest hurdle, of course, was the cynicism with which many important professionals and experts viewed the idea. This was compounded by a fear that this nation had gone soft and could no longer produce people to meet the standards and goals set by the Peace Corps. The undercurrent of doubt, a people’s uneasy lack of faith in themselves, was perhaps the most serious of the early problems facing the Peace Corps.

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  • When we arrived in Mogadishu in May of 1966, the Soviets greeted us by publishing something calling PCVs American spies, which Somali kids picked up. In the streets of Mog that translated into Merikaan Bisass. It didn’t last long., but those were two of the first words I learned in Somali they hadn’t taught us in training. We had many of the curse words down pat before we arrived.

    As for the US foreign service, in the main they treated us as poor cousins or orphans, who they thought were pining away for everything American, especially on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The good ladies of the American Embassy would make the rounds in Mog and give us cans of peas, carrots and yams, never thinking that Americans abroad would purchase anything edible from the local markets. We were ungrateful charity cases to them, because being young and definitely on our own, we lacked the maturity to accept these “gifts” with diplomatic false smiles and small words of gratitude.

    I thought one of the problems of the early Peace Corps days was keeping intelligence agencies from using what they saw as a resource of Americans out there in the bush. I know there was a ban on that kind of stuff but that didn’t stop a USAID official from inviting volunteers who came to Mog over for free beers and snacks and then pumping them for information. After a while, volunteers stopped going over and he started referring to us as draft dodgers who should be shipped to Viet Nam.

  • In Kiev, Uraine, Windhoek, Namibia and Port au Prince, Haiti my wife, who followed me into the Foreign Service, provided substantial support for the Peace Corps, which the PCVs and Staff appreciated. In fact, the Peace Corps in all countries relies on the Embassy for support and the PC Director is a member of the Ambassador’s country team.
    I only had one post where the Peace Corps was present . Since I was one of the first PCVs to enter the Foreign Service Officers, I believe I was number three or four, the Ambassador asked me to be the contact point between the PCVs and the embassy. My impresson was that the PCVs wanted little to do with the embassy.
    RPCVs constitute about 10% of State Dept Officers and a much larger percentage of AID officers. Few are in the Depts of Commerce and Agriculture Foreign Services.
    I take exception to your characterization of how US Embassy staff view PCVs. I, along with my colleagues in the Foreign Service, particularly those who were RPCVs, looked at PCVs as other Americans working in our countries of service. If they wanted contact and help, we were happy to assist. However, if they preferred to stay away, we did not drag them in. In many respects we viewed them as we would such other Americans as businessmen, missionaries, other types of volunteers (the Peace Corps is not the only group of Americans working in other countries to help the less fortunate), and so on.

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