Beyond the PCVs of Nigeria in the fall of 1961, there are other examples of how PCVs kept the Peace Corps going in the early days of the agency, and there is no better example than what a group of brave Volunteers did in the Dominican Republic in the spring of ’65.
Let’s look at how individual PCVs in the field were as important as early Peace Corps Staff in keeping the agency, alive, well, and on its own. We have to remember that regardless of the administrations who are in power, it is Peace Corps Volunteers who are the heart and soul, and the only reason for the agency. Here is the story of the Dominican Republican Volunteers of 1965.
Back then the PCVs of the DR were overwhelmingly against the 1963 right-wing military coup that overthrew Juan Bosch’s newly elected, leftist government (which had invited the Peace Corps to the country). These Volunteers lived and worked among the poor, they were working to remove the stain of the US’s long standing support for Rafael Trujillo, and when the civil war broke out in ’65 the Volunteers sympathized with the “legitimatist” rebels.
Then President Johnson sent in 500 Marines “to protect American lives” and the American forces quickly increased to 22,000 [are we talking surge here?] The Volunteers opposed the occupation, the deception, and the Marines. Clearly it was not the danger to American lives in the DR that worried Johnson, as Harris Wofford would write in his book Of Kennedys & Kings, but the fear of a radical regime that kept his troops there. It was the first such intervention in Latin America since the ill-fated U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in 1925.
Guess what? With fighting all around them, the PCVs wouldn’t leave. No, way. Tad Szulc of The New York Times would write, “These brave young Americans had refused to be evacuated from war-torn Santo Domingo and had gone on working in the hospitals and elsewhere despite the fight and the mounting resentment in the rebel zone against the United States intervention…”
Later [after the U.S. government realized how loved the PCVs were by the people] the State Department proposed that Volunteers be assigned to work with the U.S. Special Forces, the Green Berets, and when the scheme was put to the Peace Corps, the answer from Frank Mankiewicz, who was running the Latin American region was, in a message personally approved by Sarge Shriver: “Not only no, but hell no!”
The PCVs kept at their jobs and in the midst of the fighting. When Volunteers had to move from one place to anther, signs were held up by the rebels to stop shooting, that the American Peace Corps were walking by, and Volunteers moved safely in the slums where they were living their lives working with the people.
A few weeks into the fighting, the respected chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico, Jaime Benitez, who was then serving as an adviser to McGeorge Bundy, and who was in the Dominican Republic seeking a negotiated settlement, suggested that the DR would be better off if the respective numbers of PCVs and Marines on the island were reversed. It never happened, of course.
And that thinking by our government, of course, is why we invaded Iraq. At the end the Marines left the DR and the Volunteers stayed and kept working.
The success and secret of the Peace Corps has always been the work of the individual PCV who couldn’t care less about Washington, or for that matter, the APCD. [Those PCVs don’t mind if the APCD is buying the beer.]
Yes, we have had many losers PCVs among us, God’s knows! But for the most part, and for most Volunteers, the work has been done, the effort made, and those first friendships with the HCNs continue for many of us today. Throughout all these years, we had done what Kennedy first asked us to over four decades ago, we have tried to make a difference, and we didn’t ask for honor or praise or anything else, but we are not going to let a bunch of political hacks in D.C. ruin our Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps Volunteers of the Dominican Republic proved that in 1965 when they stood up to the Marines, when they stood up to LBJ, and when they told the world they won’t leave their jobs, they won’t leave the DR. No they won’t leave. Not only no, but hell no!
We now have a former DR PCV– Aaron Williams–as the new Peace Corps Director! We have come full circle.