I know I can generate a lot of ‘comments’ and ‘Com’on Coyne!’ complaints by picking out Volunteers who really did an amazing job overseas. Yes, we all did amazing jobs! However, there are many, many PCVs who away from their APCDs, or any host country attention, did wondrous working as teachers, nurses, community development workers in the barrios of Latin America, or digging fish ponds in Africa. Whatever! We all knew one or two Super Vols in our programs. Some of us, perhaps, were Super Vols.
Still, on the national level, over the 50 plus years of the agency, there are several moments when the world as a whole paused and for a moment at least nodded in agreement and thought: ‘yes, this is what the Peace Corps is all about.’
One such moment occurred early on in Nigeria at the University of Ibadan when Trainee Maragery Michelmore dropped a postcard and the PCVs came under the harsh reality of cross-culture misunderstanding. The Peace Corps then was on the verge of tumbling apart before it started, but PCVs and Staff rallied around Maragery in this moment of crisis.
Nevertheless, for me..for the Greatest Volunteers, I’ll give the nod to the PCVs of the Dominican Republic, circa 1965. They were the greatest PCVs to serve, in my opinion.
Why so, you might ask.
Well, when a revolt began in the DR in the spring of 1968, 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, it was fear of a radical regime change that kept U.S. troops there. And it was the first such intervention in Latin America since the ill-fated U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in 1925.
On Saturday morning when the uprising began there were 108 Peace Corps Volunteers in the DR; thirty-four of them were in Santo Domingo. The PCVs had been told that in the event of any civil disorder, they were to remain with their friends in the barrios, where they could await instructions from the staff. But as the fighting and bloodshed swept across the capital the Volunteers were caught up in it.
Elements of the armed forces and civilian population led a rebellion with the aim of restoring Bosch and restoring constitutional government. Amid stories of mounting casualties and destruction as the fighting progressed in Santo Domingo, there were sketchy reports of PCVs working in hospitals, driving ambulances, and distributing food and apparent safe conduct though partisan lines. One news story reported that a soldier had asked a Volunteer nurse why she was assisting him when he would only return to the battle and shoot at U.S. Marines. A reporter for the New York Herald Tribune wrote, “This is a war in which the U.S. War Corps is at odd with the U.S. Peace Corps.” Other U.S. newspapers expressed editorial concern over the ambiguous role played by the Peace Corps.
Commended by some, censured by others, the Volunteers during the rebellion were doing essentially what they had been doing since their arrival; helping where help was needed. Before the outbreak of fighting, the Volunteers had been advised to avoid political partisanship, and this was still the operative rule for their behavior during the civil strife. And injured man was an injured man, and food went to those who were hungry.
One PCV wrote later, “I had little sense of real personal danger as I felt completely safe surrounded by people I had grown to trust completely. But the problem was that nobody was able to predict with accuracy what might happen from one hour to the next, and, hence, the Peace Corps staff felt that I would be wiser if I moved to a nearby hospital where I would be a bit safer.
“I arrived at the hospital and already there working were Peace Corps nurses, working 16-18 hours a day, assisting with the waves of wounded and generally supervising all phases of the hospital operations. There was no electricity, short supply of water, few medicines, standard of sanitation were understandably low, and blood literally covering the floors. Luckily, during the first day, there was so much to do there was little time to collect our thoughts.”
Later the PCVs in the Capital were moved to a central location, within a established security zone. Then the next phase in Peace Corps activities began. There were three areas in the city: the U.S. security zone, the military junta section, and the Constitutionalist-controlled sector.
Nurses were continuing to work in hospitals, but the other PCVs went to help the Red Cross transport medicines and food. One PCV remembered, “During these few weeks of driving through all parts of Santo Domingo there was a definite degree of danger. I guess all of us were scared. The problem was not so much that we would be attacked personality, but rather that we might be in an area where there happened to be firing.
“In such an environment within which there was a definite degree of anti-American feeling, the Peace Corps received practically none. It was as though the Peace Corps was entity separate from everything else what was concerned with the conflict-as, in fact, it was.”
Later in June, after an uneasy truce, with no loss of life to the PCVs, Frank Mankiewicz, then the Regional Manager of Latin America, would tell a staff meeting, “Many of them (the Volunteers) were terribly scared; I think to this day some of them are not quite sure of what they did or why they did it…But somewhere along the line they had caught up something that all of us feel, I think, from time to time–about what it meant to be an American in that situation….and there really is not enough to say about the way they came through and what it meant to the United States and to the Dominicans too.
“People talk every once in a while about acting in the highest Peace Corps tradition. I’m not sure that in four years we’ve established very many traditions–either high or low. But the staff and the Volunteers in the Dominican Republic certainly set a standard this past month that can serve as a tradition until a better one comes along.”
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.
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.
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, 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 is, of course, 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 asked us to do over five decades ago, we have tried to make a difference, and we didn’t ask for honor or praise or even money, and 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!