The Fabulous Peace Corps Book Locker

The Fabulous Peace Corps Book Locker, Part I

For a short period of time in the very first years of the Peace Corps all Volunteers were given book lockers by the agency. The lockers were to be left behind in schools, villages, and towns where PCVs served as seeds for future libraries.

There is some mystery of who first thought to give PCVs these lockers and one rumor has it that the idea came from Sarge Shriver’s wife, Eunice. The first locker was put together by a young foreign service officer who left the agency in the very early days of the agency to teach at Claremont College in California.

In a letter that Shriver wrote to the early PCVs about the locker, he said, “We know you need books. This Booklocker of paperbacks and inexpensive publications is designed to meet that need. It includes classics and contemporary writing by both American and foreign authors, as well as titles on American history, politics, and social thought. There are also books on the area where you are working. The Ladder Editions with their reduced vocabularies of 1000 to 4000 words, and the other simple, illustrated materials may be useful aids for children and adults learning English.”

The books were divided into five categories: Literature, (which in turn had four sections: American Fiction, International Fiction, Poetry, Biography); No-Fiction (Americana, International Studies & Other); Reference (Books & Maps); Learning English (Classics Illustrated & Ladder Editions); Regional Lists (Africa, Latin America, Near East/South Asia, North Africa, Far East).

Among the Literature books were Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and Naked and the Dead by Norman Miller; the International Fiction had Graham Greene’s Third Man and Animal Farm by George Orwell; there were also poems by T.S. Eliot and Robert Penn Warren’s Six Centuries of Great Poetry, as well as both biographies of Abe Lincoln by Carl Sandburg.

Among the reference books were James Beard Cookbook and Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care.  There were maps of the world in English, Spanish and French and also tossed into the locker, the Wonderful World of Peanuts by Charles Schultz and Burl Ives Songbook. Go figure!

Needless to say, when the APCD arrived upcountry, and at the end of the road, several months after you were in your village, and he was carrying a month worth of mail from back home and this new, shiny black booklocker full of brand new paperbacks–written in English!–you thought you had died and gone to heaven.

Still more on the Peace Corps Book Locker!

Questions on the famous Peace Corps Locker came back to me recently and once again I went searching through files looking for lost documents and I came across a letter written to me by Jack Hood Vaughn on December 3, 1999.

For those RPCVs who never received a Peace Corps Book Locker, they were given out to all of us in the early days.  The Book Locker was sent overseas with the first Volunteers so we might start a small library in our schools, as well as having something to read. These paperback books were to be left behind when we left our towns and villages. Now, of course, PCVs have cell phone and laptops, iPods and iPhones….who needs a book!

Well, we certainly did.

What I had been trying to track down, back in the ’90s, was how did the Book Locker come to be?

I have heard that it was Eunice Shriver who first had the idea, and she suggested it to Sarge. I also heard from Padraic Kennedy who was then the Chief of what was called the Division of Volunteer Field Support that Tim Zagat, before he went to Yale Law School in 1966, and before he started in 1979 the Zagat Guide to Restaurants, was instrumental in creating the book locker. Tim actually has on his resume that he was the “Director of Reading Material Programs for the Peace Corps.”

When I spoke to Tim Zagat about the book locker, his fondest memories of those days when he was still an undergraduate was hiding from Bill Josephson, the Deputy General Counsel. When he was a student-intern working in the Peace Corps Building at 806 Connecticut, he hadn’t been cleared to work and Josephson knew that, knew him, so whenever Bill came down to his floor Tim took off.

Tim Zagat did work on that first book locker, but the person most responsible for it, and who had been given the task by Shriver to pick the books for the Peace Corps Book Locker, was Nathaniel Davis.

Jack Hood Vaughn back then was the Director of the Latin America Regional Office and in his letter to me in December 1999 read: “Sarge delegated that task to Nathaniel Davis, one of the foreign service officers assigned to a tour of duty in the Peace Corps, both in Washington and overseas.”

Who was Nat Davis, I wondered. I tracked him down in 2000 at Harvey Mudd College in California where he was a professor of humanities and wrote and called him. He never replied to my phone calls or letters.

Researching his history, however, I found that he had joined the Foreign Service in 1947, after receiving a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. (He would also get a PhD from Fletcher in 1960.)

After serving in the Foreign Service in Prague, Florence, Rome, and Moscow, he became a Soviet desk officer for the State Department, and when Khrushchev came to the US in 1959, he was an escort officer.

Davis went to the Peace Corps in early ’62 as a special assistant to Shriver, and later, I think, he was briefly the deputy director. Interestingly, in the Peace Corps Maiatico Building, a building full of Super Egos, he left no footprints. Neither Coates Redmon or Gerard Rice mentioned him in their histories of the Peace Corps agency. He is not cited at all in the early pamphlet, “Who’s Who in the Peace Corps Washington” that has bios and photos of the charter members.

Davis was at the Peace Corps until 1965, then returned to the State Department. His first assignment was Bulgaria, before we even had an embassy in the country. From then on his life as a foreign service officer began dangerous and memorable.

In 1968 he was on the senior staff of the National Security Council when in August terrorists killed John Gordon Mein, our ambassador to Guatemala. Davis took over from Mein before going onto Chile as our ambassador.

He arrived in Chile in 1971, a year after Allende became Latin America’s first democratically elected Marxist president. Davis’ term there ended amid suspicions of American involvement in the 1973 military coup that resulted in Allende’s violent death. Later classified documents and Congressional hearings would show that Nixon and the CIA had operated spies in Chile, in a plan called ‘Track Two.” The agents were to cultivate military officers in Chile who opposed the governing socialists. Davis knew nothing about it until it came out in Senate hearings in 1975.

Also, in 1975 he was named assistant secretary of State for African affairs to Henry Kissinger, but resigned after only four months because of differences with Kissinger and President Ford over covert military operations in Angola.

His last foreign posting was as ambassador to Switzerland from 1975 to 1977.

In his book, The Last Two Years of Salvador Allende, Davis would refute allegations of American collusion in its downfall. However, many believe he was the model for the ambassador in the 1982 Constantin Costa-Gavras film Missing, which was based on a book by the same name by Thomas Hauser.

In 1983, Davis, and two other American officials who served with him in Chile, sued Hauser, Costa-Gavras and Universal Pictures for libel, alleging that false accusation were made of their complicity in the disappearance and death of American journalist Charles Horman during the coup. They sought $60 million in damages for the “public disgrace, scorn and ridicule” they had suffered. The libel suit was ultimately thrown out of court.

Davis would leave the government and spend the next 19 years, until his retirement in 2002, teaching political science at Claremont Harvey Mudd College. He also got involved in the civil rights movement, and with the local Democratic Party. He became a mountain climber. And in 1995 he wrote a history of the Russian Orthodox Church called A Long Walk to Church.”

In May 2011, at the age of 86, he died of cancer in Claremont, California. On his death, Kissinger would describe him as a “brilliant career officer.”

What I find most fascinating about the life and death of Nathaniel Davis is that for a very brief time, for only two years, he was at the Peace Corps, yet when he died the headline in the Los Angeles Times on May 21, 2011 read: The longtime diplomat and Peace Corps official also taught political science at Claremont’s Harvey Mudd College for 19 years until his retirement in 2002.

The Peace Corps was just a footnote in this man’s long, successful life where whatever contributions he made to the agency were not even noted by Peace Corps historians, but nevertheless, in the world at large, in a major U.S. newspaper, the Peace Corps is as important as his diplomatic career, and his tenure as a professor of humanities at Harvey Mudd College.

Think about that when you wonder whether your two years in the Peace Corps was worth your time and effort. In the eyes of the world, it surely seems to be.



Leave a comment
  • Well done, John.
    And we should remember too that we got the International Herald Tribune, and Life Magazine in our remote villages. Life was popular in the coffee houses, especially when there were pictures of Muhamed Ali–our African-American boxer. Ali was a hero in the Muslim world, and when, in April, 1967, he refused the draft, saying he had no quarrels with those Vietnamese, America’s status in the Muslim world took a big hit.

    And when, in the fall of 1968, Robert Komer was appointed Ambassador to Turkey, the newspapers, from left to right leaning, all shouted that the “American butcher from Vietnam” was coming Komer had been head of the “:Phoenix program,” which was about pacification and hunting down Vietcong in villages.

    The Peace Corps was quietly asked to leave Turkey a bit later. At first it was no new programs, then finding places for Volunteers in other countries. I had been a Volunteer, 1965-67, when pictures of Kennedy stood by those of Ataturk in remote villages. By 1970, back on staff, helping Volunteers to leave.

    • Don’t know if there is but if there are lists we want copies for the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience. Let’s keep looking.

  • I was fortunate to be stationed in Moshi, Tanzania, 1966-67 where there was a very good lending library in the town. The Peace Corps book locker was a supplement for us. I don’t know what happened to our book locker as I left there in the second year to take a teaching post in a very remote area.

    In recent years I went back to Moshi, and there was a newer, bigger library. Walking through the stacks and looking at books on the shelves I noticed that they were the most worn out books I had ever seen. Every page must have been turned hundreds of times. The books would have been rejected by any used book store in the US as unfit to hold in one’s hands. It makes me think that sending books might still be one of the best services we have to offer to developing countries.

  • I remember a book titled The Leopard in the Peace Corps book locker. I tried reading it several times, but only read the first 1/4. I was a pcv in Iran, 1970-1972.

  • This legacy of Peace Corps needs to be started again as not all people of the countries served by PC have cell phones, laptops and internet. A book opens the world to them. Especially after a natural disaster when many have nothing.

    Don Dirnberger
    EC 22 Antigua, West Indies 77-79
    Crisis Corps (Response) Honduras 99
    AmeriCorps Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver 21-24

  • I still remember books I loved and read over and over in my book locker (Micronesia 1966 to 1968.). Most of all “Psychotherapy East and West” by Alan Watts and “Justine” by Lawrence Durrell.

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