RPCVs And The FBI!
The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), the first national organization of RPCVs in 1965 actively opposed 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 research 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 in July 1992 for RPCV Writers & Readers, a newsletter strarted by Marian Beil and myself in 1989.
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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John and Karen..
I remember those meetings in Gerry Schwin’s town house on R Street off 16th and the $5.00 dues …We sumised there were informants and I guess we will never know who ( as the names are balcked out.)!!!!
I ran into Brother Schwin at the DC SW Public Library last Fall,Gerry isnow retired and working part -time for the DC Library system . He and I are still in the “Foreign Influence “clique as members of the neighboorhood monthly foreign affairs discussion group….but no one is watching…we think!!!
My virtual FBI encounter:
This is how I discovered that I’d been routinely checked by the FBI after submitting my application to the Peace Corps. I was out raising hell one night, managed to make my way back to the dorm, and climbed the trellis to my window (we used to have curfews in the 60’s) and my two roomies, Carole and Ginger, hauled me in, and both were jabbering at once and I told them to get me some coffee so I could make sense of what they were going on about. It turns out they’d gotten a call from the house mother that night to tell them a gentleman wanted to talk to them in the lounge. My two roommates tended to study a lot and didn’t have much of a social life because they had boyfriends at schools a million miles away, so they cleaned up and dashed down to the lounge to find a young man in a suit. A suit! (This was the sixties.) And he was really, really cute. So he told them he was with the FBI and needed to ask them a few questions about me re my PC application. Like all good American girls they told him they first had to go to the ladies’ room together, which they did, where they planned the evening’s events. They confided to him that our house mother had bugged the lounge and took him to a local bar. Over a pitcher of Bud, they told him I had a swastika over my bed; that I was sleeping with the chair of the English Department because otherwise I wouldn’t graduate; that I was a heroin addict, etc. They told me he wrote it all down. Then they sashayed out of the bar and left him with the tab.
Carole and Ginger did their best to sabotage my Peace Corps plans because they didn’t want me to be eaten by cannibals.
A month later I received my engraved invitation from Sarge to train at Columbia University for service in Cameroon.
(Carole and Ginger never stopped trying to get me to change my mind.)
Thanks, John, for the recovered memory.
As this discussion has morphed into a review of how we were checked out by the FBI, here’s my brief encounter. I was at the University of Alaska (Fairbankd). It was early 1963, when I applied. One day I walked up to the counter at the university Controller’s office, when the clerk said “Don’t look now, but the guy in the trench coat with the collar up and hat pulled down over his brow was just here asking questions about you. He said he was FBI.” I looked, of course, and saw a guy right out of a theatrical cloak-&-dagger set. He looked like a cartoon FBI agent. So, I followed him around campus for a half hour. Once he spotted me, and figured out who I was, he became more and more agitated. Finally, I laughed and went my way, and he went his. Never saw him again, but was told by many people that he’d been around doing interviews. I must have passed. I was accepted and sent to Nepal as a village development volunteer, Nepal-2, 1963-65. Or maybe that was his payback for my giving him a hard time…?
I am very interested in learning more about the Committee of Returned Volunteers for a research project I am doing about the Peace Corps and political culture in the 1960s and 1970s. I am hoping to track down this article that you mention above:
“Karen then wrote an article in July 1992 for RPCV Writers & Readers, a newsletter strarted by Marian Beil and myself in 1989.”
Is it possible for me to access that piece?
What I remember was being enraged that anyone felt they had the right to expropriate the name of Volunteer to serve their own political agenda. Indeed, I had correspondence with someone in the CRV, begging them not to use the term Volunteer. As I recall, the response was that Volunteer did not specifically refer to Peace Corps…except that was the association people were expected to make and did. Reference: Schwartz.
I felt then, as I do now, that my political stances had to be tempered by the political reality I shared with the people in the community where I worked. This is what happened to us, in a small muncipio in Southern Colombia.
On a Saturday morning in April of 1965, FARC attacked a market bus a few miles from my site, which was also the local market place. The bandidos machined the bus and over fifty people were killed. They
were all poor, barefoot and unarmed. I was frightened. My whole village was terrorized. This was before the violence from FARC and the drug cartels had become epidemic. We were taken by surprise because upt to that point, we had believed that the Violencia, the Violence, which had plagued Colombia during the fifties was over.
On the following Monday, the newspapers from Bogota arrived. Polticans in Paris, some of them famous Marxists, were reported to be estastic that this incident meant that the”peasants in Colombia were fighting back and the real Revolution had begun.”
I remember being stunned. That is not what was happening. What I knew was that in one place and at one time, poor, unarmed peasants were attacked by bandidos who were identified and glorified in the international press as social revoluntaries. That was my truth and I was faithful to it.
Ironically, the anguishing poverty and the desperation of the women with whom I worked had led me to a political conviction that perhaps Marxism held some answers. That April morning changed that. I don’t have any answers now.
But, the CRV, of course, did. It was very difficult during the sixties and on college campuses not to be supportive of the Viet Cong. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. I just knew what had happened to fifity some peasants in one place at one time. I could not forget that fact and so I was neutral about the war. I was so fortunate that I didn’t have to face the draft. But, it was not pleasant to be on campus at that time. I was not successful in even gaining credence for my recounting of that FARC incident, not with the CRV and not with my fellow students or the staff when I attempted, unsuccessfully, to get a Master’s Degree.
I envy all of you who have such splendid romantic memories of your Peace Corps experiences and the wild and crazy guys who manned the Fun House on the Potomac. I am stuck with my reality, which was ugly, awful, and left me with no one to champion.
So, Anna (and Karen, for that matter), I don’t think my correspondence with the CRV turned up in any FOIA documents. I was never an informant for the FBI. When I began my writting to the CRV it was to share my experience with them, stupidly thinking it would make a difference, since we were all volunteers. It did not. Please, Anna, note that there was one Returned Volunteer who did not support the CRV.
CORREOCTION: ” machine gunned the bus.”
In Asmara, Eritrea we were treated to daily reports about bandits called “shifta” robbing and sometimes harming tavellers. Even some of my fellow Volunteers were “shifted,” the verb we created to define this type of robbery. When the Eritrean war for independence started the “shifta” quickly climbed on board and said they were part of the war for independence. It appears that there are many criminals who mask themselves in a “good cause” to cover their real intentions. E.g. the bandits and pirates operating in Somalia today.
Colombia had a tortured period, known as La Violencia, for ten years from 1948 to 1958. Over 200,000 people were killed. I still don’t understand the causes, but what I was given to understand by the people in my town was that it was an internal political fight between Liberals and Conservatives.; and that a group from one village would raid another village. There were many people displaced by La Violencia and bandidos or common criminals arose from this displaced population.
However, the incident I described in 1965 was different and marked some of the early beginnings of the FARC insurgercy. What was so surreal to me was when this incident was described internationally as being the start of the Colombian Social Revolution in which the “peasants” had risen up against their “oppressors.” That is not what happened. It was instead an act of terrorism, targeting innocent civilians and attempting to cripple commerce and transportation….which is what a market bus on a main road to market in rural Andean highlands, not that far from the unpaved and unprotected Pan American Hwy.
In those days, we did not have evacuation plans that I was aware of. Our departmento was off-limits to other Volunteers, but we were expected to stay in our sites. This became a real burden for the people in my town because they were afraid that the “gringas” would be targets and draw the guerrillas into our area. How we were to be protected was a problem, discussed a lot. I remember that the nuns in town specifically told us not to come to them looking for a haven because it would endanger all of the sisters. My site mate COS’d a month before I did. That last month was very difficult for me. I was as glad to leave as my town was to see me go.
I think that most Volunteers encounter crime and handle it in all kinds of ways. Robbery was pretty common., as I remember. Kidnapping was seen as a vague threat. Peace Corps jeep was blown up. We were safe in our site areas; not so much away from our sites. Also, other Volunteers in Colombia had experiences absolutely different from mine. I just recounted my own. In 1965, the drug cartels and the FARC insurgencies were in their infancies. I believe that every Volunteer has the absolute right to report and analysis his or her service as they see fit.
I cited my experience as the reason I was so opposed to the CRV’s use of the words “Returned Volunteers.” I think that those returned volunteers, from whatever their service, had the right to organize and be active politically. But the title of their organization was widely interpreted to refer to Peace Corps. I really resented that and said so.
Safety and Security for serving Volunteers became an issue back in 2002 or so. Peace Corps Online reported on the newspaper articles which sparked the debate and ultimately legislation to provide serving Volunteers more security.
I think that our exchange here again underscores the absolute need to have a Peace Corps Library/Museum/Research Center so that all of the experiences over the last fifty years can be recorded and available to the public as well as historians.