“Up Close with Peter Sage” . . . writing about the Peace Corps

Observations and commentary on American politics and culture.
Tuesday, March 7, 2023


Public Service, continued: The Peace Corps

 . . . Ask what you can do for your country.

My wife Patti and I owe so much to our service in the Peace Corps. It inspired a lifetime of public service that began in Ethiopia during the late 1960s. 

— U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a returned Peace Corps volunteer,
Co-Chair of the Congressional Peace Corps Caucus.

I have encountered dozens of returned Peace Corps volunteers over the years. They have something in common: An uncommon commitment to public service. They are a self-selected cohort. Some entered the Peace Corps in midlife or as retirees, but most entered the Peace Corps as a young person, typically after college and before settling into the burdens and joys of career, family, home, mortgage–those entanglements that Zorba in the movie Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe.” My observation is that Peace Corps volunteers carried something special into that adulthood. It was the conviction that their lives could mean something, that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and that in tiny ways they could make the world better. They thought globally, which meant that bettering the lives of people in faraway places was part of that mission.

The Peace Corps still has bi-partisan support. The Guest Post notes that Medford’s current U.S. Representative, Republican Cliff Bentz, voted against reauthorization of the Peace Corps along with many Republicans. John Dellenback, Medford’s U.S. Representative for four terms in the late 1960’s, lost his seat in the post-Watergate 1974 Democratic landslide. Dellenback served as Peace Corps director for two years. Like another Oregon Republican of that era, Senator Mark Hatfield, Dellenback had a reputation as a peace-oriented Christian Republican.


Guest Post by Jack Mullen

Jack Mullen – the tall man in the back – with members of Guatemala’s La Cooperativa La Victoria farmers planting a hillside demonstration plot of potatoes in 1971.

I served in the Peace Corps for three years; Guatemala (1970-72) and Mali (1972-73). When the topic of my Peace Corps service comes up, a bewildered inquirer invariably asks, “Does the Peace Corps still exist?”

Yes, just as it has since its inception in 1961, although the pandemic forced temporary closure for the existing 62 overseas programs. Most programs (56) are now back on their feet and a new country, Vietnam, just received its first nine volunteers on December 30, 2022.

This week, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act comes up again for a vote in House of Representatives. I say again, because the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act passed the House last September by a 290-125 vote. All House Democrats voted yea. The Oregon delegation voted 4-1 to reauthorize, with Second District Congressman Cliff Bentz being the only dissenting vote. Bentz joined the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan, and Marjorie Taylor Greene voting no.

The Senate decided last fall, with midterms looming, and a heavy, end-of -erm, legislative docket, to put the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act to a voice vote seeking unanimous consent. Rand Paul (R-KY) voted no, kicking re-authorization can to the present Congress. Nothing comes easy in Washington these days.

The idea of a national U.S. volunteer service first gained traction in 1950 when United Autoworkers President Walter Reuther called for a “total peace offensive.” Reuther kept at it and influenced Hubert Humphrey to introduce a Peace Corps bill in 1957, which went nowhere. After John Kennedy won the Democratic nomination in Los Angeles, Reuther, a strong backer of Kennedy, snagged a meeting with the nominee in August, 1960 and convinced Kennedy to campaign and enact Peace Corps if he were to become President. Kennedy’s famous October 1960 speech at the University of Michigan calling for a national Peace Corps went over well and in the summer of 1961, the first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Ghana, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Colombia.

The idea of a Peace Corps had its critics at the time, none more than Richard Nixon. Nixon, in his 1960 campaign, said the Peace Corps would be “a cult for escapism and a haven for draft dodgers.” He and other critics went on to say young people lacked the necessary skills and maturity to serve overseas.

Nixon may have had a point on “young people lacking the necessary skills.” After all, as a youth, my summer jobs were picking pears in Southern Oregon with Peter Sage, and irrigating Hawthorne Park at night for the Medford Parks and Recreation Department. Add some high school Spanish and damn, I was surprised when I was accepted in October 1969. I suppose, on paper, I looked like a unique agriculturalist who worked with an exotic fruit and having irrigation experience to boot.

I was scared to death about my flimsy skills and how I could relate to Guatemalan compesinos. Fortunately, Peace Corps training was simple enough to instill in me and the other young volunteers enough tools to ingratiate ourselves with local farmers. Example: We were supplied with new, disease-resistant seed potatoes that could increase yields three to five fold. By setting up demonstration plots on small ag cooperative lands, compesinos could decide for themselves if they’d approve of the new seed varieties.

I am under no illusion I that made a dent in the world food supply, but maybe, in some small way, living in a small village, plodding alongside small farmers and their families, speaking their language, I showed that I cared, that America cared.

Without engaging with local people on their own turf, most foreign aid programs misspend large sums of money. What our Peace Corps group, known at Group XIX in the history of Guatemala Peace Corps, cost the U.S. taxpayer is peanuts compared to all our other overseas spending at the time. Today’s request to Congress for reauthorization for a $480 million Peace Corps budget is still small compared to our other foreign aid programs, be they military or non-military. I doubt this makes much of a difference to Kevin McCarthy. I just hope Oregon Congressman Cliff Bentz takes a second and reconsiders his September 19 vote to not re-authorize the Peace Corps. He probably won’t.

Jack Mullen’s youth was in Medford. After graduating from the University of Oregon he joined the Peace Corps. He now lives in Washington, D.C.

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