The Peace Corps In The Age of Obama

There is a piece today-June 2-in the LA TIMES on the Peace Corps. It was written by Chris Kraul, a special correspondent, who is in Sana Fe, Panama. The piece focuses on the new PCVs to Panama, but talks about President Obama’s commencement address at Arizona State University last month where he said the Peace Corps was an American institution that shows “our commitment to working with other nations to pursue the ideals of opportunity, equality and freedom that have made us who we are.” 

At the Peace Corps they are talking about the “Obama effect” and how the Internet requests for “starter applications,” is up 40% from last year. Requests are running around 25,000. That is on top of a 16% increase in completed applications submitted in 2008. (Was that due to the “I Hate Bush And Want Out Of  The Country Effect?”) By the way, requests from people 50 and over is up to 7%, (from 4%).

Kraul writes, “Even as some government programs are being scaled back because of the global financial crisis, the Peace Corps’ budget is getting a boost from Obama. If Congress approves the proposed 9% increase in the agency’s 2010 budget, the number of Peace Corps volunteers, now at 7,876, is expected to rise.

Then Acting Director, and Bush-Hold-Over, Jody Olsen, who, it seems, has had only one job in her long life, the Peace Corps, says, “We are just skyrocketing in applications.” She go onto selling out her mentor George Bush by saying, “Obama represents what Americans really want to be asked to do. We want to hear how important service is, whether it is domestic or international.” 

However, all this happy talk isn’t reflected in the budget numbers given out by the Obama White House. A 9% raise in revenue for next year will easily be consumed by cost-of-living expenses and the increasingly high cost that is paid for security for PCVs and Staff in the field.

I’ve noticed that the MorePeaceCorpsCampaign has moved away from its slogan of doubling the size of the agency to a new effort, one which embraces the Transition Team’s prose of wanting “to reform the Peace Corps.”

Kraul sums up in his LA TIMES piece, “These are good times for the Peace Corps, which was founded by President Kennedy in 1961. It has had its ups and downs, peaking at 15,000 volunteers in 1966 and hitting a low of fewer than 5,000 in 1982.”

The truth is that the Peace Corps hit 15,000 in 1966 because it was a clear alternative to Vietnam. Johnson was president and Jack Vaughn Peace Corps Director–a  Democrat and a Republican–both believed in the agency and Peace Corps Volunteers.

In 1982, when fewer than 5,000 Peace Corps Volunteers were overseas,  Ronald Reagan was president and the late Loret Miller Ruppe was in the middle of her record holding tenure as Peace Corps Director. And in 1966, Republican Jody Olsen was beginning her long career at the agency as a PCV in Tunisia. Jody is now old enough to qualify, in this “Age of Obama,” at one of those Senior Citizen PCVs.  

I wonder if anyone has sent Jody a “starter application”?

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  • Are you saying that Jody Olsen isn’t even a RPCV? Wow, I didn’t know that. How can we get a new Director installed? Is the Obama Admin even looking for a new Director?

  • KateL–My wording must be off. She was a PCV first, in 1966-68..” And in 1966, Republican Jody Olsen was beginning her long career at the agency as a PCV in Tunisia.”

  • Oh, of course. What confused me was the question, “I wonder if anyone has sent Jody a “starter application”?” as though she was a “starter” applicant.

    What do you think are the chances the Obama Admin will replace her?

  • Katel–I was attempting to be funny.. Earlier in the piece I wrote: “At the Peace Corps they are talking about the “Obama effect” and how the Internet requests for “starter applications,” is up 40% from last year.”

    So I was playing off of that comment with my last comment.

    And, yes, she will be replaced once Obama gets around to saving the auto industry and turns to foreign affairs and the Peace Corps.

  • A funny piece. One thing about Jody and who her “mentor” is: I’ve always assumed she was a Reagan and Bush 1 girl, and was put back at PC under Bush 2 as a sop to Dad. Under Bush 1 she wasn’t the female eunuch she is now. She was actually in the company of like-minded peers and had some influence. She’s being bad-mouthed almost universally by the generations who’ve only known her in her present iteration, and with reason. But I remember her when she was a real person.

  • John: You observe that LBJ and then PC Director Jack Vaughn, a State Dept functionary, BOTH “believed in the agency, and Peace Corps Volunteers.” I’m not sure where you were when the both of them reversed the Kennedy/Shriver/McNamara policy, and to feed the Vietnam War began drafting serving PCVs out of their PC assignments for priority induction for Vietnam. Under Vaughn career PC administrators were resigning in protest, and so were PCVs, many of which fled to Canada, and stayed there.

    I was inducted a few months after returning from PC Service, and the two statements from LBJ and then from Vaughn are burned in my memory.

    LBJ’s facile comment was something like “While PC service is nice, what really matters is military service”. He should have said “Killing them is a lot more effective than trying to understand them, esp when they’re carrying on about freedom and self-determination, and opposing the corrupt puppet regime we put in there to frustrate the Geneva Accords on IndoChina.”

    Jack Vaughn, who lately has resurfaced at gala events, dutifully echoed the idea. His facile statement, in the face of staff resignations and protests, was something like: “I can’t understand how any PCV could see Peace Corps principles as inconsistent with duty in Vietnam.”

    What is astonishing is that the military itself was far more sensitive than either Vaughn or LBJ. It was a career officer, and combat veteran, knowing my Peace Corps service and associated moral dilemma, who saw to it that I was NOT placed in the position of killing people. And when he did, I promised I wouldn’t shirk my duty, but do as good a job as I had done in the Peace Corps. No such understanding from Vaughn. And we should believe that he “believed in Peace Corps Volunteers” ???

    As for Jack Vaughn, who evidently thought killing Gooks was good, and lighting their huts on fire and shooting them down as they tried to escape was even better; I remember thinking “I wish Vaughn was giving speeches in Vietnam, where some of these bitter and angry GIs could see to it that HE never came back”.

    It is my personal conclusion, following the peak Peace Corps numbers in 1966, that there was a reason for the decline that relentlessly followed, and it was directly the result of Vietnam, and the loss of confidence in the basic moral substance of the Government, and of people like Jack Vaughn and LBJ.

    Among people like me there was a presumption that “THEY” would never try another stunt like Vietnam as long as Vietnam veterans were still alive. Wrong. We hadn’t counted on two draft-dodgers, Bush and Cheney, and their impatience to use military force to reward their oil-business friends. As LBJ himself might have observed, “If you want access to those oil fields, killing them is a lot easier and faster.” And if Vaughn were there, he probably would add “I can’t understand how anybody who likes driving their car around wouldn’t agree that Saddam had to go.”

    If the Acting Director, Jody Olson, has a case of “rubber knees”, we should be thankful that today we have the luxury to complain about things like that. Talk to some of the RPCVs residing in Canada, and they won’t talk about “Disappointment”, but rather “Betrayal”. It’s probably good that this country has such a short public memory. Certainly good for Jack Vaughn.

    John Turnbull NMPCA

  • John–I was actually already in the Air Force when I joined. I was overseas in ’62-64 in Ethiopia as a PCV then again ’65 and ’67 as an APCD when Vaughn was director. It was my experience, and I might be wrong, that people were joining to stay out of Vietnam. Of course, many RPCVs, like you, did go overseas. I ran a series of stories on my old site about VETs who were in the Peace Corps and in Vietnam.

    I do know that LBJ saved the Peace Corps from being tucked into AID, and I do know that Vaugh was a Republican who was kicked out of the Peace Corps by Nixon..

    And that is all I know.

  • Yes John, you’re correct that as of 1965, when deployment of US troops morphed from ARVN advisors to combat units, there was a flood of PC recruits motivated by avoiding Vietnam. This was the same era when a politically-wired ex-aide Richard Cheney wangled his five deferments from military service, and a politically-wired Dad wangled an appointment for son George W. Bush in a unit of the Texas National Guard set up specifically as a draft haven for rich kids. And then the junior Bush went AWOL from that cushy once-a-month duty — in time of war ( ! ), and got away with it.

    So, there was a lot of draft-dodging back then — some in principle, and some out of cowardice and simple unwillingness to serve. The early Peace Corps, because of the prior Kennedy Administration’s de-facto policy of comparability, was not immune.

    People have pointed out that the earliest armed “shoot-back” troops were sent during the Kennedy Administration. This is correct, with the important caveat that these were deployed in a perimeter defense role, not what would come with the LBJ Administration. To his death Pres Kennedy maintained that the Vietnam “Conflict” was to be determined by “Asian boys”, not ours.

    It was the fallacious exaggeration of a minor skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin by the LBJ Administration, and the subsequent resolution by the Congress, that launched the Vietnam War as we experienced it, and which generated the national protest that we all remember, which had no precedent in the country’s history. LIke Iraq’s WMDs, it was a concocted fraud, and the Congress, as it would do with Iraq, bought it.

    What I wrote about Jack Vaughn is what I remember. It would be interesting to find Pres Nixon’s reasons to dismiss him, and something YOU would be the one to research. We know from his pejoritive campaign statements about “Kennedy’s Kiddie Korps” that Nixon wasn’t Peace Corps oriented. Vaughn may, as you suggest, been positive about the PC Agency, but when the chips were down, and people were taking the consequences of principle, it was Vaughn that, for whatever his reasoning, foolishness, political pragmatism, or simply brown-nosing, sold us PCVs down the river. It’s a story you need to tell, I think.

    There is another salient point, here. Everyone seems to agree that ex-GI’s have been dedicated and effective PCVs. However, the large majority, like you, joined the Peace Corps AFTER military service. Rarely did anyone enlist in a military branch after Peace Corps service. Because of this, there seems to be a distinct generational difference of attitude. As I described, I am one of the latter group (and drafted not enlisted); and what is unusual about me is that I feel positive about BOTH the Peace Corps Agency and the US Military. And not just because it was the Army that came to my moral rescue, when Vaughn and the Peace Corps were hiding from the issue.

    I’m positive toward BOTH also because of the influence that author, Navy intelligence officer, and combat veteran William Lederer, had on me. He wrote the definitive stuff on Vietnam, I think. One thing that sticks in my memory is Lederer’s pithy observation that the only thing that ever worked in Vietnam was an area pacification program addressing the needs and aspirations of the population. It was like a prototype of the Peace Corps, and it wasn’t done by USAID nor the South Vietnamese Government, but by the United States Marines. And it was in direct, political, confrontation with wealthy, non-resident Vietnamese landlords, cozy with the South Vietnamese Government, and dedicated to keeping the peasantry in bondage. It was the peasant’s cause that was championed by Ho Chi Minh, and the North Vietnamese. The United States Marines seem to have been the FIRST de-facto PCVs, and according to Lederer besides doing one heck of a job, were “political” far beyond anything tolerated by the Peace Corps today.

    Today there seems to be a tacit belief that service in the Peace Corps is “this” and service in the military is “that”, and never the twain shall meet. The NPCA seems wedded to this theory.

    But once upon a time this distinction did NOT exist. It all was volunteering for America.

    In the spirit of charity, and trying to find some justification for Jack Vaughn as I remember him, I would like to think that perhaps Vaughn was inured with this innocent generalized, volunteeristic thinking (ironically as I am), and just plain ignorant about the realities of the Vietnam War. After all, Vietnam was the first elective, unprovoked war invented by the US Government (at least since 1898), and in direct opposition to Pentagon thinking and advice since 1945.

    Commander Lederer, unquestionably started out in 1958 inured with this gung-ho volunteeristic thinking — BUT over the following decade in SE Asia certainly changed his mind (as I did). We know WHY, because Lederer documented it all. He, not surprisingly, took a succession of direct-hits from pro-war Senators.

    People sometimes express surprise when I say that to be vehementy critical of the Vietnam War does not imply one is anti-military. They were the only ones that had any sense of reality in Vietnam, they understood the toll the USA was paying for this political stunt, and were stuck with it by the civilian government under LBJ. Some career officers tried to transcend it with the usual “military duty” reasoning, but everybody knew it amounted to denial or “No guts”. I can relate to all of this.

    I think the distinction and dichotomy between this type of volunteering and that, fashionable today, is another casualty of Vietnam, and the anti-constitutional “All Volunteer (Military) Force” the government invented afterward, to co-opt criticism. It dovetails well with the steady, multi-faceted campaign to “dumb-down” American voters and keep their attention away from foreign affairs, and question their patriotism if they dare ask what’s going on.

    It’s been a long time since I thought about some of this. It has a lot more to do with the Peace Corps than most readers will realize.

    Best, John Turnbull NMPCA

  • Well, John you cover a lot of ground here. What you have written is more worthy of an article than a comment to my comment.

    When I was an APCD in Ethiopia (1965-67) I had several PCVs who left the Peace Corps to go back home an enlist in the army and go fight in Vietnam. So we had PCVs ‘coming and going’ in terms of military service. Mostly being drafted, as you were, after Peace Corps service.

    I’m not quite sure what pont you are making about Vaughn. You might want to explain that issue and Nixon. Vaughn, remember, was (and is) a Republican, but he must have been too liberal for Nixon.

    There is a small story about Vaughn’s mustache that is both amusing and telling. It seems when he was first nominated for the Peace Corps under Shriver there was some concern in the White House (not sure if it was JFK or not) about Vaughn having a mustache and he was told (whispered to) while waiting to be interviewed at the White House that it would “help” if he shaved it off.

    To Vaughn’s credit he said no. And mustache and all he was appointed by Kennedy to be the Director of the Latin America Regional Office. No on messed with Jack Hood. After all, he had had something like 165 bouts in his amateur career as a boxer. (And while living in Mexico, another 26 professional fights.)

    But that’s another story. Enough!

  • Hello John, I don’t see any option for contributing an article as you suggest, so my comments remain: comments. Being the owner of this web-site you can decide what is “enough”, just as Rush Limbaugh lets everyone know that HE owns the microphone. Two years from now, when Washington-insider types are dedicating a bronze statue to Peace-Corps-the-Ideal, giving speeches, taking bows, inviting the “right sort of people”, they will be hoping the “right” things are said, and hoping a lot of real-life RPCVs will NOT attend.

    As a coincidence, just the other day I unearthed the entirety of everything from my personal notes during PC training in 1963, the yearbooks, memos from S Shriver, the PC medical manual, a statement concerning PC and the Selective Service System; even an invitation from the newly-independent commonwealth government of Malawi to the ceremony celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.

    What is astonishing about this is the detailed reminder of that young, idealistic thinking that made the PC happen, and predated the disillusionment of Vietnam. Included in the pile was an article by Jack Vaughn, from 1967, along with one from a much younger you.

    My primary point, I suppose, is that I don’t think we can understand the formative decade of the PC without understanding it within the context of Vietnam. All those people giving speeches come 2011 as the statue is unveiled, will be trying heroically to evade it, and probably they will. And in doing so they’ll evade probably the principal reason why the PC today plods along with 7,000 volunteers, instead of the 16,000 reached in 1966, and the astronomical numbers imagined by John Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, in 1961.

    I haven’t any idea why Shriver appointed Vaughn originally to the Latin America Office, nor why Nixon dismissed him. What I DO remember emphatically, is that in 1961 the creation of the PC simultaneously created an astonishing ladder of Foreign Service rated openings — all vacant — and everyone dead-ended in the State Dept converged on these limitless opportunities (to use the expression) “Like hogs to slop”. I had the privilege of working for one of the very best, George Carter, who initiated the Ghana program. In contrast, I also remember another lofty State Dept personage turned PC visionary coming out from Washington to Ghana, who was so fatuous and clueless, that Carter had to disavow him to neutralize the damage he did in a single visit. In retrospect, it reminds me a little of Jack Vaughn, and his idle musings about Vietnam.

    So, since this is YOUR web-site, this will be my final comment on this subject.

    John Turnbull NMPCA

  • Hi John
    I’ve been searching for some information about Vietnam Veterans who are also RPCV’s. I know I am not the only one (Bulgaria 92-93) and I would like to connect with those who have had similar experiences.
    Any information would be helpful.

  • 60 cents

    I was in the same Peace Corps group as John Coyne. Later, as a Foreign Service Officer I was sent to Vietnam as part of our civilian pacification program, i.e. “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” Read my article, “The Commander Wore Civies,” which you can access by entering the title in any search engine.

  • 60 cents.
    On our old site, and in our newsletter before that, Marian and I published about twenty or so essays by RPCVs who were in the army (and Vietnam) and in the Peace Corps (I was in the first group to Ethiopia and also in the Air Force) and you might be able to find them there at http://www.peacecorpswriters.org and look in the search engine and type in ‘army’.
    Here is one: http://peacecorpswriters.org/pages/2005/0501/501warpeace.html

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