Review of Robert Klein's Being First

being-first-140Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps
by Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63)
Wheatmark, Inc
$19.95
182 pages
2010

Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65)

GHANA I — Peace Corps groups were Roman-numeraled in the early years  — began with 58 trainees at the University of California at Berkeley. It was July 1961, four months after President John F. Kennedy asked R. Sargent Shriver to establish the Peace Corps. The 58 guinea pigs and their trainers were all too aware that the experiment could rise or fall on the basis of their performance.

“That challenge,” Robert Klein writes in Being First, “created a sense of uniqueness which has lasted through the years.” Fifty years, of course, and counting.

Klein was a 32-year-old teacher in Harlem when he volunteered. Kennedy’s summons “added a moral dimension” to Klein’s “restless romanticized adventurism.” The group supposedly had been sifted through a fine mesh of selection criteria. Klein et al had their doubts. “Although we were constantly told how select a group of trainees we were, the haste with which we had been gathered led us to believe that, in fact, we were probably the first 58 people who had applied to the Peace Corps.”

This tongue-in-cheek wit infuses Klein’s breezy and well-written account of Ghana I, its exemplary service and its enduring cohesion. Over the years, Klein has interviewed Ghana I veterans, former trainers and staff to reconstruct what he calls an “informal history” of the Peace Corps’ formative period.

Klein and his Ghana I comrades make no claim to being anything other than the first PCVs on foreign soil. What is remarkable, in Klein’s telling, is how closely their frustrations and fragile achievements foretold what was to come for the 200,000-plus Volunteers who have followed. He captures the tension which arose, almost immediately, between early Peace Corps staff who emphasized “doing a job” and those who believed that making friends across cultural barriers was the litmus test for Volunteers’ effectiveness.

When he visited his pioneers in Ghana, Shriver — according to one Volunteer’s recollection — was explicit: The job was paramount. But Franklin Williams and Richard Goodwin, headquarters heavies who accompanied Shriver, flogged a very different message: The primary objective was to counter the image of foreign aid workers’ cultural insensitivity, searingly portrayed in the The Ugly American, a novel published just three years earlier.

Shriver was well aware of the jousting he was encouraging between pragmatic, program-oriented staff such as Warren Wiggins and John Alexander, who had come over from the forerunner of USAID; and, in Klein’s words, “more idealistic global thinkers,” such as Harris Wofford and Bill Moyers.

George Carter, the first country director in Ghana, referred to these contending camps as the “hard heads” and the “soft heads.” Wiggins, a hard head who had helped to crystallize the Peace Corps’ mission in “The Towering Task,” believed that Volunteers should focus on achieving concrete development objectives. The soft heads were more enamored by the prospect of Volunteers working shoulder-to-shoulder with the people and demonstrating Americans’ supposedly innate egalitarianism.

Both groups, Klein writes, “were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was people like me, less ideological and more activist, who would actually decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by being one.”

Carter, whom Klein interviewed a few years before his death in 2001, confessed that he thought Kennedy’s proposed Peace Corps was a “piece of nonsense.” An experienced Africa hand, Carter was hoping for an ambassadorship in West Africa and believed that sending naïve, mostly white “kids” to Africa was asking for trouble. Shriver, of course, convinced him otherwise. So did Ghana I.

The group, who met with President Kennedy in the White House rose garden shortly before departing, were hardly representative of the American demographic. Just two were African-American. A white Virginian was the only Southerner. Nor did they meet the qualifications set by Ghana’s skeptical Ministry of Education. Ghana wanted only teachers with master’s degrees, preferably in math and science. The ministry expressly asked that Volunteers be graduates from leading Ivy League universities. Late in the day, two academics involved in the training had to presume upon their friendship with Ghana’s leader, Kwame Nkrumah, to persuade him to accept the motlier crew assembled by the Peace Corps.

Shriver, Nkrumah and the members of Ghana I in fact shared a common vision of the Peace Corps’ raison d’etre: To do jobs that needed doing and for which there were no qualified Ghanaians. The Ghana government underscored this by insisting that it pay the Volunteers’ salaries.

Klein, who later directed the Peace Corps program in Ghana and innovated in-country training, abstains from editorializing about the Peace Corps in its longer-term or contemporary contexts. He is content to recall how the Peace Corps came to be, his experience as a Volunteer in remote western Ghana and the memories of several of his compatriots. He dedicates Being First to the Ghanaians “who had the grace and charm to put up with us. . . .”

Sarge would have loved that.

Kevin G. Lowther taught secondary school history as a member of Sierra Leone IV (1963–65). He subsequently served in several headquarters positions, principally in the Africa regional office. In 1970, he assisted C. Payne Lucas in establishing Africare and later managed its Southern Africa programs for 29 years before retiring in 2007. In 1978, he and Lucas published Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a critical analysis of the Peace Corps during its first decade. More recently, Lowther has written a biography of a Sierra Leonean who survived slavery in America and returned to his homeland to fight the slave trade. The African American Odyssey of John Kizell, to be released May 15 by the University of South Carolina Press, is available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

To order Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.

8 Comments

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  • Robert Klein was gracious enough to let me read the manuscript while I was writing my history of the Peace Corps. I just wanted to add a few words to join in Kevin’s praise. Klein’s narrative is a splendid piece of reporting, livened with wonderful anecdotes and thoughtful analysis. All the joys and conflicts of the Peace Corps in its earliest days are etched there in great clarity.

  • Robert Klein worked long and hard on this book and its wonderful to see in published. He generously shared an early draft with me and provided suggestion on conducting archival research on the early volunteers.

    Lowther’s review and Meisler’s comments on Klein’s book capture why it it is a valuable contribution. It is a well told story about the Peace Corps from the perspective of an RPCV who helped make it happen.

    Ronald A. Schwarz
    (Colombia I, 1961-63)

  • Robert Klein has also traveled the country interviewing RPCVs for his oral history project. Many of us were lucky enough to participate. Bob was a thoughtful interviewer and a fantastic listener. I am sure his memoir of Ghana I is wonderful.

  • Bob recently spent a few days here visiting with my wife and I in Oklahoma as he was making a cross-country trip from Madison, WI to Tuscon, AZ and while he was here I arranged for him to be interviewed by our local newspaper, “The Ponca City News.” Bob is a natural storyteller who got everyone in town talking about the Peace Corps.

    You can read the interview on the front page below the fold at:

    http://www.poncacity.com/news/docs/mw/mw.pdf

  • As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana 1, I was impressed with Bob Klein’s ability to reincarnate not only the activities of our group but the atmosphere in which we studied and taught. Reading “Being First” brought it all back, plus some information I had been unaware of, such as the efforts in Washington and abroad to get the agency going.

    Bob’s research and recollections have paid off with a fine book.

  • I just finished reading “Being First” and really appreciated the interviews, memoir, and history of Ghana I. It resonated with me because we were Liberia I and I was also a Fulbright Scholar much later — 1997 — at the University of Winneba and even guest taught at Winneba Secondary School a couple days across the road.

    I look forward to being on a panel with Bob at the Peace Corps and Africa conference at Wisconsin to share our oral histories of Kentucky volunteers, Voices from the Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Kentucky Volunteers.

  • Three cheers for Bob Klein. I was a member of Ghana-III (that’s “3”:) and was there when Bob’s group, Ghana – I, departed. We all met Sargent Shriver, and we all remember the put-downs of staffers like F Williams (which director George Carter later would dismiss as silly and naive).

    Ghana – I was somewhat bigger than life. About 10 years older than the PCVs who who follow.

    One of the really big advantages for us early Africa PCVs was to have well-defined jobs to do, and we could measure our success. First Goal priority. Latin America, in contrast, struggled even then with heavy wash-outs, and disappointment.

    Wash out in the African projects was so small (less than 2% including deaths and medical evacuations) that nobody even thought about it. Compare that with projects today which experience 30% wash-outs. Whether it was the people of those early projects or the circumstances, or the well-defined assignments, is hard to say. I am proud to have been a part of it.

    John Turnbull Santa Fe, New Mexico

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