The recent successful NPCA Conference in Denver got me thinking about the first RPCV Conference held at the State Department on March 5-7, 1965. Over 1,000 RPCVs attended, of the approximately 3,000 plus PCVs who had returned home.
By the time the conference ended, as reported in the Saturday Review, “it was beginning to dawn on even the most grudging onlooker that the Peace Corps veterans–who should number at least 50,000 by 1970–are going to be an inspiring force in our national life.” (It turned out to be closer to 75,000 RPCVs).
The article goes onto say that the “atmosphere in the State Department auditorium was one of verve, confidence, and high good humor. In fact, the witty opening speeches by Corps director Sargent Shriver and Vice President Humphrey evoked such volleys of laughter that one middle-aged journalist expressed fear for the building safety, on the grounds that State Department auditoriums are engineered to withstand everything but laughter.”
The three days were filled with sessions of serious discussions and much soul searching. A number of newspapers wrote how the RPCVs had fears and doubts, not ebullience and hopefulness. TV news commentator Eric Sevareid wrote in his newspaper column about the “Peace Corps boys and girls” suffering from ‘cultural shock’ and “bored with the trifling concerns of affluence life, depressed that their inner revelations are not shared, and angry that private employers do not leap to hire them.”
However, most observers at the conference felt the returnees did indeed have something special to offer, e.g., personal flexibility, empathy with people of different backgrounds, a renewed appreciation of democratic institutions, and optimism about the possibility of change for the better.
The panels also turned up, Hallowell Bowser wrote in his Saturday Review article, “a collection of individualists, dissenters, and cross-grain types who not only had black thoughts about the conference itself, but also had black second thought about our needing a Peace Corps at all.” He would go onto write, “Inevitably, there were a few corridor orators, one of whom kept complaining, ‘But it all seems so strange after Africa. All these buildings and people–I just can’t seem to connect.” (Which prompted one guest observer to mutter, ‘Hard cheese, old chap.’)”
The rebellious note continued on into the last plenary session, during which an RPCV woman advanced on the podium at Sargent Shriver’s invitation and readministered to Shriver the dressing-down she had already given him and the Peace Corps in private.
And then the RPCVs, in a final display of collective individuality, voted down a proposal that they set up a national returnees’ organization; the feeling being that such a group might get hardening of the veins, and end up as a log-rolling, job-exchanging fraternity of conformists.
What emerged from the conference Hallowell Bowser writes, “was the sense that the Peace Corps is causing a remarkable group of people to surface in our midst. Listening to them talk, one could understand President Johnson’s comment, ‘Thomas Hardy said war makes rattling good history, but peace is poor reading….(but) the Peace Corps (has) made the pursuit of peace rattling good history.”