Review of Lawrence Lihosit's Peace Corps Chronology

pc-chronology-140Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
iUniverse
$22.95 – hardback; $13.95 – paperback; $9.99 – ebook
120 pages
November 2010

Reviewed by P. David Searles (Staff: CD Philippines 1971–74, PC/W 1974–76)

A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN FIFTY YEARS, as demonstrated by Lawrence F. Lihosit’s superb book:  Peace Corps Chronology, 1961-2010. Lihosit has carefully sifted through an immense cache of Peace Corps data from a wide variety of sources, some of which are familiar and some of which were previously unknown, at least to me. In the book he gives a detailed account of the critical happenings — year by year, decade by decade — from 1961 to the present.

The book will be read in two ways. The first, and this is probably what most of us will immediately do, is check out what he has included from our years with the Peace Corps. For me that meant 1971–76, and I say he got the important points very well. Of course, I would have preferred that he include far more details from that period (as we all would for our own years), but we can do that for ourselves.

The second way — and this is of more importance — is to use the material in the book to track both the significant changes that have occurred over fifty years and the matters that have remained untouched throughout that same time period. Some of the changes he records are remarkable. The ratio of men to women Volunteers is now the reverse of what it was in the beginning.  Volunteer isolation in remote work sites — the norm early on — has been alleviated dramatically by the advent of new communications technologies. An unheard of health problem in my time (HIV/AIDS) has become both a significant personal concern and a valuable and much appreciated area of Volunteer work. Happily, Lihosit’s data indicate that at long last the very worrisome problem of early terminations has lessened. Readers will find evidence of any number of similarly important changes — as one would expect over fifty years — and then be able to puzzle over whether or not the changes are good or bad.

On the other hand, it is a bit disturbing to learn that some of the major problems encountered in the early years remain. The Peace Corps still struggles with the question of how best to recruit, train, and support Volunteers.  The Federal Government has more often than not failed to provide adequate budgets for the Peace Corps. Too often staff appointments reflect political connections, rather than a person’s personal commitment to “making the world a better place.”  The merits of the five-year rule continue to be hotly debated, and often ignored, despite an open and shut case for it, in my opinion. Perhaps the most disturbing fact that Lihosit has produced is that the Washington-based bureaucracy now sucks up a much greater portion of the Agency’s resources than it has done historically. The growth in Washington staff alone is enough to make a fellow think seriously about becoming a Tea-Partier!

Hopefully, the preceding paragraphs will show just how valuable, and thought-provoking, Lihosit’s book can be. I have barely touched upon all of the important issues it raises, and what is considered important will probably be different for each of us. We all tend to see things our own way, but now we have some facts to go on thanks to the author’s many months of diligent research. I want to especially point out the usefulness of the tables and charts he has included in the book. As they say, a picture is often worth a thousand words.

In the Preface Lihosit makes a strong case for the establishment of a permanent home for Peace Corps material such as books (including self-published ones), personal memoirs, official documents, photos, art — everything and anything that has a Peace Corps connection. He favors housing the collection at the Library of Congress, which seems right to me. Elsewhere he makes another strong case for doing something to combat the rising tide of violence directed at Volunteers, especially women.  This also seems right, although I’m not sure that some of his specific recommendations are wise. (Issuing pepper spray to women and training them in combat judo hardly seem in keeping with Peace Corps traditions.)

Finally, Lihosit has dedicated his book to the Volunteers who have given their lives in Peace Corps service. This is a fine gesture, and, in fact, is a belated recognition of an occurrence which has been far more common than most of us realize.

Let me simply say “Buy this book.”  Doing so will arm you with the information you need to be a fully informed member of the Peace Corps family.

P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback (1974-76).  His career has included work in international business, government service and education. In 1993 David earned a Ph. D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997), both published by The University Press of Kentucky.

To order Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010 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.

15 Comments

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  • Having spent 40 years in bureaucracy, a few years of which were associated with the PC, when it was under ACTION, as well as a lifetime of assisting or managing non-profit anti-poverty volunteer organizations, I have always opposed the five year rule.

    The truth is that those who were not effected by it, i.e., those who preceeded the rule’s going into effect, were effective in saving PC from even worse things that could have happened, like Don Romine who was the planning director in the Office of Policy and Planning and helped stave off some of the political challanges that might have occurred. He, like others, went around the “new” directions of political appointees, or got friends of PC to enter the frays in order to do so.

    One of the main reasons that the PC changed over time was because of the still-wet-behind-th- ears appointees, i.e., no experience other than serving as a volunteer, or a political volunteer in campaigns. In essence, it takes experience in navigating around the political appointees, until they grow up, to sustain the original idea of service.

    And, while it may seem overstaffed, the early PC was understaffed. I could have used help from staff in country, which was not there, if for no other reason than having a discussion and getting a different perspective and arriving at solutions! Of course, my wife, who served in the Alto Plano, where the atltitude discouraged any staff from remaining long enough to know that they had to get out, did quite well without them, thank you. But then again, those were the heady days of the PC and there were unique PCVs who were self-starters.

    As the president of the ACTION Employees Union, I most often found that the staff weren’t there long enough to even get the correct forms or information required to defend a staffer who was being unfairly treated by a supervisor, and often a political appointee, who was bound and determined to force there will on an experienced staff,

  • Just so that readers know: the body of this book presents facts in chronological order, not opinions. In the preface, I note trends. This is a reference book.

  • Lorenzo,

    Thank you for this important and unique work.

    I believe that your work will be the first reference book since the 60s.
    Will you “gift” Peace Corps Washington? I remember meeting someone who had been hired by PC/DC to do a “records inventory” and she was having such a difficult time just understanding how Peace Corps operated. She said she desperately needed an administrative history of the agency. While your book does not proport to do that, it is a chronology which I don’t think exists anywhere else and that certainly is a beginning. I think it is invaluable. I am already suggesting to the PC/DC staff whom I have worked with via FOIAs. that they order your book. It should help me with future FOIAs.

    Again, your work is so appreciated.

  • Thank you for the compliments. I met Aaron Williams a few weeks ago and will send him a copy, as well as a staff member in Washington who helped me with my research, the Kennedy Library, and all 15 members of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations which oversees the Peace Corps. There is also a list of contributors and helpers (including you) who all should recieve a complimentary copy within 3 weeks. Right now, the mail is pretty slow because of the holidays.

  • In the last paragraph of my review there is a problem with the ‘buy this book’ link. The link takes one to another of Lawrence’s books available at Amazon, not the Chronology. But a simple search on Amazon using ‘Peace Corps Chronology’ will get you to the right place.

  • David I find your comment that, “pepper spray and judo training” for female volunteers is not in keeping with “Peace Corps traditions,” curious. Do Peace Corps “traditions” eschew self defense?

  • I find the promotion of violence inappropriate in any situation, especially in an organization that claims to be about peace. Responding to violence with violence rarely is effective, as anyone who has ever tried to fend off a street thug can testify.

    There are other practical problems with these specific recommendations. Pepper spray is illegal in many parts of the world. Canada, for example, classifies pepper spray as a ‘prohibited offensive weapon.’

    Judo, and other self-defense techniques, is a very difficult skill to master. I have always remembered the advice of the gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who introduced it to us budding ‘professional killers.’ He said the first thing to do when faced with the possibility of hand-to-hand combat was to see if you could run away. Stay and fight only as a last resort.

    To take this discussion to an absurd level, why not simply arm each volunteer with a small handgun?

    More seriously, I’d like to hear from someone who has worked on this problem and l see what the current thinking is.

  • Searles:

    As distastful as I find this, it is necessary to respond to your comments. Are you making the famous suggestion that in the event of a rape, a woman PCV should just “lay back and enjoy it.?” I fought off a rapist in my own home, albeit in the US, not overseas. I would not hesitate to do it again. My father, the combat veteran, bronze star, etc, made sure that all of his four daughters were knowledgeable about how to defend themselves. I support the right to self-defense, even tho, I am a pro-life feminist, dedicated to finding non-violent solutions to problems. Although I am finding it increasingly difficult to suffer fools gladly.

    The first way to protect Volunteers incountry is to have excellent intelligence; positive attitudes toward the Peace Corps by both HC government and staff; and the ability of both Peace Corps and the HC government to respond quickly to threats. I think there is an advantage to placing PCV women together, although it can have a downside. Usually, once Volunteers are known in a site, people in that site will act to protect a Volunteer. I think it critically important that Volunteers have training in judo or karate or the rudiments of self defense. Being alert and able to respond to a threat appropriately can be life-saving.
    I was a member of an all female group. One of our members was assaulted by her landlord and she successfully fought him off and then was transferred. As a group, we all had developed a very aggressive stance and walk which we used when not in our sites.

    When Volunteers become political targets, I think it imperative that they be removed from the scene. As I have said before, there was a FARC attack near my site in Southern Colombia in April of 1965. Everyone was very frightened. I remember that the priest and the nuns in the convent, who had been our champions, asked us not to come to them if there were an attack in our village. They felt that FARC would be looking for Americans and if they were securing us in the convent or rectory, that we would endanger the nuns and the priest’s family by our presence. Protecting Volunteers can be dangerous to HCNs.

    We were lucky, our landlord and his family said that they would protect us, if need be. Please consult Lorenzo’s Peace Corps chronology. This early attack by FARC happened in April of 1965. On May 1st, Johnson sent the US Marines into the DR. True story: My landlord came to me and told me not to worry, that if the marines came to our site, he would protect us from the Marines. After reading your comments, I think I appreciate his concerns.

  • Wow! I really stirred up a hornet’s nest. I was a member of the army reserves before the Peace Corps. Later in life I studied judo/ju-jitsu. Personally, I don’t give a ding-dong for appearances- we don’t send our daughters, nieces and friends to be raped. So, I am suggesting that all (men get raped too) volunteers receive no less than 4 hours a week during an extended training schedule (16 weeks as it was in 1967 and 1979) of self-defense training. To save money, the government can use embassy marines as instructors. I am also suggesting that all volunteers be issued small canisters of pepper spray to be worn around their neck and a shrill whistle. The aim is simple- to deter your attacker and then run like hell, blowing that whistle. In 16 weeks, none of the trainees will be a master. They will know some techniques and have more self-confidence.

  • John Coyne had posted information about an advocacy group of RPCVs called First Action Response. They have met with Peace Corps staff, recently, and their goal is to improve the prevention of assaults as well as guarantee that any PCV who is assaulted receive the very best care.

    For reasons known only to the computer gods, I can’t get my computer to let me copyand post the URL. However, it can be obtained by googling.
    It is a worthwhile effort and I would urge support of its goals.

    I responded to the comments on passivity because this is a site which may be visited by non-Peace Corps people. I would not want anyone to believe that Volunteers must be passive victims or that such a value is part of the Peace Corps tradition. Of course, it is not.

    It is true that Volunteers serve without weapons, and that is a part of our service culture.

  • First Response Action has this to say about training:
    “Revise the current training curriculum to provide volunteers with updated information about sexual crimes and other assault (including specific data from their country of service, where available). Training materials would address Primary Prevention and Secondary Prevention strategies and Volunteers would be encouraged to create their own strategies for preventing and escaping possible situations of assault or rape. First Response Action highly recommends that Peace Corps partners with a leading national or international agency, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the YWCA or the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), to include best practice materials in trainings and curriculum.”

    Does anyone know what they mean by Primary Prevention strategies and Secondary Prevention strategies?

  • I have just spent some time on Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN http://www.rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-prevention/avoiding-dangerous-situations) and nowhere do they recommend self-defense training or the use of pepper spray. Among their recommendations are carry a noise maker and a cell phone. I’m trying to figure out what the Peace Corps could do to correct a situation that was not part of my Peace Corps experience, and about which I have little knowledge.

  • Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) has a website that deals with this issue. Among their ‘prevention’ strategies is ‘carry a noise maker and a cell phone.’ Nowhere do they suggest self-defense training or pepper spray.

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