Talking with Dr. Molly Geidel about her Provocative Cultural History of the 1960s' Peace Corps

Several weeks ago I was reading The New York Review of Books and spotted a full page advertisement for new books published by the University of Minnesota Press. Glancing at the page one title jumped out at me.

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Contacting the press for a review copy of the book, I also sought out (and found) Molly Geidel in England where she is teaching American studies at the University of Manchester. Her official title is Lecturer in Twentieth Century American Cultural History in the Division of English, American Studies and Creative Writing.

I am pleased to say, Molly agreed to be interviewed for our site and over the course of a few weeks, while I read her cultural history of the agency, I emailed  Molly a series of questions about her book and her study of the Peace Corps in the 1960s.

I should start by saying that Dr. Geidel in her book “argues that the agency’s representative development ventures ….legitimated the violent exercises of American power around the world and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.”

My interview questions were simply to find out who Dr. Geidel was and how she came to this conclusion about the Peace Corps.

I began with asking Ms. Geidel something about herself.

Geidel: I grew up in southern Vermont, which is home to the Experiment in International Living as well as to a lot of radicals and countercultural communities. I have a BA from Brown (though they call it an AB), an MA from UMass Boston, and a PhD from Boston University. More recently, I taught in temporary positions at Harvard and Cornell before moving to the UK this fall to start a lecturer (assistant professor) job in American studies at the University of Manchester.

I presume your book on the Peace Corps is a revised version of your PhD dissertation.

The Peace Corps is incredibly interesting. What drew me to it were some of the things I mentioned above in my biography: growing up surrounded by the legacy of the sixties and also having a spirit of volunteerism instilled in me (I worked in AmeriCorps education programs during and after college and grew up doing a lot of volunteering), while all the time inequality just seemed to be growing and the United States kept intervening pretty relentlessly into the affairs of poorer countries. I wondered a lot, even before I started my PhD, how all those things fit together: how liberalism and radicalism were connected, but also about the connections between global inequality, American power, and the idea of person-to-person development work as a way to bring people out of poverty. So the book is my attempt to work out those puzzles, and for me the Peace Corps–and in particular the image it projected of heroic volunteerism as a solution to structural inequality–provided a key to understanding the way a lot of Americans thought about the world, and particularly about social change, in the 1960s.

Starting your research what books on the agency did you read?

I read a ton of helpful books: the Rice book certainly, and the Brent Ashabranner history, oral histories collected by Coates Redmon and Karen Schwartz, biographies of Harris Wofford and Sargent Shriver, and then accounts by many, many volunteers: Moritz Thomsen, Paul Cowan, Rachel Cowan, Ed Smith, Paul Theroux, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and countless others. Then there were academic books like Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman and Fritz Fischer’s histories, Julius Amin’s accounts of the Peace Corps in West Africa, Jonathan Zimmerman’s work on African American volunteers and US teachers abroad, and Michael Latham, Alyosha Goldstein, Larry Grubbs, and Robert Dean’s chapters on the Peace Corps in larger books on related topics. This is a very partial list; luckily for me, many people have told and are still telling their Peace Corps stories.

What were you trying to achieve with your cultural history book?

My hope is that I’ve added something new to the story by connecting the 1960s Peace Corps to other issues. One is gender: so, how was the Peace Corps connected to the heroic masculine vision (the reinvigoration of a glamorous Western image) embodied by JFK? And to the extent that the early Peace Corps was defined by this idea of heroic masculinity, how did women volunteers encounter (or interact with) with that image? Could they embody it? Could they ignore it? Was it a trap? Etc.

Another issue I consider is the violence of modernization and development. In the 50s and 60s, the modernization theorists who advised the Peace Corps equated modernization with the destruction of traditional cultures: their idea was that poverty stemmed from traditional habits and values, and that those must be destroyed so that capitalism (and therefore prosperity) could flourish. So how did this theory influence the Peace Corps, given volunteers’ genuine aspirations for intercultural understanding and connection?  For me it’s important to note that both things were true: the impulse for connection and intimacy across national and cultural boundaries, but also the impulse to destroy traditional habits and values in the name of development. So the question I ask in my research is, how did volunteers deal with this dual impulse, to know but also to destroy traditional cultures?

I’m hoping people find these ideas, and the stories I’ve collected, interesting and worthy of consideration and debate.

Did you ever think about becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer yourself?

When I was young, I imagined the Peace Corps as an adventure. But by the time I was old enough to join, I had the idea that I could be of more use to people at home, in communities I knew. After college, I almost went right into this full-time AmeriCorps or VISTA-funded job coordinating an after-school program, but then the funding for the position fell through. So I went to grad school.

For me, as I said, the 1960s Peace Corps is phenomenally interesting and (as you say) under-studied by academics, although I do know of a couple other recent dissertations on it. I just thought it was a really rich and complicated topic–it seemed like the perfect lens through which to examine liberalism, radicalism, and Americans’ beliefs about themselves, modernity, poverty, race, gender, and social change, and I also got to collect stories from people who were young and idealistic in the ’60s. Maybe my book will inspire more academics to work on it, either to argue with me or to fill in parts of the story I missed; I hope it does.

Do you think that Peace Corps Volunteers ever did anything worthwhile?molly1

I would never dispute the idea that PCVs sometimes help, and have helped, people; I say this in my introduction. But the book is about something slightly different: how development became our only way of conceiving of social change and poverty alleviation, how the Peace Corps (images of and stories about it as much as the work volunteers actually did) made that vision coherent and appealing, and how some volunteers wrestled with the task of instilling new values in people.

One of the comments I have received about your book regards the closing of the Peace Corps program in Bolivia in 1971. It had to do with the film Blood of the Condor. This RPCV says that the film was financed with Soviet backing and Cuban involvement. What is your take on that statement?

This is completely wrong. The director, Jorge Sanjinés, is a very important figure in Bolivian cinema (I met him in La Paz), and the rest of the people who worked on the film were also Bolivian, with the exception of the actors who play the “progress corps” volunteers. I’d encourage the commenter to see the film, which is a radical classic and makes a pointed argument about development as cultural genocide, an argument very different from Fidel Castro’s ideas about development and culture. Far from being the product of foreign infiltration, the film is grounded in an indigenous cultural nationalist philosophy that comes from mass movements in Bolivia.

Another comment from a reader was:  “Without Peace Corps involvement indigenous Peruvian Alejandro Toledo would NEVER have been able to get educated and hence be able to challenge the corrupt Fujimori Presidency and become South America’s first indigenous President in 500 years.”

And a RPCV who served in Latin American wrote: Why does the Communist President of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega believe in Peace Corps? And Venezuelan President Chavez invited Peace Corps and their Crisis Corps into to his country after a major flood and natural disaster? They know the value of the Volunteers”!

I’m going to respond to these two together, because they seem connected. I would never dispute the idea that PCVs sometimes help, and have helped, people; I certainly don’t dispute this in the book. But the book is about something slightly different: how development became our only way of conceiving of social change and poverty alleviation, how the Peace Corps (images of and stories about it as much as the work volunteers actually did) made that vision coherent and appealing, and how some volunteers wrestled with the task of instilling new values in people.

I also want to call the commenters’ attention to The Committee of Returned Volunteers, the only antiwar group made up of mostly RPCVs. I’m pretty sure my book contains the first history of the group, so the commenters might not know that they occupied Peace Corps headquarters in 1970 (there’s a great photo of this in the book) and called for the abolition of the Peace Corps. To some degree this fairly large group of returned volunteers across the country were able to look at their experiences as development workers and say, We had good experiences and helped some people, but we also perpetuated American empire, and so we need an agenda that is not just about training future leaders in the Third World and making them friendlier to the United States, or about addressing systemic inequalities through the personal transmission of skills, but about dismantling imperialism altogether. That transformative agenda seemed real to a lot of people in the ’60s; now, not so much. These days leaders like Ortega and Chavez, both of whom spent years under constant attack from US military schemes (Ortega most brutally with the Contras but Chavez also had his share of CIA plots against him) and have had to capitulate to global capitalism at the expense of constructing even fully functioning welfare states, have had to take all the help they can get.

This is another comment I received from an RPCV who has spent her life working for non-profits: One of the best pieces of evidence of the positive impact Peace Corps volunteers had on the lives of those with whom they lived and worked was brought home to me when 25 years later I went to work for a nonprofit international development organization working with local NGOs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Over and over and over again when I met the remarkable leaders of these young organizations, I would learn they had once been taught by a Peace Corps volunteer who changed their lives. What greater legacy from the 60s could we want?

Would you agree with this statement from your own overseas experience in Latin America? Have you had that experience(s) from your travels in the developing world?

I never had that experience traveling, but I also haven’t traveled that much or met many NGO workers. While living in Bolivia I met a few Bolivians who had socialized with PCVs (one who had smoked pot for the first time with them), but never anyone who’d had one as a teacher. Many different development and aid groups worked in Bolivia over the years, especially in the lowlands, so the older people I talked to who lived in rural areas would often get confused about the institutional affiliations of the gringos they’d met and worked with.

But I also want to answer the question the commenter asks, even though I realize it was meant rhetorically: what greater legacy could we want from the 60s [than remarkable leaders running the many development NGOs that now proliferate around the globe]?

Personally, I’d say we could want what so many American and global social movements in the 1960s wanted: more equality (wealth distributed downward and not concentrated in the hands of relatively few billionaires); a deepening of democracy so people actually have power to determine the forces that shape their lives; less imperialism and militarism, particularly from the United States. I’m very interested in this morphing of the goals of development indicated by the rhetorical question, What more could we want? One thing I consider in the book’s conclusion is how since the 1960s, development work has became an end in itself, replacing its original goals, such that the ongoing proliferation of development NGOs has become evidence of the success of earlier development efforts, rather than of their failures.

When I was overseas I found that American movies and television had a profound influence on Ethiopia. Programs like Dallas ‘shaped’ the way the average citizen thought about America. Do you think we should try and keep such programs from being distributed as they are obviously going to influence the traditional culture?

I’m a big fan of popular culture. I also think the traditional/modern binary is way too simple, and was way too simple even in the 1960s. One thing I try to emphasize in my book is how modernization theorists imagined that there were “traditional” societies untouched by Western modernity, when the reality is that centuries of colonial incursions brought Western modernity almost everywhere, even before development workers showed up to insist that “traditional” communities be transformed.

I also want to clarify here: I’m very influenced by the thinkers and communities in Bolivia, and also in Mexico and elsewhere, who are trying to move beyond development. Their vision is not really antimodern: it’s not interested in recovering a pure tradition untouched by the West, so much as asking what “traditional” societies might have done better than we do-how we might recover and repurpose indigenous practices of and insights into environmental sustainability, criminal justice, and other areas that the West is not doing so great in, while also trying to use “modern” insights and technologies that do exist for the good of the community rather than private individuals and corporations.

During my training in the summer of ’62 at Georgetown University at some point talking to the Ethiopians who were our instructors, there was a general feeling in the air that we shouldn’t do anything in Ethiopia, that Ethiopia, as presented and talking about by the Ethiopians, was a pastoral paradise. Why ruin it by modernization?

However, when we reached the country, we realized (and saw) the hardship endured by the people and the lack of education for children. As PCVs, in our limited and small way, we were able to double the number of high school students, for example, just by arriving in-country and walking into classrooms. Our nurses were able to training Dressers (as they were called) young women (mostly) to be nurses in rural areas where there were no doctors. Do you think, Molly, we did more harm than good as Peace Corps Volunteers?

I do think the modernization and development framework for transforming the postwar Third World did more harm than good, and not just in the most obvious sense of precipitating global environmental crisis.

To explain this, I’ll ask you to ponder this counterfactual scenario: what if around 1960 or so, after many countries in Asia and Africa threw off the Western and Japanese colonial powers, those powers had paid them reparations? What if these ex-colonial powers had said, “We’ve exploited you and your resources for decades, sometimes centuries; now we actually owe you resources in return; and with those resources, you can now build up the industries you see fit to build, and honor the traditions you see fit to honor”? And then what if the United States had left those new countries alone as they tried to work out the big, difficult questions of national identity, politics, and economy, rather than constantly intervening militarily in their affairs? What if, within this framework of respecting newly decolonized nations’ autonomy, the US and these nations had collaboratively organized some exchanges of idealistic young people to share knowledge and skills?

Of course this scenario didn’t happen, but I think it would have been the really just and humanitarian course of action. What happened instead was that a group of policymakers and advisers in the United States formulated modernization theory, which framed underdevelopment not as a consequence of long histories of colonialism, oppression, and theft, but rather as simply a skills deficit. This framework of underdevelopment allowed the vast inequality of power and wealth between the US and decolonizing nations to persist, enforced by constant, brutal military and CIA action. So third world nations, many of them newly independent, were basically bullied by the United States into shaping their economies to fit its interests, under the pretext of a starkly bipolar world–you’re either with us or with the communists-as well as this idea of underdevelopment as deficiency.

What did individual volunteers have to do with this overarching global system? Obviously they didn’t create it, but there’s a way that they embodied it. By being young and appealing and genuinely willing to try to solve poverty by teaching hard work and ingenuity, volunteers made this idea, of poverty as a condition caused by lack of skill and initiative, seem real to many people. And my research into Peace Corps memoirs, letters, and other accounts suggests that this sense of American superiority (and this sense of Third World people as blank slates, as people who knew nothing and whose culture had to be utterly transformed) crept into some volunteers’ work. Sometimes this attitude confused volunteers, and sometimes it hurt the people that volunteers were trying to modernize, teach, and organize. But of course, sometimes volunteers questioned these assumptions, ended up more appreciative of cultures they were meant to transform, and made lasting friendships and connections.

Does any of this take away from the hard work volunteers did, and the ways they demonstrably helped people? I don’t know. They were acting ethically the best they could with the information they had. It’s easy for me to marvel in hindsight at how badly American empire has messed up the world, but obviously volunteers didn’t know at the time what would happen, and many of them were very optimistic about a US-led postwar order.

You write about “ruggedly masculine figure” of the 60s Peace Corps. We had about 25% females in our first group to Ethiopia. Today, as you know, the agency is about 65% women. Do you think the agency has changed or is it still the “ruggedly masculine”?

I don’t think so, no-as far as I can tell, this is really a phenomenon of the early Peace Corps. I was surprised when I initially went through the archives to find a large number of media accounts and early staffers who imagined the Peace Corps as a place for recovering an American masculinity that they thought had been lost in the 1950s, with the extreme cultural emphasis on domesticity and the nuclear family and increasing numbers of American men working in managerial jobs and living in suburban homes. My first chapter collects a bunch of accounts that tout the 1960s Peace Corps as a way for America to prove to itself that it hadn’t “gone soft,” in Sargent Shriver’s words.

Some RPCVs have asked about the situation today in say, Honduras, and also about what you think of the Peace Corps today. What would you say?

This is really out of my area of expertise-my book is about development and the 1960s Peace Corps, and ends in 1970 or 1971–so I don’t want to say too much. The Peace Corps is much smaller now, and much less iconic. And the focus on masculine heroism, as I say above, is really not there in the way it was in the 1960s. 

You write about the Committee of Returned Volunteers, the only antiwar group made up of mostly RPCVs. I was a ‘member’ of this organization, if you could call it that. Basically it was a loose gathering of those of us who were against the war in Vietam, and we happened to have been PCVs. I would guess there were less than 100 ‘members’ in Washington, D.C., also in Boston and a few other cities. Why do you think it is a significant organization, just because it took over the Peace Corps office? College students for decades have been taking over the president’s offices in schools which you attended. Is it just because you had a ‘great photo’ and that is why you wanted to write about it so you could have the photo in your book?

My book contains a whole chapter on (or at least, largely devoted to) the CRV, which I think demonstrates that they constituted a significant part of the new left and the antiwar movement. Among other things, CRV activists led the huge protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago ’68, wrote manifestos in national publications connecting their international experience to their antiwar stance, produced a short-lived but beautifully designed magazine that contained in-depth research about US military interventions beyond Vietnam, and worked on various other solidarity campaigns. As a sad side note, one member was also murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile in 1973–presumably the CIA had flagged him as a radical. I think their story is really interesting and important, a heretofore unexplored chapter of antiwar movement history–they certainly did a lot of interesting writing, of which I went through many boxes. The fact that the CRV chose to occupy Peace Corps headquarters in 1970 (rather than a target more obviously connected with the Vietnam War) seems very significant to me; : it speaks to their understanding of the connection between the Peace Corps’ development work and US militarism in Vietnam.

What Peace Corps writers have you read that you find particularly insightful?

There are so many writers from the sixties whose work helped me. The second chapter of my book bunch of 1960s memoirs in my book that I found extremely useful, including Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor, Ed Smith’s Where to, Black Man?, and Paul Cowan’s The Making of an Un-American. I also found many (14!) formulaic novels from the 1960s about women in the Peace Corps, almost all in the romance or YA genre. I was really interested in the way the figure of the Peace Corps girl became iconic in the 1960s-in these books as well as in the many media features on women volunteers, she was imagined as an adventurous, anti-domestic figure.

Would you be in favor of closing down the agency now before it does, as you might think, more harm?

I’m not sure it matters very much, at least not the way it did in the ’60s-the Peace Corps is not as iconic as it used to be, and it’s much less unique. The person-to-person development work that the Peace Corps embodied in the 60s is now carried out by countless NGOs around the world.

I would say that the nonprofit and NGO structure is not the best one for doing good-I encourage my students to get involved in activism for social justice rather than development or service work.

How do you think we -the U.S.-should operate in the world?

I think at this point, taking into account its numerous, incredible blunders and failures–most notably right now, the longtime nurturing and arming of religious fundamentalist groups around the world (which originated as a Cold War policy to combat a global left), along with the toppling of regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa with no game plan whatsoever-the United States has earned itself a long period of isolationism. Honestly, I think at this point the only ethical stance is to declare that we have no moral authority or strategic knowledge; give some sort of generous reparations package to human rights groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; and then withdraw. Stop imagining that we know best, or that our global policing is doing more good than harm.

Finally, do you think that the work Peace Corps Volunteers have done in the last fifty plus years, help to create organizations like ISIS?

I wouldn’t say that.  Except maybe in the case of George Packer, the prominent liberal journalist, who drew on the expertise and moral authority of his Peace Corps experience in his public declarations of support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Which of course did lead to the creation and rise of ISIS.

7 Comments

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  • I was shocked to read this statement of Geidel’s”
    “so much as asking what “traditional” societies might have done better than we do-how we might recover and repurpose indigenous practices of and insights into environmental sustainability, criminal justice, and other areas that the West is not doing so great in, while also trying to use “modern” insights and technologies that do exist for the good of the community rather than private individuals and corporations.”

    I do not think it is in Geidel’s book. It is almost verbatim a conversation I had last summer with another RPCV. That is precisely why an archive/library collecting the work of PCVs is so essential to beginning to work toward the above goal. The table shook when my friend pounded her fist to emphasize the above sentiments and people buried in their laptops looked up annoyed and a little alarmed. The problem with Geidel is she distorts facts to fit a preconceived notion of a world that never was and yet was somehow destroyed by the Peace Corps.

    Also, Volunteers who were educators and nurses were in totally different worlds than Volunteers “tasked” with Community Development in Latin America. The experiences can’t be compared.

    John, Thank you so much for these provocative and illuminating essays. I can’t wait to read the next installments and the comments.

  • I was a PCV for five years between 1967 and 1973 in two countries, one in Central America and Africa. Following my PCV service, I was on the PC staff three African countries for almost five years. I also spent over 40 years in Africa observing the works of PCVs all over the continent. I find nothing in Geidel’s book that remotely relates to any of my PC experiences; therefore, I dismiss her book as nothing more than an academic exercise that lacks reasonable credibility.

  • “I was also shocked by Dr. Geidel’s naiveté about the Peace Corps and PCVs in general. She said she hadn’t traveled much or even met PCVs and RPCVs when she researched her thesis and book. That’s why she confused academic research, with factual in-the field research. She should have interviewed many PCVs in the field and the people they lived with…she didn’t know any teachers, when in many countries teaching English as TEFL Vols was the main program?? Wow!

    I am in the midst of my own autobiography, entitled, “What Happened to the Sixties’, precisely because I didn’t want to perpetuate the idea of a superior American culture. I volunteered for the PCorps on the day Kennedy died, precisely to counteract Vietnam and our militarism. I was fed up with consumerism, and participated in the early Berkeley anti-war, anti-imperialism demonstrations. “The Ugly American” was written by two Berkeley Assist. Profs, and Ed Snow, of “Red Star Over China” fame and Mao’s Long March, was preaching the evils of American intervention in Vietnam while I was at Berkeley.

    Also her knock on community development is totally off base; at least rural community development, as in Turkey. We weren’t indoctrinating anybody, nor was our model of American idealism and initiative destructive of centuries-old Moslem culture, or undermined their culture in any way. In fact, my village work was continued when Turkey began to send out its own agricultural engineers and teachers to villages (in lieu of military service) to bridge the huge gap of knowledge at that time between its fast developing cities and the village culture left behind.

    No, many of us were there to oppose America’s militarism, cultural imperialism, not propagate it.
    Harlan Green

  • re: ” I also found many (14!) formulaic novels from the 1960s about women in the Peace Corps, almost all in the romance or YA genre.”
    How many of these were written by RPCVs?

  • Thank you John for facilitating this discussion and giving it quite a rocket engine of a start.

    First of all, I neither have time nor energy to expose all of the logical fallacies upholding this many-headed argument accusing 50 years of goodwill by Peace Corps volunteers of committing more harm than good. However, I will attack the most egregious of them here.

    For starters her entire argument assumes the Peace Corps must be guilty by association with the US federal government and never once attempts to quantify how exactly this argument should be upheld. As a scientist I was taught, “if it cannot be measured, it does not exist.” How exactly does Geidel intend to measure Peace Corps’ negative effects on indigenous cultures around the Third World? And even if it were proven fact, the Peace Corps is invited by the people being served.

    Besides the circular logic of begging the question, Geidel also slyly moves the Peace Corps’ goalposts based on the US government’s nefarious original intent for the Peace Corps; everything America does must follow imperialism as a rule with no need to qualify or quantify counterarguments. After all, Noam Chompsky and others have done the hard work of establishing the guilt of US imperialism so why should Geidel do any hard work to bring down the Peace Corps?

    Everything good Peace Corps has attempted to do in the Third World can be simplified into a mere seductive backrub by do-gooders paving the way for the gross paternalistic imposition of American imperialism. Bend over Third World; here comes the Peace Corps!

    What offended me deeply was how Geidel used PCVs’ words out of context to suggest the Third World would have been better off had Peace Corps volunteers stayed home. I would love to see a comprehensive poll by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers on the validity of their PC service. We ruined the Garden of Eden by paving the way for mass consumerism, right? Hardly.

    To counter Geidel’s anecdotal “evidence”, I offer my own anecdotal evidence: a Gabonese schoolteacher approached me one day with a strong desire to reconnect with his childhood chemistry and physics teacher who happened to be a Peace Corps Volunteer with an engineering degree. The Gabonese teacher shared his epiphany that “if chemistry and physics are so important that an engineer would leave his career in America to teach me, then this chemistry and physics must be very important stuff!”

    The Third World has a right to know chemistry too.

    Geidel suggests she has no desire to join PC because she could do more good by staying home to (write) promote (anti-establishment) just causes. That sounds like a cop-out to this RPCV! In my first month of service in a rural village in Africa I taught my incredibly innocent Third World students (for the first time) about the AIDS virus and their guaranteed human rights. Ignorance is not bliss in the proverbial “Garden of Eden” or anywhere else for that matter.

  • Molly Geidel’s comments about the Peace Corps is disturbing. It seems to me that she has demonstrated the lack of knowledge about
    economic development. She advances Marxist rhetoric in treating the process of economic development which is completely outdated.
    She characterizes the Peace Corps volunteers as agents of the modernist theorist that embarked to destroy traditional cultures in countries they served. This is a complete departure from the truth.
    She has completely misunderstood the Mission of the Peace Corps.
    The volunteers gave up modern amenities to live in austere conditions in villages, towns and cities in countries they served to bring about change in human conditions by providing education and
    healthcare to the poor in order to become self reliant. According to Geidel this is cultural genocide. What a false claim.
    Samuel Y. Manna

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