Talking with Fritz Fisher about Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s

Fritz Fischer is a professor of history and history education at the University of Northern Colorado. He received his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, taught for five years in middle/secondary schools, and then earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in 1994. His research specialties are 20th century American cultural and diplomatic history. He wrote Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s published by Smithsonian Institution Press. It is, as Dr. Fischer points out, his PhD. dissertation at Northwestern University. The title, as he writes in his Acknowledgments, “might appear to some as an indictment of the Peace Corps and its volunteers. Quite the contrary . . . the experiences of volunteers promoted a new spirit of dialogue and understanding between Americans and the rest of the world. This book does not argue that the volunteers tried at all times to make them like us. Rather, the volunteers continually struggled with the dilemmas of how much to make them like us. It is these struggles that provide the central focus of this book.”

Dr. Fischer’s book, and All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s(Harvard University Press) by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman both were published in 1998. These two major studies both focus on the first decade of Volunteers and frame the debate about the agency which other historians and social scientists will, we hope, continue.

I interviewed Dr. Fischer several years ago about his study of the Peace Corps.

How did you get interested in the Peace Corps?

I originally became interested in the Peace Corps while fishing about for topics for my Ph.D. dissertation at Northwestern University. My goal as a historian of American foreign relations is to make connections between the American cultural history and the history of American foreign relations. Too much diplomatic history examines only diplomats, ignoring the potentially interesting and valuable relations between average Americans and people in the rest of the world. Peace Corps Volunteers provided me with perfect set of subjects who were sent out by the government to accomplish specific tasks in the outside world. Thus, studying the Volunteers became the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation and this dissertation served as the basis for Making Them Like Us.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research for the book?

The most surprising result of my research was learning about all of the struggles Volunteers had with the image they were expected to live up to and the struggles Volunteers had with their leadership. I was expecting (as were most Volunteers!) that the biggest struggles Volunteers faced would have been the physical and mental hardships of culture shock. As I learned to my surprise and as the book argues, the Volunteers faced more significant challenges in dealing with their own American culture and their cultural expectations about the foreign lands in which they lived and worked.

James Cliffords, anthropologist and philosopher, and author of The Predicament of Culture, a book that you found useful, concluded that “One no longer leaves home confident of finding something radically new, another time or space.” How were his conclusions reflected in the experiences of Peace Corps Volunteers?

I did not start with Clifford’s ideas on cultural interaction, but came to see them as related to the Volunteer experience as I proceeded with my research. My findings seemed to continually lead back towards Clifford, and so I used his ideas in my conclusion to help illuminate some of my findings. And this leads to one idea I have developed about the larger significance of the Peace Corps beyond the three goals of the agency. The Peace Corps experience appeared to give Volunteers a new understanding of themselves and their role in the world. The Peace Corps was designed to teach us about them and them about us but it ended up teaching us about us. Volunteers began to forge a new sense of national identity as the United States related to the rest of the world. This, I think, is a more subtle and sophisticated result than the three goals embodied in the design of the agency.

What’s were you trying to suggest with your title Making Them Like Us?

I must admit that my editors at the Smithsonian came up with the title Making Them Like Us. After ruminating for a bit, I came to like the double and triple meanings in the title. As the book argues, Kennedy and Shriver hoped the Peace Corps would make the people in the third world both emulate Americans and love Americans. Thus, both meanings of “like” are intended, and the ambiguity is important. At the same time, most Volunteers never attempted to “make” their hosts do anything nor was that the end result of Volunteer work. So, as I point out in the acknowledgments, the Volunteer experience tended to make us like them more than making them like us, providing yet more ambiguity to the title.

Your book and Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s All You Need Is Love have appeared at the same time. How would you say your books are alike, are different?

It is ironic that Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s book All You Need Is Love and Making Them Like Us appeared in the same year since it has been almost ten years since a scholarly book on the Peace Corps has been published. At first, Lisa’s work was dismaying to me. Yet our books are indeed very different. First, her book focuses much more on the policy implications of the Peace Corps while mine puts much more focus on the Volunteers. Second, an important strength of her book is the inclusion of a comparative perspective, examining the Volunteer agencies from other nations. My book, on the other hand, self-consciously centers on American culture and the connection between the organization and American cultural ideals.

When you began your research into the agency, what surprised or intrigued you the most?

I think my conclusion points to the fact that I believe the Peace Corps experience made the Volunteers into better citizens. Whenever I am asked whether the Peace Corps has been a success, I answer that whatever its faults, the Volunteer experience has provided the Volunteers with the most efficient graduate education that the United States government provides sponsorship for. In no other experience do Americans learn more about other nations and other peoples.

With regard to yourself, did you ever think of joining the Peace Corps?

I have never seriously considered becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. In retrospect, I am jealous of the Volunteers’ knowledge and insight about other peoples. I think, perhaps, that I have gleaned some of this insight as I worked on Making Them Like Us, and hope others that read it might gain similar insight.

Thank you, Fritz, for your time.

Thank you, John, for your interest and your long support of the work of Peace Corps Volunteers, overseas and here at home.

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