The Infamous Peace Corps Postcard
I recently received a few emails asking what JFK’s remark about writing to him meant to PCVs. Here’s a quick summary of the ‘famous’ post card incident that I posted on our site a few years ago.
Marjorie Michelmore (Nigeria 1961) was a twenty-three-year-old magna cum laude graduate of Smith College when she became one of the first people to apply to the new Peace Corps. She was an attractive, funny, and smart woman who was selected to go to Nigeria. After seven weeks of training at Harvard, her group flew to Nigeria. There she was to complete the second phase of teacher training at University College at Ibadan, fifty miles north of the capital of Lagos. By all accounts, she was an outstanding Trainee.
Then on the evening of October 13, 1961, she wrote a postcard to a boyfriend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here is what she had to say:
Dear Bobbo: Don’t be furious at getting a postcard. I promise a letter next time. I wanted you to see the incredible and fascinating city we were in. With all the training we had, we really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions rampant both in the city and in the bush. We had no ideas what “underdeveloped” meant. It really is a revelation and after we got over the initial horrified shock, a very rewarding experience. Everyone except us lives on the streets, cooks in the streets, sells in the streets, and even goes to the bathroom in the street. Please writer. Marge.
P.S. We are excessively cut off from the rest of the world.
The postcard never was mailed. It is said that it was found on the grounds of University College at Ibadan near Marjorie’s dormitory, Queen Elizabeth Hall. The finder was a Nigerian student at the college. Copies of the postcard were made and distributed. Volunteers were immediately denounced as “agents of imperialism” and “members of America’s international spy ring.”
The protest made front-page news in Nigeria and it sparked a minor international incident. As the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States put it, “No one likes to be called primitive.”
Smack in the middle of this “international incident” was Murray Frank, the thirty-four-year-old Western Regional Director of the Peace Corps in Nigeria, who had arrived in-country only weeks before the Trainees and was busy developing sites for the Volunteers when the infamous postcard was found.
August 31, 2007
A couple of Nigeria I Volunteers hitched a ride from the University College of Ibadan to APCD Murray Frank’s home with the news about the postcard. Protests were beginning on campus they told Murray; Volunteers were being ostracized. This was clearly not a training issue, and now Murray Frank was in charge of what to do next.
Frank had arrived in Ibadan early in October. While Volunteers were settling into dormitories at the University of Ibadan (then part of the University of London and called University College of Ibadan) to continue their training started at Harvard, he was arranging for Volunteer assignments. This meant Murray would visit a potential location, meet the principal and staff, establish that there was a position for the Volunteer to fill, and check out living conditions. By Friday, October 13, he was just getting started with this work, while the first Peace Corps Volunteers were on campus at the University College of Ibadan.
The day after the postcard was found, Volunteers went into their college dormitory dining halls for lunch and found copy–word for word–of that postcard at each place. According to Murray, “Marjorie’s comments described how the average Nigerian lived. While not inaccurate, her comments were not flattering, and to a Nigerian student — especially one concerned about Western imperialism — the comments seemed downright insulting.”
When Frank learned what had happened from the Volunteers who had hitched a ride to his place, he immediately arranged for all the Volunteers to come to his home that night for a meeting. He then went to the USIS library to phone Lagos–Frank did not have a phone–to speak with Brent Ashabranner, Nigeria’s first Peace Corps Director. Ashabranner cabled Peace Corps Washington with the news.
By coincidence, the second-in-command at the American Embassy, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was on his way back to Lagos after a trip up North. Murray and Marjorie met him at a local rest house and they all agreed Marjorie should go with the DCM to Lagos. It was while at the rest house that Murray spotted an AP stringer staying there and he quickly realized the reporter would be onto what had happened with the Peace Corps Volunteer at the university. Murray knew the postcard incident would be on the AP the next day, and he was right. By Monday morning, the news of PCV Marjorie Michelmore and the infamous postcard was a headline in every daily newspaper in America.
Meanwhile, Back In Washington PC/HQ Waits for Marjorie Michelmore
One of the key people I spoke to about the post card incident was Warren Wiggins, then the Associate Director for the Office of Program Development and Operations, and later to be the Deputy Director. Wiggins told me that the staff in 1961 were waiting for something to happen overseas with the Volunteers. Too many young people were volunteers, he said, and there “had to be” an incident of some kind. On the afternoon of October 15, 1961, Peace Corps HQ got their “incident’ when word reached Washington about Marjorie Michelmore and her postcard.
Gathering in this emergency at HQ on that October Sunday afternoon, the senior staff was initially worried about Marjorie, as well as the other Volunteers. Wiggins also realized that “The Peace Corps could be thrown out of the country at any moment. It could be the domino theory–first we’re kicked out of Nigeria, then out of Ghana, and so on. Anything was possible.” It would be the end of the Peace Corps before it had even started.
At first there were rumors. One was [it was incorrect] that the U.S. Ambassador in Lagos, Joseph Palmer, was trying to force Marjorie out of Nigeria against her will. Then the Peace Corps heard from Marjorie herself. She cabled Sarge Shriver telling him that it would be best for the Peace Corps, and best for her, if she came home immediately. The word was cabled back to Africa from PC/HQ: get Michelmore out of Nigeria.
Wiggins always said Shriver was calm and cool in such moments of crisis. But Tim Adams, who had just come to the Peace Corps from the San Francisco Examiner to be the new public information officer for the agency, said that on Monday morning when the story broke in the US press there was, “panic in Shriver’s heart. There really was. That postcard had created a cause celebre. It was temporarily the talk of the universe.”
Shriver, however, was determined to outsmart the press. He didn’t want them meeting Michelmore when she arrived in the U.S. after a long overnight flight from Africa. He was afraid of what she might say. And what would they ask her about the new Peace Corps? Were these young white American kids up to living in Africa? Anything was possible and it would all be bad for the Peace Corps.
Shriver came up with a plan: Michelmore would fly from Lagos to London, then fly directly to Bermuda, and onto San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she would join up with Trainees at the new Peace Corps Outward Bound camp. She would then “impart cultural sensitivity caveats to the Peace Corps trainees.”
Tom Mathews, deputy director of Public Information, was dispatched to Bermuda to pick up Michelmore when she arrived on the island and fly on with her to Puerto Rico. [Marjorie’s escort officer from Lagos was Dick Ware, a tall, good looking African American who was an AID official in Nigeria, and who was about to joined the Peace Corps Staff. He would make sure Marjorie was kept away from the press leaving Lagos and when they had a layover in London.] All bases were covered.
Two nights later–the night Marjorie and Dick Ware are flying across the Atlantic– shortly after 2 a.m. EST, Tim Adams, got an urgent call from Wiggins. Warren had heard from Tom Mathews in Bermuda. The island was socked in and Marjorie’s plane was being diverted to Idlewild in New York. Shriver, Wiggins said, wanted Tim to get to New York before her BOAC plane landed. Sarge Shriver wanted to make sure that the first Peace Corps ET, Marjorie Michelmore, was kept away from the American press.
September 04, 2007
Panic at Idlewild ET Michelmore Arrives
Tim Adams arrived at Idlewild Airport to a terminal overwhelmed with press people carrying tape recorders, cameras and microphones. Michelmore and Ware were about to touch down on their BOAC flight and Adams saddled up to a group of reporters and asked innocently, “Who’s coming in?” Adams thought it might be Grace Kelly, then due back in the States. “It’s that Peace Corps girl,” someone said and Tim’s heart dropped.
Slipping away from the reporters, Adams pulled out his official government Peace Corps ID and got past the customs officials and into the gate where the BOAC flight landed. He pulled Marjorie and Dick Ware into an empty room. The reporters, however, could see them on the other side of Customs, see Tim frantically telephoning Shriver at the Peace Corps Headquarters. Tim asked what he should do. Shriver told him, “Tim, I don’t want the press talking to Michelmore.”
Adams told Shriver there was no way Marjorie couldn’t talk to the reporters. When Shriver didn’t respond, Tim took it as an opportunity to hang up. With Marjorie and Dick Ware behind him, Adams went out to handle the press conference.
Grabbing a chair, he jumped up and told the swarming reporters that Miss Michelmore was very tired, and that she would take only a few questions. Reporters were given five minutes. T.V. and radio got another five minutes. It worked. That night, ET Marjorie Michelmore was charming, attractive, and normal. It was all over the next’s day’s papers and on the nightly news.
By now at Idlewild Airport a half dozen more Peace Corps HQ people had arrived, all having been sent by Shriver. These were some of the famous original staffers at the agency: Ruth Olson operated as crisis manager for the occasion. She was well versed for the job, having come to the Peace Corps in the first week of the agency from years of working with the military during World War II; Betty Harris, a former journalist and political operative from Texas was with her; Tom Matthews had also just arrived back from Bermuda. And arriving unannounced and unexpected, sneaking thought the press of people, was Marjorie’s Boston boyfriend, an NAACP lawyer.
It was at the airport where Marjorie received her handwritten note from JFK. I don’t know how that was arranged, my guess it was done by Bill Moyers, a rising start of the next Johnson administration, and at age 27, the Associate Director for Public Affairs for the Peace Corps.
When the press cleared out, Tom Mathews headed back to Washington to brief Shriver on what had happened. And Tim Adams and the others got tickets for the next flight to Puerto Rico. This was the plan that had been worked out in Washington.
However, there was a problem. Marjorie Michelmore didn’t want to go to the Peace Corps’ Outward Bound camp in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She had heard–via the Peace Corps Volunteer network that Camp Arecibo was “all Tarzan”. That wasn’t her style. Tim was back on the phone to Shriver in D.C. and asked what he should do.
But at Idlewild, the two women–Ruth Olson and Betty Harris– convinced Marjorie to go to Puerto Rico. Michelmore agreed to go for a ‘few days’. Then when Tim Adams, Marjorie, Olson and Harris got on the plane, thinking that once they were air-born, they’d be Puerto Rico, they’d be okay. But they were wrong.
On the plane, Adams recognized Carl Mydans. It the time Mydans was a famous photojournalist, one of the giants for Life Magazine. With Mydans was a young woman reporter, Marjorie Byers. They were in first class. Of course, this is Life Magazine.
When they are airborne, Carl Mydans walked back from first class to talk to Tim in coach. [Of course, he works for the Peace Corps.]
“Carl was such a gentleman,” Tim recalled, “I finally relented and we were able to negotiate terms under which Mydans and Marjorie Byers could get an interview with Michelmore after we all arrived in Puerto Rico.”
When they did arrive in San Juan they were met by Rafael Sancho-Bonet, then the Peace Corps’ overall administrator in Puerto Rico [later he would be the CD in Chile.]
Rafael drives them all to meet William Sloane Coffin, the director of the camp. Coffin is famous–especially in his own mind–and had been a chaplain at Yale, later an antiwar spokesman, later still, the Senior Minister at Riverside Church in New York City. In the Peace Corps Coffin was well liked, and well hated.
That day he was pissed that Michelmore had been “foisted on him” by Shriver. He did not want her in his camp. [Of course, Marjorie didn’t want to be there either.]
Coffin position was, “I want it made clear that this girl is going to be treated just like everybody else here. Up before dawn, rappel down the dam, do drown proofing, and conquer the obstacle course, etcetera.”
Marjorie wasn’t going to have any of it. “I will do this for a couple days to accommodate the Peace Corps,” she tells all of them, “but I view it as an unnecessarily punitive action, and there is a limit. If I am not permitted to leave very, very soon, I will leave on my own.”
“Marjorie wasn’t kidding,” recalled Adams. “She was ladylike, but tough. And she just wasn’t going to take any shit from Coffin.”
Something had to be done, and it was, by Ruth Olson, Rafael Sancho-Bonet, and Tim Adams. They handled this ‘incident’ for the Peace Corps. They got Michelmore, to use early Peace Corps terminology, ‘in, up, and out’ of Arecibo within two days.
September 05, 2007
Nigerian PCVs Make Their Decision
Meanwhile back at Murray Frank’s home, the PCVs had assembled and were trying to understand the intense reaction of the Nigerians. Nigeria, newly independent, was surrounded, as Murray put it, “with the visages of the colonial period, including and especially white people who symbolized a colonial past.” What had quickly emerged in Nigeria was a self-image based on their new freedom, especially among the young intellectuals. These students, and others, were asking: how could the Americans help us if they were writing letters home about them?
While many of the new PCVs had experienced student protests in the U.S. they were still unprepared for what was directed at them. Could they survive the postcard? They began to ask themselves: why stay when so many students wanted them to leave?
Other PCVs said. We know Nigeria needs teachers. We can teach. We are not imperialists, nor CIA agents, nor ugly Americans. We know who we are. We can make a difference.
In the long afternoon and night of discussion, Murray Frank was the discussion leader, moving the Volunteers from one hard point to the next. These young people were on the firing line, Murray knew, and they had to decide themselves.
And they were young. Murray was the oldest in the room, only 34. Also, they were newly transplanted in a new country, confronted with a situation that they had no preparation for, but they had, Murray recalls, “spirit and maturity.”
They decided to stay. They decided to tough it out.
That decision by this group of “Kennedy Kids” made all the difference in their lives, and in fact, made all the difference in the future of the Peace Corps. If they had ‘cut and run,’ giving up at the first brush up against a hostile group of HCNs who did not know the reason these Americans were in Nigeria, it is a good chance that the fledging Peace Corps would not have survived those few months of its existence.
The next day in Nigeria, the next day in America, Marjorie’s postcard appeared in every newspapers; it was reported on the radio, and it was seen on television. The whole world knew what had happened in Africa with this young Peace Corps Volunteer. Within days, former president Eisenhower would make a political speech in Madison Square Garden in which he said that the U.S. should send Peace Corps Volunteers to the moon since it was also an underdeveloped country and they could do less harm there.
Out in Ibadan, Murray and his Nigerian Volunteers waited for directives from Washington, waited from advice from the Peace Corps HQ. But there was no cable traffic from D.C.
Finally a telegram arrived. It was from the State Department in Washington, D.C. The cable asked one question: “Were there really over 256 words on one-side of the postcard?”
Don’t you just love that? It sounds like the State Department.
Meanwhile in Nigeria, another part of the “preposterous postcard incident” as Tim Adams termed it, was taking place. In Ibadan, between the PCVs and Nigerian students, there were real problems.
September 06, 2007
PCV Aubry Brown Shows Them How
Nigerian PCV Aubry Brown, who had had training and experience in non-violence resistance in the late fifties, led the Volunteers, and the Nigerian students, out of this confrontation over the postcard by the end of October, 1961.
The PCV had continued to take some meals and sleep in the dormitories, but they were isolated and shunned by the Nigerian students. Then Aubry told the Nigerian students in his dorm that he would not eat if they would not eat with him.
The Nigerians began to bring him dinner trays to his room but he refused to eat. And soon they invited him to join them at meals. Other Volunteers and students did the same. Slowly, a dialogue began between students and the Volunteers, which was, as Murray recalls, “more valuable than if the incident had not taken place.”
Other Nigerians came to the help of the PCVs. The Nigerian-American Society, an organization of Nigerians trained in America, wrote letters to the editors of newspapers. One man, H.A. Oluwasanmi, who taught agronomy at the University of Ibadan and later was Chancellor the University of Ife, gave not only support to the Volunteers and Murray Frank, but his advice on how to understand the situation was, in Murray’s word, “invaluable.”
Richard Taiwo, an engineer in one of the Western Region ministries and a warm and wonderful man and supporter of the Peace Corps, praised the Volunteers and organized with others a party for all the PCVs at a very visible club in Ibadan, where there was plenty of Star beer and lessons in Highlife.
The Peace Corps in Nigeria also got help from Tai Solarin, principal of the Mayflower School, which he founded and named for our Mayflower. He came to the side of the Volunteers. If it wasn’t from these men, and the Nigerian-American group, Murray Franks said, “We might not have made it.”
In the aftermath of the incident, Murray would write, “Peace Corps Volunteers remained calm and were not retaliatory with Nigerians who taunted them. These young men and women balanced individuality and group allegiance, knowing that the issues were not personal. They remained reasonably self-confident and able to listen and learn.”
The first real crisis of the Peace Corps and on-the-job training of what it meant to be a PCV had been averted and the infamous postcard turned into a moment of understanding and acceptance by all. The Kennedy Kids had shown their detractors in the United States that they weren’t kids. And as Murray Frank, who guided them successfully through all these first months in Africa, summed up years later, “I would hope that if any new PCVs go to Nigeria they will be as good as the Nigeria I Volunteers. They couldn’t be better.”
September 07, 2007
What They Wrote About Michelmore in America
Segments of the U.S. Press were all over the postcard incident. The U.S. News and World Report wrote,” From the moment of its inception, despite laudable aims, the Peace Corps was bound to run into trouble.” They condemned the naiveté of the entire concept and claimed, “this is only the first big storm.”
Commonweal wrote in an editorial “The problem involved is really bigger than the Peace Corps for it reflects the gap that exists between the wealthy U.S. and most of the rest of the world. Given this fact, incidents like the postcard affair are bound to happen.”
Former President Eisenhower added his two cents, saying the “postcard” was evidence of the worthlessness of Kennedy’s new idea
However, columnist James Weschsler of the New York Post came to the aid of the Peace Corps and Marjorie. “Nothing in the card was sinister. It contained the instinctive expression of horror of an affluent American girl in her first direct encounter with the gruesome squalor of Nigeria. She was neither patronizing nor self-righteous in her comment; yet, whoever found the lost card managed to stage a big production.”
Michelmore, meanwhile, was getting support from Nigerian writing letters to Nigerian newspapers. Tai Solarin in the Lagos Daily Times wrote, “not a single Nigerian who knew this part of Nigeria would suggest that she was sending home a make-up story.”
While Murray Frank and the PCVs at University College of Ibadan might not have known it at first, the Volunteers were also getting help from Washington. Shriver met with the President as soon as the news broke, telegrams were going back and forth between the Peace Corps and Sam Proctor, the Peace Corps Director in Nigeria, on how to handle the situation.
And Marjorie, too, was well aware of what was happening around her because of the postcard. She would later write Kennedy, “I regret very much my part in the unfortunate affair at Ibadan. I hope that the embarrassment is caused the country and the Peace Corps effort will be neither serious nor lasting. [ Marjorie was right. Five months after the postcard incident, a second group of Volunteers arrived in Nigeria and were met at the airport by Prime Minister Abubakar Belewwa.]
As for Marjorie. She returned to Peace Corps HQ in Washington, D.C., with Ruth Olson and Tim Adams and went to work with Betty Harris and Sally Bowles to put out the first issue of The Peace Corps Volunteer. It was, of course, an appropriate choice, as Coates Redmon states it in her book on the early days of the agency, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story, since Marjorie was the first returned Volunteers.
September 10, 2007
The Peace Corps Gets Vaccinated
In a memorandum to Sargent Shriver–attached to an Evaluation Report on Morocco (1963) done by Ken Love–and written by the legendary early Peace Corps Director of Evaluations, Charlie Peters, Charlie wrote, “Marjorie was as sensitive and as intelligent a Volunteer as we ever had in the Peace Corps.” The lesson that was learned by the Peace Corps was that “even the best young people can be damned silly at times.”
According to Gerard T. Rice in the first serious study of the agency and its creation entitled, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps, “The President’s personal support helped the Peace Corps weather its first storm.” Kennedy hand written note to Michaelmore said, “We are strongly behind you and hope you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps.”
At the Peace Corps HQ the feeling was that the agency had weathered this early storm. Warren Wiggins would write, “The greatest thing that could have happened to the Peace Corps in the beginning with a postcard from a Volunteer mentioning that people pee in the streets in Nigeria. It was like a vaccination…..Never again would a major newspaper, under the worst of conditions, streamed anything negative about the Peace Corps. Since then, the Peace Corps has had rape, manslaughter, bigamy, disappearances, Volunteers going insane, meddling in local politics, being eaten by crocodiles, but never again did it get a bad play in national news. The vaccination took; we were immune.”
The PCVs stayed and the Peace Corps program continued and grew in Nigeria. As for Marjorie? Well, early in ’62 she left the Peace Corps and married her Boston lawyer.
Many years later, I located Marjorie and asked her if wanted to write her account for our website: www.peacecorpswriters.org. Marjorie wrote back saying, ‘thanks, but no.’
September 11, 2007
Who Stole Marjorie’s Postcard? Part 10
In 1965 Bob Gale, then running the Peace Corps Recruitment Office, traveled out to Ibadan, Nigeria, for a COS Conference. Gale had been a vice president at Carlton College and had developed the famous early Peace Corps recruitment blitz teams.
Arriving late in Nigeria, Gale with a Nigeria APCD and headed for a local bar where he was the only white man having a drink. Then in walked another huge white American kid and a smaller African. Gale recognized the American. He had recently been the co-captain of the Carlton College football team when Gale was there, and was a PCV in Ghana. He was hitchhiking through Nigeria and had been picked up by this Nigerian who, when learning his rider was a Peace Corps Volunteer, immediately told him that he was the person who had discovered the famous postcard of October 1961, four years earlier.
The Nigerian explained that he had been working at the post office in Ibadan and been asked by left-wing students at the University to look for any postcards from PCVs that might discredit the Peace Corps. He found the postcard.
As you remember when Kennedy said goodbye to the departing PCVs on the White House lawn, he asked them to write, and then, almost as an afterthought, added, “But no postcards.”