RPCVs and the FBI–In Case You Are Still Wanted!

The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), established around 1965, was the first national organization of RPCVs to actively oppose the Vietnam war. Their copious writings–newsletters, information kits, analytical papers–portrayed the goals of U.S. foreign policy as exploitative. The true function of the Peace Corps, they believed, was to mask this imperialism by putting a warm and friendly face on America’s presence overseas.

CRV members were among the marches showered with tear gas at the 1968 Democratic convention, and in 1970 they occupied the Peace Corps building in Washington for 36 hours to protests the student killings by National Guardsmen at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, as well as the invasion of Cambodia.

All of this is detailed by Karen Schwartz who found out this information by filing a Freedom of Information Act request back in 1988 when she was researching her book on the agency, What You Can Do For Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps published by Morrow. The document, which filled a small carton the size of a phone book, did not arrive until July, 1991, after her book was published. Karen then wrote an article for our RPCV Writers & Readers published in July 1992.

The FBI placed the CRV and other antiwar groups under the category of “New Left–Foreign Influence.” In numerous documents the FBI described the CRV’s objectives as “establishing contacts with revolutionary groups, aiding guerrillas, destroying existing governments and transmitting information to Soviet bloc countries.”

CRV leaders did meet with representatives of North Vietnam while they were in Cuba, and one actually visited Hanoi, but the idea of the CRV destroying governments and transmitting information is absurd, writes Schwarz. “This was an organization run on $5 dues from a membership of graduate students, social workers, and school teachers.”

But by defying a State Department ban and spending four weeks in Cuba, as guests of the Cuban Government, no less, the CRV distinguished itself as no run-of-the-mill antiwar group. Keep in mind, writes Schwarz, “that this was just seven years after the Cuban missile crisis and U.S.-Cuba relationships were strained.”

In true cold war style, an FBI special agent reported to 22 field offices that CRV members would be gathering in Austin, Texas before going to Cuba for a two-week “indoctrination” course. (The CRV called it an “orientation.”)

Cases were opened on all 39 travelers and, as one document shows, the FBI observed their day-to-day movements in the weeks before their departure. One such report describes members getting into a friend’s car. The license and registration were traced and included in the report along with a few details about the owner of the car.

What was particularly disturbing about the documents Karen Schwarz received is that they indicated a heavy reliance on informants–more than a few members of CRV were actually cooperating with the FBI. One list of informants is four pages long, and every name is blacked out.

On a lighter note, FBI agents assigned to monitor the CRV were often lazy. If they had no new information to write up, they would simply summarize the contents of a recent CRV newsletter. Sometimes they didn’t even bother to paraphrase–they just re-typed the newsletter or submitted the newsletter itself stapled to a cover sheet. One buried note was that Paul Tsongas (Ethiopia 1962-64), later a senator and presidential candidate, listed as having taken over the job as treasurer of CRV’s Boston chapter.

To Karen Schwartz’s disappointment she found no bombshells in the documents. She paid $200 in fees for the material, with much of it blacked out. 63 pages of the F.O.I.A. documents were deemed too “top secret” to be sent to her. “In the interest of national defense or foreign policy” because their disclosures would constitute “unwarranted invasion of privacy” and reveal the “identity of a confidential source.”

Schwartz sums up, “As I read the FBI dossiers on CRV leaders I was reminded of how quickly things changed in the 1960s. When these individuals had proudly answered John Kennedy’s call, the FBI had done the routine checks on them before they went overseas. Then, when they came home questioning the decisions of America’s leaders and scrutinizing the values of democracy, the FBI took a much closer look–and these RPCVs found a totally different place in the history of the sixties.”

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  • In 1962, Sarge had to personally sign off for my wife and I even to board the plane for Liberia, as the FBI already had a dossier on us.

  • Was there ever a file on the Head of the FBI? There should be–and it should be a book. Wasn’t he a cross-dressing troglodyte who used information of questionable veracity to punish the foes of his political masters? Didn’t he eavesdrop on, well, everyone?

    His name should be expunged from the building that bears his forever blackened name.

  • Glad we are remembering CRV. I was a serving volunteer 66-69 and did not hear about it until later. “Eyes on the Prize” gives a good context for the CRV.

  • Where are the CRVs to protest Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan? Where are the RPCVs who decried Bush sending troops to Iraq? I see a monumental brain seizure on the part of our so-called anti-war crowd or duplicity. Or do the peace promoters believe Afghanistan to be a “good” war?

  • Again, to cite peacecorpsonline.org, there was a petition circulated among RPCVs to protest the invasion of Iraq. I wish I could be more specific about the details.

  • Joey.
    My point, we had RPCV petitions to protest the invasion of Iraq. I know, I was the head of the NPCA’s “Peace Committee.” I now ask why do RPCVS not protest President Obama sending more troops to Afghanistan and escalating the death and destruction there? Or do RPCVs only protest against Republican presidents? The war in Afghanistan is a much bigger mistake than our costly effort to turn Iraq into a “shining democracy on the Tigrus.”

  • Leo,
    When Obama ran, he said he would wind down the war in Iraq, but continue the war in Afghanistan. He was emphatic about the strategic important of securing Afghanistan against the Taliban. Certainly, people may disagree with his strategy, but he has been up front about it. This may be the reason that there is no large organized opposition to it.

    I am not knowledgeable about that part of the world. I do think the real danger to the US would be if Pakistan, a nuclear power, fell under the influence of the Taliban. My thinking is that the US military is in Afghanistan to prevent that. However, I don’t profess to know a better way to do that.

  • Joey.

    There is always a rationale for a war. In spite of the rationales offered RPCVs opposed the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, not because they disagreed with the rationales, but because they sincerely believed that, “War is not the answer.” The rationale that we fight in Afghanistan to prevent Pakistan becoming a Taliban ruled country holds about as much weight as “Containing Communism” did in Vietnam and “Building a democracy in the center of the Middle East” in Iraq. The difference is that we have absolutely no control over what happens in Pakistan and we have no ability to “project our force” into that country. All we are doing is extending the agony in Afghanistan which is what RPCVs say they oppose, at least in selective cases. I note, however, that President Obama’s main support for his adventure in Afghanistan comes from Republicans in the Congress so at least in this case he has succeeded in “crossing party lines.”

  • You rationale may well be right, Leo. However, please preface your use of RPCVs with “some” or “almost all” or whatever. We are a community of over 200,000 and no one can claim to speak for all of us. As for me, I strongly opposed the war in Iraq. I believed that a pre-emptive strike violated internation law. I am not so sure about Afghanistan.

    I am an army brat and grew up on the battlefields of WWII. Trust me, I believe so very strongly that we must find an alternative to war. But, as luck would have it, my final months in Colombia were spent under the terrorist threat posed by FARC. The people who were targets were not the wealthy elite, but the unarmed, barefooted, defenseless camposinos. The army was no help in providing protection. I can not deny that reality.

    The classic terrorist senario certainly was at play there. The terrorists attack the most vulnerable; the army/government cracks down. It becomes impossible to tell who is the enemy, who is the victim. Innocent people are killed by both sides . The government/army crack down becomes repressive and alienates more and more people, fueling the discontent which is tossed into the mix. Then of course, international interests jump into the fray, even if they had not already been the instigators. I carry with me the memory of fear from those days. Althought as a woman, I was not facing the Vietnam draft, for which I am grateful Those I loved had to deal with it.

    I don’t have answers. I don’t even envy those who do. But, I would like to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Taliban.

  • Joey.

    You are right, not all RPCVs opposed Vietnam or Iraq., for example me. But I believe that a majority of RPCVs opposed these wars. I find Afghanistan to be a real quagmire with no real objectives except to lose lives. It is a bit like Somali where we fortunately got out fast.

    I have seen all to many wars up close – Eritrea, Vietnam, Turkey, South Africa, Mozambique. My best memories are of a pending war between two indian tribes in the eastern jungles of Panama which I helped prevent, the night that the ceasefire ending the bitter civil war in Mozambique found me in downtown Maputo, and leading an RPCV effort to help end the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. I understand war somewhat, but know that it is the worse solution for any problem.

  • We are in basic aqreement. The trick is to get solutions started before the shots are fired.

    I have been very lucky. I have not seen war up close. I know fear. I know what war does to the men who fight it; win, lose, or stalemate.

  • Leo,

    The effort by RPCVs to intervene in the war between Ethiopia and Enitrea is , I think, very important. Have you written about it? Has anyone?

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