Between 1961 and 2018, about 230,000 American men and women representing all fifty states served in 140 countries around the world. We all learned a new language before unloading a duffle bag or a trunk, rolled up our sleeves and asked a local in his own native tongue, “How can I help?” Some of us dug latrines and wells. Others fished, built fish farms, planted crops, taught in schools. My group helped to build roads and schools. You might have comforted the sick in hospitals and clinics or helped to set up cooperatives and even businesses. Some of my buddies helped manage forests, museums and new national parks. Others advised about how to set up a touristic hot-spot. We did whatever we were asked for next to nothing which is why we were called volunteers.
We trudged home after struggling to learn an alien tongue, adjusting to strange customs, exotic food, dealing with knawing loneliness, in many cases, after adjusting to a life without running potable water or electricity. Most of us braved illness. Hundreds died.
Today there are no more volunteers and the future of the agency is bleak. Some are wondering how to remember. I’ve heard talk about statues and plaques but they come and go. History ain’t about old buildings and statues- it’s about We the People. The best way to remember is with our own stories. The question is where to keep them?
As an amateur historian, I consider the first-hand accounts like uncut diamonds of knowledge. The key is to safeguard them for posterity. Almost since its inception, different institutions have discussed a permanent Peace Corps Library and Museum. Ironically, the majority of efforts have been undertaken by private groups, not the government. As late as 1989, the Peace Corps had a library with books, magazines, pamphlets and even a librarian. Sometime before 1995 it was unceremoniously dismantled. Nobody seems really sure what actually happened to the collection-there are several versions. Government documents are most probably stored away somewhere in boxes, or on magnetic tape, Microfiche, or even, on transparent rolls of microfilm, quietly disintegrating. The memoirs so carefully written and published by our own citizens are scattered over the nation like blowing leaves, to be lost. On the official Peace Corps web site, this message was once posted; “Our resources do not permit us to serve as a comprehensive Peace Corps historic archive, nor is it our mandate to do so.” Unfortunately, it is nobody’s mandate. A decade ago I suggested that Congress mandate the Library of Congress to immediately begin a Peace Corps Experience Special Collection based upon donations of published volunteer and staff letters, journals and memoirs. In this way we can ensure that future generations can share this wonderful experiment in unarmed foreign policy. It would also fulfill the Peace Corps third goal to help Americans understand foreigners. The same government sponsored institution that houses Jefferson’s private papers and the Lewis and Clark Journals (the Corps of Discovery), has many special collections including one for Dime Novels, another for Pulp Fiction and even one for Comic Books!
In December, 2010 months before the fiftieth anniversary of the Peace Corps’ inception, U.S. Representative (and former Peace Corps Volunteer) John Garamendi requested that the then Librarian of the Library of Congress “mark this special anniversary by establishing a collection of books about the Peace Corps experience written by former volunteers and staff.” Hundreds of books were donated. The Librarian responded with an annotated bibliography including those books which his committee deemed worthy. There is no special collection. Something must have been lost in translation!
We now have a new Librarian of the Library of Congress. In order to avoid misinterpretation, I ask you, reader, to contact your Congressman or Congresswoman to request legislation to create and maintain a Peace Corps Special Collection in the Library of Congress, consisting of all available published letters, journals and memoirs written by Peace Corps Volunteers and staff. This publication is meant to help them. Not so long ago, there was a real person who traveled our nation planting apple trees. Today, he is remembered as Johnny Appleseed. Americans with the courage to write and publish are modern Johnny Appleseeds: they seed tomorrow’s great thoughts by example.
Lawrence F. Lihosit served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras (1975-1977). He is the author of sixteen books including Peace Corps Bibliography, Peace Corps Chronology: 1961-2010, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir and South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir. His younger son, Anson K. Lihosit served in Panama (2015-2017) and is the author of Peace Corps Epiphanies: Panama.