The day Jack Vaughn threw a punch

Jack Hood Vaughn, President Lyndon Johnson, Sargent Shriver

 

A friend who worked overseas and at HQ sent me this story of when he worked for Jack Vaughn as the Peace Corps Liaison Officer to the Department of State.

“I was invited to a meeting at State,” he wrote. “When I got into the room, there were some 15 different agency representatives seated around a large round table. The person at the head of the table was acting as its Chair — probably from State’s Intel Services. He posed this question: ‘Which agency here has access to what is going on in the villages of our world; which agency has people in the field that speak their languages; which agency has the most credibility with these villagers; which agency can report back to us on a regular basis in reference to what’s going on out there that we need to know about?’”

“As he moved his finger around the table, the Dept. of Labor representative would say something like, ‘Not our people, we are only in the capital of countries.’ And the Dept. of Commerce guy would say: ‘We are only there to represent international trade issues.”

“And so it went, with no one claiming to have the answer — but without me saying anything.”

“Finally, the Chair said ‘Okay, let’s quit this cat and mouse game.’

“Looking at me, he said, ‘We all know it is the Peace Corps that has Volunteers out in almost every village in the world and that it speaks their languages, and that it can help us here, right? You need to be on our team here . . .  this is very important to our nation!”

“Right,” I responded, “our Volunteers can provide all that you are seeking, but they can’t and won’t. Your office needs to look for another source of intelligence on this issue. At that, his face flushed.”

“I was easily the youngest officer in the room and my comment must have sounded impertinent to him. He said: ‘Well, we’ll see what Secretary Rusk has to say about your response to our request. I want to assure you of that.’”

“The manner in which he spat out my last name for effect told me that the Chair must have been a military officer at one time in his career.

“I went back to PC headquarters and requested to see Director Vaughn immediately. I was shown in. He kept me standing in front of his desk while I reported. Without hesitation, he picked up a red phone on his desk that had a direct line to Secretary Rusk, motioning me with his other hand to back off so he could speak confidentially.

“The conversation lasted well under a minute. Vaughn called me forward, saying with some emphasis: ‘and that is the end of that’. And … it was.”

 

In mid-2012, the Washington Post ran a story describing why the government of Bolivia had requested that all Peace Corps Volunteers be withdrawn. The article went through the events which brought this about, namely that the Volunteers were providing detailed information to our State Department’s Intelligence unit on the daily goings-on in various villages around the country. PC/La Paz and PC/W admitted to these facts, as did our Dept. of State in Washington. Given the tense political situation in the country at the time, its government felt that it would be better if all Volunteers were recalled, and they were.

The incident was further reported by Stanley Meisler’s When the World Calls, (pp 206-209), wherein he wrote that a La Paz Embassy Security Officer had asked Bolivian Volunteers to report information to him. The Deputy Director of Peace Corps/Bolivia stopped him, told the Volunteers not to do that, and complained to the American Embassy. But apparently, since the Embassy later admitted that it had been the recipient of such information from Volunteers, the Deputy Director’s complaint fell on deaf ears.

We need the next Peace Corps Director to have a red phone on his or her desk. A direct line to the Secretary of State. And the new Director needs to drop a dime on the Secretary. Inform him or her that the Peace Corps can expect the example of Bolivia to be repeated over and over again. There are far too many host country officials who don’t wish the Peace Corps well, and having it directly under the U. S. Department of State would lead to the accusation that Peace Corps Volunteers are simply “spies.”

The Peace Corps goes to developing countries to help, not to sniff around to find dirt on our hosts. PCVs are better than low-grade State Department spies. We’re Kennedy Kids.

John Coyne

21 Comments

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  • After my Peace Corps service I was drafted into the US army in April, 1968. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Arlington, VA to study German and was sent to Germany afterwards. In Heidelberg I was told I was going to be assigned to an intelligence unit on the Czech German border. I informed the officer in charge that he might want to review the federal act that forbids PCV’s from serving in intel units. His first response was something like “….we really don’t need to pay attention to those laws over here.” But later he came back and said, that his boss told him to send me to a Psychological Operations Unit which was a few steps back from an intel unit. During my two years in that unit I did come in contact with intel officers, one whom I confided to that I was an RPCV. He then told me that he had been assigned once in Turkey and used to go up to the Turkish-Russian border to interview PCV’s. He always carried a few bottles of Johnny Walker Black to share. He was able to learn things from those PCV’s that could be considered to be gathering intelligence. He wrote his report and noted that one of his sources was a PCV. After he filed his report he was called in on the carpet and told very bluntly that PCV’s were not to be used as sources of intel. Then his superior said, “In the future, just don’t cite your sources in matters like this.” That’s the story, the way I heard it.

  • I enjoyed reading this. I felt very lucky to meet Jack Vaughn when he was retired and living in Tucson. He and Leftie were our honored guests at a Honduras RPCV reunion I organized there in 2008, and I still keep in touch with Leftie.

    But John, I have to tell you we are not all “Kennedy kids”. I realize this is a title that older Volunteers have embraced. But I realized at our 50th anniversary celebration in Washington DC in 2011 that only two of the multitudinous Kennedy family offspring actually ever served. I certainly appreciate the “Oh, this is SWELL!” optimism of the Shriver years, but his assertion that everyone should serve was widely off. My time as a Volunteer in Honduras was firmly grounded in the reality of life on the ground, tropical illnesses, changing geo-political realities, and all. The old Kennedy dictum about teaching a man to fish, in countries where men and women had been fishing for thousands of years, was totally irrelevant.

    Considering oneself a Kennedy Kid ignores the incredible privilege of those same kids and implies (at least in my mind) a great deal of entitlement and paternalism. If the Peace Corps wants to move on and remain relevant in this very difficult, very different era, then we need to put the Kennedy Kids title in storage somewhere.

    Maggie McQuaid
    RPCV Honduras, 1976 – 1978

  • Maggie,

    We didn’t call ourseves “Kennedy Kids”. people in host countries did. At least, that is how I remember it.

    Those of us who were serving when Kennedy was assassinated, found ourselves, at least where I was in Colombia, identified with affection as “Kennedy;s Kids”. It meant we were his legacy. I was proud to be called that. It had a special meaning in a special time and a very special obligation to reflect his ideals. It has NOTHING to do with “Pretending” we were of the Kennedy family….absolutely not.

    Joanne Roll
    Colombia 1963-65

    • Thank you for your very accurate and timely response. For some of us who served at that time, Kennedy Kids was not always a compliment, but a reference that we were somewhat childish… and the program would not survive. (I came from a family and community of staunch Protestant Republicans!).

      Kay Dixon
      Colombia 1962-64

  • Thank you,Maggie. I didn’t mean to offend you and other (later) PCVs by saying you were a “Kennedy Kid.”, I was just using the term Kennedy Kids as a nickname for all RPCVs whenever they served in the agency. Today, I am sure you have noticed, the Peace Corps, after 60 years, still is listed as having been established by the president, JF Kennedy. He gets the credit.

  • Dittto Joanne’s “Thanks,” John.

    When our group first met PC County Director Frank Mankiewicz in Peru in 1963, he laid down two rules: 1.) for men, no facial hair; and for everyone 2.) stay far away from the U.S. Embassy and anyone who works there.

    Too bad “State’s Intel” guy and the Bolivia PC Director in the 2012 had never spoken with Frank beforehand. –Tino

  • I am checking, but I can’t find a record of Peace Corps Volunteers in Bolivia after 2008. I will keep checking.

  • Thanks John, brings back a host of memories including visiting Ciudad Juarez with Bill Edwards and Jack where he boxed as Jack Hood Vaughn. And Gretchen Handwerger, Bill Myers and myself having lunch with him and family in Paris. However, perhaps germane to the story is Dean Rusk’s reported comment: “To make the Peace Corps an instrument of foreign policy would rob it of its value to foreign policy”

  • We had reported for duty only about a year after the Church hearings which outlined all sorts of C.I.A. activities around the world. A small part of the hearing divulged that the Honduran President was receiving so much money per box of fruit exported- a bribe. Within seventy-two hours there was a military takeover. Our station was now a military dictatorship.

    Intel is a strange commodity. Many times, the procurer has no idea what he or she is really getting or for whom. During our training in Honduras (1975), we were given the opportunity of visiting our sites for five days. However, while there we were expected to go to the market to note the cost of basic food stuffs and later report back. The PC staff presented it as a game, like a treasure hunt.

    This coup d’etat (like January 6th) was followed by a hurricane that destroyed agriculture across the Atlantic Coast and inland on the San Pedro Valley. Our “treasure hunt” coincided with the next crop cycle. So, when it was explained to us, I stood up surrounded by my trainee friends and mentioned that it sure sounded like we were reporting intel so that the State Department might guess at the hurricane’s effect. I explained that the visit was a good idea and I certainly would go but refused to collect data.

    Staff immediately threatened me. In the end they did nothing but never underestimate the sliminess of our State Department. And nobody ever called me a “Kennedy Kid.” Had they, I would have explained that my people work. It’s insulting to be grouped with parasites.

  • Lorenzo, I know that you were in Urban Planning, but Volunteers’ observations about the impact of hurricanes on a planting cycle in the seventies would have been very important for Peace Corps. I don’t know about the State Department,

    What I do know is that when VP Harris decided to go to Central America’s Northen Triangle to see why people were migrating North, she had no information about impact of hurricanes and/or climate change. Nor did it occur to her or anyone else to check with Peace Corps records. Peace Corps does not keep those records in a accessible, comprehensive data base. Peace Corps Volunteers have been working in Central America for about sixty years. What worked and what did not would have been valuable information. I think that is a tremendos loss.

    As for “secrets”, I am an Army Brat. My father had top security clearance and never said anything inside the home which could have revealed anything. Ten years after my Dad retired, the governor of our state was “shocked”, according to a newspaper account, to find out that dangerous weapons were stored in a facility in the state. My father said he was “shocked”, too. Even tho, he was second in command at the facility, he said he had no knowledge. He maintained that postion until the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, Then he laughed and laughed and said when the Russian decontamination team showed up in town, they knew where all the bars were. Of course he knew, the last of weapons had arrived with him. You were right, however, protecting the Peace Corps is the job of Volunteers and RPCVs.

    As for “Kennedy’s kids”, it referred to PCVs after the assassination. I never, until this week, thought anyone would assume that term referred to PCVs trying to pretend they were relatives of the family. I think that is crazy and speaks again to the lack of Peace Corps history being shared.

    Finally, let me recommend a book to you called “John F. Kennedy, War Hero” by Richard Tregaskis. It was published January 1, 1963. It is a detailed case study of what happened with Kennedy’s PT boat was attacked. You might find it imteresting because it is also an oral history of the natives who helped Kennedy.

  • Joey: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with my friend Maggie: if the Peace Corps wants to be relevant today, it’s best to hide sainthood for the Kennedys and early Peace Corps staff in the closet. This is called propaganda.

  • I got back from Nigeria in the summer of 1964 and was about to start medical school. I was visiting with my parents and the phone rang. The caller asked for me, which was surprising since I didn’t live there anymore. I identified myself and we exchanged greetings . He then got to core of the call. He asked if I had friends in Nigeria and whether I intended to keep up contact with them. I answered yes and he then gave me the pitch. “Our Government needs to have contacts that can be relied upon in times of crisis. Would you be interested in helping your Government in times of such a situation to understand what is going on? ” I thanked him for the call but explained that my time would be limited once classes started. He thanked me and gave me his number if I reconsidered. I assumed who he was but it never went further than that call.

  • What a fascinating tale. Thanks to John Coyne.

    As a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi 1968-70, I was never approached by any American to provide information about what was probably an unimportant backwater for global American politics. But on the other side of this, I was continually under observation by Malawi government officials who were deeply suspicious of what Peace Corps was really doing out in remote areas of the country.

    I was posted in a sensitive area, I discovered, about 15 miles as the crow flies from the Mocambique border, on the other side of which a major anti-government rebellion by Frelimo was active. The Malawian government was relatively new, and run by the President-for-Life Dr. Hastings “Kamuzu” Banda. I wasn’t at all interested in Malawian politics; as a representative of the United States I didn’t feel it was my role to get immersed or involved in Malawi politics in any way, but I did know from brief discussions with other volunteers that Banda had an extensive security service and that his transition to power just a few years before had been selectively violent.

    I also realized, living in a Yao area, that there was great resentment of the Chewa-based government at the way Yao were excluded from many governmental positions. Resentment was high. As a result, I was very careful of where I went, and what I said and did. Inter-tribal politics were not for me, but that didn’t keep me from occasional grilling when I happened to interact with people in or working for the ruling coalition.

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