The Peace Corps Tells LBJ "Hell, No! We Won't Go!"

Stanley Meisler, an early evaluator for the agency, in his 2011 book, When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years gives a detailed account of the Peace Corps’ limited connection to the war in Vietnam.

In his book, Meisler writes, “On January 6, 1966, two Peace Corps officials embarked on a secret, reckless trip to Vietnam. The goal of their mission was to find out whether Vietnam might be a suitable country for a Peace Corps program. That goal was foolish and fanciful……The two officials were Warren Wiggins, deputy director of the Peace Corps, and Ross J. Pritchard, director of Far East regional operations. Within the Peace Corps, Wiggins and Pritchard were known at the most fervent players of the numbers game-they relentlessly promoted massive new programs without worrying about meticulous planning. But it was not their idea to go to Vietnam.”

Dr. Geidel in her new book writes that when Wiggins and Pritchard visited Vietnam, Don Luce the head of International Voluntary Services (IVS) in Vietnam “recalls that the men did not reveal their names; they arrived ‘apparently without the knowledge of the Vietnamese government,’ and claimed that ‘their trip had been instigated by pressure from VIPs returning to Washington.”

What Don Luce didn’t know was that, as Meisler points out in his book, Wiggins and Pritchard had sent a “rather enthusiastic cable to the U.S. embassy in Saigon announcing their arrival.”

They had also prepared a “cover story” and “assured their hosts that the Peace Corps was prepared to lie about the mission.” The Peace Corps Pair went to six sites in Vietnam and also visited Laos. At the time, as Meisler points out, the American Ambassador in Laos, William H. Sullivan, was “supervising what would become known as the ‘secret war’ in Laos. CIA agents were leading guerrilla units against rebels and North Vietnamese troops, U.S. military pilots, wearing civilian clothes, were flying missions in support of the Laotian government. Sullivan did not want independent-minded Peace Corps Volunteers stepping into the cauldron.”

Pritchard is quoted by Meisler  saying, “Sullivan was absolutely adamant that this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard of. He chewed our asses out.”

Back in Vietnam, Don Luce of the IVS remembers Wiggins was “worried about sending volunteers” while Pritchard, in contrast, “bristled with aggressive designs” and “did not seem at all embarrassed over the fact that the Vietnamese government had made no requests and did not even know of their visit.”

Geidel points out other White House types wanted PCVs in Vietnam. She quotes McGeorge Bundy saying, “If IVS can’t do the job and raise its numbers of volunteers perhaps the Peace Corps can.”

Wiggins was against the plan and as stated in Don Luce and John Sommer’s book, Viet Nam: The Unheard Voices, published by Cornell University Press in 1969, “In the end, reason won out in Washington, and the Peace Corps has maintained its integrity through not being pushed headlong into the Viet Nam morass.”

The Peace Corps wasn’t going to Vietnam primarily, as Meisler writes in his book on the agency, “The conclusion of the report [by Wiggins and Pritchard] stated: “Under different circumstances, you could put a thousand Volunteers into Vietnam.”

It also wasn’t going to happen Meisler points out because,  “Vaughn, the new director, made it clear: No Volunteers would go to Vietnam, no matter what the report recommended, no matter what Johnson demanded.”

Vaughn would have four meetings with Johnson in the next three years. At each meeting Johnson would tell Vaughn that he [the president] would be satisfied even with a program of only ten to fifteen Volunteers.

“Vaughn turned him down each time,” writes Meisler.

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  • Gosh, as noted in a previous post, I worked with Wiggins at TransCentury, Inc. and worked in Vietnam. He never mentioned having been there. And he was an Air Force officer flying combat missions in WW II? Hell, I like good war stories and he had two? Hmm. It turns out that getting to know Wiggins was a Towering Task.

    But I’m not surprised that he didn’t want Peace Corps in Vietnam — in that misbegotten war. No fool he.

  • I was scheduled to accompany Warren Wiggins (to carry his bags and fetch coffee) on the exploratory trip to Viet Nam. It was late ’64 or early ’65. I even got my gamma globulin and plague shots in preparation, but, fortunately, my involvement was canceled at the last minute. As I recall, Wiggins was rather enthused about the trip — an opportunity to increase Peace Corps numbers — and didn’t seem bothered by risks or potential downside. I never knew that the Peace Corps hadn’t actually been invited in by the Vietnamese government. Bravo to Jack Vaughn. He just rose a couple of pegs in my estimation.

  • Rumors of the Wiggins Vietnam probe went around Peace Corps headquarters generating fear and apprehension. To flush the truth out, this foolish gambit was made a topic at the Returned Volunteer Forum, a weekly get-together in the big meeting room that was open to everybody in the building. I was recruited, along with a woman from DVS whose name I can’t remember, to present the stay-out-of-Vietnam side, which was easy. Nobody could be found to argue the other side, so two hapless lawyers from the General Counsel’s office agreed to have a go at it. Jack Vaughan was there and sat quietly and smoked his pipe. I recall Frank Mankiewicz making a crack about the embarrassment of having a volunteer join the Viet Cong.

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