Vietnam and the Peace Corps, Dr. Geidel Sums up The Connection

Dr. Geidel in her cultural history of the U.S. in the 1960s turns her attention on the Peace Corps and Vietnam in chapter five of her book, Peace Corps Fantasies How Development Shaped The Global Sixties. (I should say right off that I served in the military and in the Peace Corps in the Sixties and I don’t have an axe to grind with either service.)

Molly Geidel is another story. She begins, (again,) by turning her academic lens on Associate and then Deputy Director, Warren Wiggins, and what he had to say about Vietnam and Peace Corps Volunteers. (By the way, I should mention that Wiggins was a pilot in WWII, flying war supplies to China over the Hump in the China/Burma/India campaign. He was one of many early Peace Corps staff who were vets from the war.)

Geidel begins her Fifth Chapter: Ambiguous Liberation: The Vietnam War and the Committee of Returned Volunteers quoting from an October 1965 speech given by Wiggins at Stanford University entitled, “From Applied Altruism to Nation Building.”wiggins-jfkth

In his talk, Dr. Geidel declares that Warren Wiggins “attempted to win back a student population increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. government and its escalating war in Southeast Asia.”

Wiggins also declared that the Peace Corps has learned a lesson from militant students and the agency has turned a corner and sees itself more as “nation-building than fighters of racism or imperialism around the world.”

Dr. Geidel writes, “His mirror metaphor [nation-building] is apt: in his telling, the student movement, rather than serving as a critical interlocutor, provided the Peace Corps with an opportunity for self-reflection and, ultimately, self-aggrandizement.”

What Wiggins was trying to do-according to Dr. Geidel-was to connect the “militant’ energy and sympathy for ‘stopping a war’ by saying that it would be better use of the students’ movement’s time than attempting to oppose the violence carried out by their own government.

Wiggins recommended sentimental self-expression, arguing that ‘the Peace Corps may be one of the best ways in the world for you to express your feelings-and to apply them in a direct an specific way that will in actuality make a difference in the world.”

And Warren was right.

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  • I was scheduled to accompany Warren Wiggins (to carry his bags and fetch coffee) on the exploratory trip to Viet Nam. It was early to mid ‘65. I even got my gamma globulin and plague shots in preparation, but, fortunately, my involvement was canceled at the last minute. As I recall, Wiggins was rather enthused about the trip — an opportunity to increase Peace Corps numbers — and didn’t seem bothered by risks, image problems or potential downside. I never knew that the Peace Corps hadn’t actually been invited in by the Vietnamese government. Bravo to Jack Vaughn for resisting LBJ on this. He just rose a couple of pegs in my estimation.

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