[In the late ’80s, I got a call from the writer Karen Schwarz. She had just signed a contract with William Morrow to write a book about the Peace Corps and her editor told her, “Start with John Coyne.”
Her editor was an old friend of mine and he had already heard ‘one too many of my stories about the Peace Corps so he was happy to send Karen my way. Karen had never been in the Peace Corps. She interviewed me several times and I gave her a few names and contacts of people she should call, and off she went to write WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE PEACE CORPS published by Morrow in 1991. It is the first and only oral history of the agency.
After her book’s publication, Karen told me she had come on some interesting information about RPCV and the FBI in her research and she was kind enough to write a short piece for Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) and my newsletter, (now renamed RPCV Writers & Readers) at the clever suggestion of Marian’s husband Don Beil (Somalia 1963-65). Don thought the new name would make the newsletter more inclusive, and he was right.
Karen’s piece appeared in our July 1992 issue.]
RPCVs and the FBI
By Karen Schwarz
Can you imagine FBI agents keeping tabs on board members of the National Council of RPCVs? Is it conceivable that a member of your local RPCV group would pass the group directory to the FBI field office in your area?
It may sound farfetched and not a little paranoid, but that’s exactly what happened in 1969, the year a group of RPCVs defied a State Department ban and traveled to Cuba. I learned about this while researching my book, WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE PEACE CORPS.
The Committee of Returned Volunteers (CRV), the first national organization of RPCVs, 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 marchers showered with tear gas at the 1968 Democratic convention, and in 1970, they occupied the Peace Corps building in Washington for 36 hours to protest the student killing by National Guardsmen at Kent State and Jackson State Universities, as well as the invasion of Cambodia.
I learned about the FBI’s surveillance of the CRV by filing Freedom of Information Act requests back in 1988. The documents, which filled a small carton the size of a phone book, did not arrive until July, 1991, when my book had already been published.
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 guerillas, 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. 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 that this was just seven years after the Cuban missile crisis and the 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 trace and included in the report along with a few details about the owner of the car.
An FBI contact working for Braniff Airlines provided the FBI with the minutia of their reservations; every change prompted a new cable. How each of the passengers paid for their tickets were noted. FBI agents were stationed at the airport to photograph the group and photocopy their tourist cards.
What is particularly disturbing about the documents I received is that they indicate 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 simple 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. A fun fact buried in one of these newsletters is the mention of Paul Tsongas’ (Ethiopia 1962-64) taking over the job as treasurer of CRV’s Boston chapter.
Much to my disappointment, the documents contained no bombshells. I paid over $200 in fees for this matter, and would have appreciated it if the FBI’s black marker had skipped over something. The FBI saw fit to withhold 63 pages of F.O.I.A. documents that they deemed should be kept secret “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” because their disclosure would constitute “unwarranted invasion of privacy” and reveal the “identity of a confidential source.”
As I read the FBI dossiers on CRV leaders I was reminded of how quickly thing changed in the 1960s. When these individuals had proudly answered John Kennedy’s call, the FBI had done 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.