The Peace Corps in the DR, 1965
Let me end the week with another piece of Peace Corps history. No, not about the Kennedys or Shriver, but about Peace Corps Volunteers, the heart, the soul, the real reason for the agency. I’m not going to write about Ethiopia and the wonderful Volunteers who served there [but I could!]. No, I want to tell you about the Dominican Republican Volunteers of 1965.
Back in ’65 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 the D.R. No, way. Tad Szula 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 Shriver: “Not only no, but hell no!”[Can you imagining that happening today under this Administration at the Peace Corps at anytime in the last eight years?]
The PCVs kept at their jobs and in the midst of the fighting. When PCV had to move from one place to another, 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 livied 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 advisor 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.
At the end the Marines left the DR and the Volunteers stayed and kept working. They are still in the Dominican Republic today.
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 they didn’t mind if the APCD was 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.
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!
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The reason that the Peace Corps Volunteers were not evacuated from the DR in 1965, as the Marines prepared to invade the country was because of Secretary of State Dean Rusk. When Rusk was directed to evacuate the volunteers to safety by President Johnson, he refused, stating that the United States had more than one foreign policy. And, the volunteer nurses did in fact treat casualties among the residents of the DR
It is important that we keep that spirit alive and kicking…what was important to us and the world then is still valid today! The Peace Corps and why we do this…is because of the “fire in our bellies” that says yes we can! We need to stand up and say thanks to the Volunteers that served in the DR in 1965…
RPCV Colombia 1964-66