Waiting for Stan Meisler's History of the Peace Corps

Next month Stan Meisler’s book on the Peace Corps When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years will be published by Beacon Press, but you can order it now at www.amazon.com (be the first RPCV on your block to own a copy!)

We will also have a review of the book next month done by Robert Textor who was an early consultant to the Peace Corps, and editor of one of the first studies about the agency, Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps, published in 1966 by MIT Press.

Meanwhile….For those who don’t know, Stan Meisler…was a reporter for AP who came late to the Peace Corps.  “I was not there at the madcap, exciting, glorious beginning. I started my work at Peace Corps headquarters just after the election of Lyndon B. Johnson to a full term as president, a year after the assassination of President Kennedy.”

He had misgivings about working for the government, as any reporter might, but the Peace Corps was different. “It was,” Meisler writes, “an oasis of idealism and goodness in the vast Washington bureaucracy. Everyone, even Washington correspondents, loved the Peace Corps.”

In his career at the agency he would make a half dozen lengthy-a month or longer-trips to evaluate Peace Corps programs: twice to Ethiopia, twice to Cameroon, and once each to Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, India, and Iran. After the Peace Corps, and for three decades, he was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Knowing Stan from his tours to Ethiopia and at Peace Corps Headquarters, I’d say if anyone is capably of writing about the agency, it’s Stanley Meisler.

His history of the first 50 years of the agency follows two paths. One path is the work of PCVs overseas based mostly on his own evaluations and exhaustive research over the last two years; the second path follows the policy and political maneuverings in Washington, D.C. with its various power struggles, political appointments, and wily decision makings. These back room and background stories come from persons with firsthand knowledge of how it all happened.

In his book on the agency, Stan writes, for example, of  how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; he reveals how Richard Nixon literally tried to destroy the Peace Corps, and he shows how Ronald Reagan endeavored to make it an instrument of foreign policy in Central America. But somehow, Stan writes, the ethos of the Peace Corps endured.

Stan is at his best when discerning what he observed during his evaluation tours and later saw from afar when he was working for three decades as a foreign correspondent in Africa and Latin America. Not much gets by this guy.

I remember running into Stan in 1969 in Kenya. I was traveling through Africa a half dozen years after leaving the Peace Corps, working my way around the continent. Stan was covering Africa for the Los Angeles Times. We ran into each other crossing a park in downtown Nairobi. Neither one of us, of course, was surprised. That’s the way with the Peace Corps: RPCVs turn up anywhere and everyplace.

Stan was on his way to interview a Kenyan marathon runner thanks to a tip from yet another  Ethiopian RPCV, Allen Reed (Ethiopia 1965-67), who had been a Volunteer in Gambella on the boarder with the Sudan, and then an ex-pat who had stayed on in Africa to work for aid organizations in Southern Sudan. Meeting Meisler somewhere in the Sudan, Allen talked to him about a tribe of great runners in northern Kenyans. Stan was onto writing a story about these runners when our paths crossed, and this was years before the New York Marathon or any other marathons, where Kenyans, and Ethiopians certainly, would excel.

Like any good reporter, Stan had done his homework, with the help of this Ethiopian RPCV, and found a nugget of information to develop into an interesting story to write about.

His history of the Peace Corps, When The World Calls, is full of such nuggets. As someone who had made a passion, a hobby (some might call it an obsession) out of the agency, I was surprised by what I didn’t know about the Peace Corps, the back stairwell stories, let’s call them, of what really happened at HQ. Meisler has gotten to a lot of folks who are still around to tell tales of the good (and not so good) old days.

Meisler tracks the agency over these five decades, beginning with Shriver. He ends his book with Aaron Williams, the current Director, but Stan focuses his history mostly on themes, flash points, the worth of the PCV overseas, and what RPCVs have accomplished, then and now, in their host country and here at home.

The titles of his chapters show where Meisler is going and what interests him.

  • Sarge’s Peace Corps (Chapter 2)
  • American Troops Invade the Dominican Republic (Chapter 6)
  • The Militant Sam Brown (Chapter 11)
  • The Rich Lady in Her First Job for Pay (Chapter 13)
  • 200, 000 Stories (Chapter 14)
  • The Quiet Bush Years (Chapter 17)
  • Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good? (Afterward)

For obvious reasons I zoned in Chapter 14, as the telling of Peace Corps tales has been the focus of my Peace Corps interest for some twenty-five years. With Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962-64) we have been tracking Peace Corps writers, and promoting these writers as a way of fulfilling the Third Goal of the agency.

Stan is kind enough to recognize our efforts in his book, and singles out three fine memoirs by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-86); Ellen Urbani (Guatemala 1992-94); and Barbara E. Joe Honduras (2000-04) to show the range of experiences, the range of hardships and triumphs, and the range of ages of Volunteers. These memoirs show us all, as well as the rest of the world, where the Peace Corps is today.

These memoirs, he sums up, “reflected a changing Peace Corps. By the 1980s, the Peace Corps had become an elite institution of Americans working in remote sites, often alone, coping with poverty and inertia, doing the best they could to change what little they could….All in all, based on the evidence in these memoirs, the most recent Volunteers struck an old evaluator like myself as a heroic band.”

Thanks, Stan, for telling us how it was and how it is and for bringing our stories back home.


Leave a comment
  • Excellent, can´t wait to read Stan´s book, thanks John. I am pleased that Stan will look at Barbara Joe´s …Triumph and Hope, I reviewed her book and was moved by her depth and Peace Corps spirit. Will place my order and tell other Volunteers about it. Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Paraguay 2010-2011
    RPCV/Colombia 1964-1966

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