The Peace Corps in the Time of Trump, Part 3
Why did the Peace Corps suffering such a decline in interest in the early ’70s, especially from younger potential PCVs? Why did the agency begin to ‘disappear’ after the assassination of JFK? Was it the focus of New Directions on ‘experienced’ and skilled volunteers? The War in Vietnam? Or did the ‘married couples with families’ change the image of the Peace Corps?
(The ‘new and very brief and unsuccessful focus on married couples did give the agency our famous writer Maria Thomas (Ethiopia 1971-73) who served with her husband and young son and that experience produced some wonderful Peace Corps stories, including, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage.)
With the decline in interest in the Peace Corps, one might ask: why was it so initially successful?
Here’s one reason why.
The central image of the Peace Corps in the Sixties was captured and promoted ‘free’ on radio and television thanks to Young & Rubicam and other ad agencies that gave the Peace Corps a name recognition that vied with that of Smokey the Bear.
As Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman points out in her book, “Free ad copy was sent to all national print media, all television station, 1,000 radio station, all college newspaper, and all major municipal transit authorities—which posted over 80,000 signs in buses, train, and subways during the first year.”
The Ad Council and ad agency Young & Rubicam developed a campaign that captured the spirit and the nobility of purpose of the program. Ad agency Ted Bates & Co. created the slogan that conveyed its hardship and rewards — “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” The ads challenged young people and began attracting volunteers to the program almost immediately. In 1962, shortly after the campaign began, more than 30,000 people applied to the Peace Corps. By 1965, more than a thousand people a week were clipping and mailing coupons from the ads.
According to Warren Wiggins, 50 percent of Americans could correctly answer the question, What is the Peace Corps?
Peace Corps HQ was able to build on this PR campaign. The agency had three other important elements to grow its brand, as we would say today, and as Cobbs Hoffman points out in her book.
These characteristics typified not just the Peace Corps but the whole generation.
Add to this Sargent Shriver. He was a positive and engaging force inside (and outside) of HQ. Everyone, and I mean everyone, called him “Sarge.” He drew people to his side and to his ideas.
There is the story Bill Moyers tells of what Vice President Johnson told him when Shriver and Moyers were walking the halls of Congress seeking congressional votes for the new Peace Corps. Johnson said to Moyers, “don’t sell the Peace Corps. Sell Shriver.” It was an easy sell.
Senator Russell Long of Louisiana chastised those who ridiculed the new Peace Corps and called their cynicism “shameful.” Barry Goldwater told a group of Ivy League alumni in early 1962 that “the Peace Corps is beginning to remove the doubts from the doubters’ minds…I’ll back it all the way.”
My favorite story, however, about Shriver, and why all of us in that first generation of Volunteers who served under him would have followed him down any path, is the story of when Sarge was shown the first draft of the new agency’s organizational chart. Shriver studied it a moment, and then picked up a pencil and drew a large box in the center, labeled it volunteers, and connected every other box to it. It was this belief of Sarge that the PCVs were the center, the most important part of the agency, which made all the difference to us serving around the world. It was this belief that made the Peace Corps what it would become for all of us.
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It was a powerful image couple with a desire to do something that would separate me from the usual expections of a soon-to-be graduate that motivated me to join the Peace Corps. It was the beginning of my senior year in college when I attended the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. A poster of a female volunteer surrounded by children capture my imagination to become part of an exciting adventure. I immediately informed my parents that that was my goal to become a volunteer and I was in Ethiopia a year later.
she’s pointing at New Jersey. Not Fair
I don’t think anything can compare to the impact of the Vietnam War, on the fate of the Peace Corps, and young Americans in general. When I left for Ghana in 1963, the Draft Board shook my hand and congratulated by decision to volunteer. John Kennedy was assassinated while I was in West Africa. When I returned to the USA, already under threat from the Selective Service System, the same Draft Board, now with armed guards in the waiting room, all but accused me of being a draft dodger. I was still struggling with recurrent malaria, but they didn’t give a damn. Another Draft Board was even worse in it’s criticism, and overt wish to put me in Vietnam. I was in graduate school, and the Selective Service System, with the acquiescence of the Peace Corps, began drafting serving volunteers out of their assignments, and ordering them to a military post in Germany for pre-induction physicals. Some were already facing criminal prosecution by the time they got to Germany. Others, refused, came back to the USA, and many went straight to Canada. Peace Corps staffers, began resigning in protest.
Finally, the Draft Board invented a new rule defining full class load, and drafted me. I considered like others, defecting to Canada, but knew that my Dad, and his generation, who fought WW-2 would never understand. I phoned the Selective Service HQ and got a Bird Colonel on TDY from the Army. I still remember that conversation. He thanked me for my volunteer service, told me that people like ME were the last thing anybody wanted in Vietnam, and requested the Draft Board to withdraw my induction notice, until i could enlist in something that would not put me in the infantry in Vietnam. The Colonel was right, and it wasn’t long that reluctant draftees in ‘Nam, on patrol, were shooting their officers in the back. Fragging them rolling grenades into their billets. It was BAD, by anybody’s reasoning, and threatened to destroy the Army. The Marines, up in I-Corps, seeing it coming, got their asses out of ‘Nam, and avoided the worst of it. The Marine Commandant later publicly repudiated and condemned the whole war.
Back home, another reserve officer found me a slot in a National Guard unit, Then came Kent State, and I was activated, assigned as a sniper, to shoot American protesters. It’s a story in itself, which I don’t like to reflect on. How i managed it, and remained an American citizen, still amazes me. I still remember loading my M-14 and magazine holders, and complaining that I didn’t want to do this. But another military guy, our company First Sergeant, took me aside, knowing my feelings and PC service, and said “Why do you think we put you here. We know you aren’t going to shoot anybody except in an emergency.” And so away we went.
I think that the idealism of American young people died in the rice paddies of Vietnam, and the streets of American cities. It was never the same after that. What still amazes me today is that somehow the Peace Corps survived it, and came back from oblivion. What I remember was that there was a sort of understanding amongst young people, the Vietnam returnees, the wounded, the protesters, and draft dodgers, and a common sentiment amongst the vets, that if they had had any idea what Vietnam was all about, they would have refused to go, too. The burgeoning Hippie Movement of the time was full of Vietnam returnees, and often the counselling they got was not from the VA, but from war protesters who could sympathize.
Again, it’s a marvel the Peace Corps survived it. John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology + Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment 1963, -64, -65.
John, write me an article about this experience so we can ‘presume’ the story in this fast pace world we live in. I was in the Air Force before the Peace Corps.
I believe I am well known in the Peace Corps community for saying the Peace Corps chose to be a “junior” AID instead of the most successful people to people diplomacy ever invented. Its was designed to improve the image of America but those in control preferred to see it as just another development service, a field in which it has limited impact. Its effort to place the “right” volunteer in the “right” job became the consumer of most funds. The assistance was more important than the contact. I would argue that the job should be secondary to the contacts and relationships developed during a volunteer’s service. Long after the latrines built have vanished the friendships and positive images both sides developed will endure.
John Turnbull’s draft dilemma was similarly to many in 1965 as America’s combat involvement greatly increased. In July, the draft board refused my request to have my soon-to-expire deferment extended for two months to allow me to travel enroute home. I was in grad school part time in 1966 when I was ordered to report for a physical but was granted a temporary deferment until February 1967 to complete my studies. To further avoid the draft, I engaged in a teaching position.in New York for the 1966-67 school year. However in October 1967, I joined International Voluntary Services which ironically sent me to Vietnam to teach high school English. There, I met some who were RPCVs or conscientious objector including two who served with me in the same Ethiopian town. My teaching career was ended when The Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968 placed all of Souh Vietnsm’s cities in jeopardy. One of the volunteers (who was with me in Ethiopia) was captured in Hue and spent five years in a POW camp. For six weeks, I was a volunteer scrubber in the local hospital ‘s operating ward assisting American Air Force doctors and nurses who wereoverwhelmed with civilian casualties who underwent a variety of surgeries as well as amputations . I ended my tour prematurely and came home hating war and the politicians who casually send off the nation’s youth to die on bloody battles that soon lost their importance except to grieving families.
Bill, write something for our site about the Vietnam experience. I have written about the Fortunate Few book and the connection with the Peace Corps on the site. I’d like to get more stories. I was ahead of you in the Air Force and then the Peace Corps. John
Peace Corps popularity among young people boomed in the early 60’s. It was a brief but optimistic time after the seeming stodginess of the Eisenhower years: Camelot, a young, vigorous president, freedom riders and a civil rights movement to stir the soul. I felt it during my City College years, Then came the assassination of JFK, to me the most shattering event I had ever experienced to that point. I signed on to the Peace Corps less than two years later because I was inspired by Kennedy and because the Peace Corps was a living part of his legacy.
I spent a marvelous tour in Ethiopia, but by the time I left the country in the summer of 1968, I was coming home to a darker America. There were the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention in Chicago with police beating up demonstrators, cities aflame, the Kent State killings. The Vietnam War escalated. You watched Walter Cronkite’s nightly news reporting dozens of casualties every day, anti-war protests, draft card burners. We were living though very depressing times.
If it was ironic that William Seraile wound up in South Vietnam, then it was just as ironic that I, did too. Unlike fellow RPCVs above, I was immune from the draft. I was 4-F, with vision so bad, no one would want me near an M-16. However, I had taken the Foreign Service exam in 1967 in Addis Ababa, and after my return to the US, the State Department made me an offer I could refuse: accept an initial 18-month assignment in South Vietnam and come on board immediately, or decline and wait an undetermined period for another offer. I chose the former and, looking back on it, I was glad I did.
Sadly, by the late 60s, and early 70s, the Peace Corps had lost its luster. Years of LBJ’s war ,Nixon’s war, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate turned many off public service. Young people no longer trusted the US government. And the Peace Corps was an agency of the US government. People continued to join, of course, but the JFK magic was no longer. On the bright side, at least, the Peace Corps survived those down years. Now the question is: what will become of it during the Trump presidency? Will he make make the Peace Corps Great Again? I’m not holding my breath.
I too was welcomed home from the Peace Corps by my local draft board. I went to see the classic “Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes” who controlled the board. This was 1964 so a bit before the big call up for Vietnam. Men with jobs and/or married were routinely getting deferments. I explained to the lady that I was accepted for graduate school and then slated to go into the Foreign Service, both of which were eligible for deferments. She said, “No, we will draft you before then.” She summed up her position by saying, “You don’t want to serve your country.” I protested, “What do you call the two years I spent in the Peace Corps.” Her reply said it all, “No one told you go off in the Peace Corps.” That was it, for her the Peace Corps was just a draft dodge.
Fortunately a friend advised me to get a teaching job, which I did, but when the school board asked for a deferment for me, the draft board replied with my induction notice. I went to the draft board to protest where my nemesis told me that the school board had said I was hired for the school year and she knew I had arrived after opening date for schools. I went to the school board and got them to send a request with the exact dates of my employ. My nemesis greeted that by sending the matter to the state SSS director. I went to see him and when I arrived at his office he told me that I could continue to teach. I thus have in my prized records a copy of my draft notice and a short letter stating that, “Your draft notice is hereby rescinded.”
But my private war was not over. The following year the State Department sent a request to the draft board to give me a deferment. The old battle ax replied by reclassifying me 1A. My advisor at State said, “We haven’t had a deferment request denied since the Korean War,” but could offer no further assistance. Fortunately our class met with the then well-known Congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio. I asked him for help and he sent a letter to the draft board. The board voted 3 to 1 to give me a deferment.
Undaunted the old prune sent a draft notice to my brother, if she could not have me she would nail him. He walked into her office dressed in his Air Force uniform and tossed the notice on her desk saying, “I believe you made a mistake.” We both wound up in Vietnam four years later, fortunately both stationed in Saigon. So there we were, me, “winning the hearts and minds of the people,” as a member of the famous or infamous CORDS program and my brother commanding an intelligence unit at the Tan Sha Nut air base which was reading photos of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to identify targets for our bombers. After he left for Japan, CORDs sent me to a sleepy coastal province as the deputy commander of a military advisory team. You can read about this by plugging in “The Commander Wore Civies,” in your computer.
All of the evidence is that foreign aid, incl the Peace Corps, is slated for major reductions. And domestic volunteer programs like AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps probably abolished altogether. And probably all of this will be done behind the scenes, manipulating the budget and appropriations processes. Meanwhile, the rhetoric will continue about making America great, again. I’m afraid we’ve arrived at “The Propaganda State”, where the slogans and platitudes mask what actually is done behind the scenes — with the media missing most of it. Adolph Hitler and Josef Goebbels would love it !
One thing we all can do is encourage our Congressional Delegations to speak strongly in Washington for preservation of the Peace Corps. To that end, I’m working with our New Mexico Senators and Congresspeople. Also with our State Legislature to adopt a memorial honoring all that the Peace Corps, and local volunteers, have accomplished, providing grassroots support for the Delegation. I’m going to see if I can persuade the Governor of Montana to do the same.
Returning again to the Vietnam Era, and all that’s been written above, seeing what’s happening today I’m all the more convinced that the Peace Corps should be an expression of the American PEOPLE, and not entirely a US Gov’t function. Things aren’t the same as when John F Kennedy articulated our national values — and we all agreed ! To this end, I would like to see the Peace Corps budget a 50:50 match of private philanthropic sources matching Federal participation. And a blue ribbon national board of distinguished citizens to supervise policy. Even if some Administration (like the Trump Admin) should seek to destroy it, it will still continue, at a reduced level, with it’s structure intact. And at such time as that happens, then maybe more private funding might be secured to offset the losses and helping assure service continuity. JAT
Hi, John Turnbull,
I haven’t heard your name for years
Craig Gjerde Malawi ’64-’66