What about The Death of Idealism?


What about The Death of Idealism

by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64)

Meghan Kallman did do some research. Of the 240,000 + PCVs & RPCVs she managed to get 140 Vols to interview. She also sent a questionnaire to approximately 2,000 RPCVs. So, she had information on the Peace Corps from 1/2% of 1% of all PCVs over the last 59 years.

That done, and the few books she listed as having read, plus, I’m sure, her brief touring of three third world countries, visiting PCVs and Peace Corps Staff made her, she believed, qualified to write a book about the Peace Corps published by a major university press. Good for you, Meghan!

She did quote one of the architects of the agency, Harris Wofford . . . once. She also quoted Shriver . . .once. No one else among the founders who created the agency in 30 days did she talk to, read about, or study. To me, that’s like talking about architecture and tossing off, “Oh, and there was this guy Frank Lloyd Wright but I didn’t have time to read about him or his ideas.”

She does have 34 pages of notes (quite a few of her own writings cited) but doesn’t list any RPCV books that she read. She did read a few articles written by RPCVs.  Also, she quoted Alexis de Tocqueville. (I’m not sure where he served as a PCV.)

So, you might ask: What did you think of the book, John?”

First, I am pleased that a young academic was interested enough to write about the Peace Corps. I give her credit for taking on that topic. It would have been better if she had been a PCV herself. But no one is perfect.

I am pleased that the book got her out of the classroom. (As a former VP at one of the colleges where I worked famously said, “Look, there’s a professor who can walk and talk at the same time.”)

Having been up-close and personal with the Peace Corps since 1962, as a PCV, Washington Staff, Associate Peace Corps Director in Ethiopia, then twenty years later back as manager of the New York Recruitment office, and also editor of six books, plus a novel about the agency, I do have a lot of opinions, many of which conflict with Meghan’s views.

The hardest thing for an outsider — like Meghan — is to recognize the shifts in the agency. The Peace Corps changes with every new generation. There is no “one” agency. What might be taken as “idealism” in one decade does not register with the next one.

I was a product of the “silent generation” and what Kennedy announced in his Cow Palace Speech had nothing to do with idealism. All anyone has to do is read his brief address. He was telling us that American diplomats were unprepared for their foreign service assignments. He was saying that “a peace corps”  would educate Americans, help the United States, and place better-qualified people in the Foreign Service.

I happen to be at Kennedy’s midnight address to the students at the University of Michigan. Out of the Air Force, back in graduate school, and working for a radio station, I was covering the event as a newscaster when Kennedy “challenged” the students to get involved with the world beyond the United States.

Kennedy would later tell Harris Wofford that he wanted 100,000 Volunteers to serve in the Peace Corps each year. Why? Because, as he told Wofford, they would return home with a better understanding of the world and make more intelligent foreign affairs voting decisions.

The Peace Corps for Kennedy, Shriver, and the architects of the agency wasn’t about idealism. It was about service and education. Our education.

PCVs over the decades didn’t change the world or save the world. They joined the agency for a “grabbag” of reasons.

I wanted to be a writer. I wanted something to write about. Others went to avoid the draft, to have an adventure, to follow the woman or guy they loved or joined because they didn’t know “what the hell they wanted to do with their lives.” Other older Americans joined because they had turned 65, had retired as teachers, and now wanted to do something different and see the world before they died.

I never met anyone who, as if it were a religious oath, joined the Peace Corps to save the world.

That said. The Peace Corps changed us. Most of us were changed for the good, but not always. Certainly, we came away from the experience thinking we were the ones that were profoundly changed. That is true. But I have also heard endless stories from host country nationals who look back at their Peace Corps teacher, Peace Corps friend, Peace Corps co-worker and tell me of some event or incident, some classroom session, some encounter that changed their life as well and they are a better person, have a better life, because once a long time ago, they met an American who was in the Peace Corps.

The agency was never about idealism. It was never about changing the world. It was about all of us going into a foreign country, not with an army rifle, but a handshake, and asking a stranger if there was anything we might do to help them.

Let me close with one story about a PCV. It says what we were all about, years ago and today. It sums up our innocence, goodwill, and can-do attitude.

It happened in Chile back in 1961, in the first days of the agency, in an indigenous village 40 miles from where this Volunteer was stationed. The PCV was Tom Scanlon.

The village was up a long, winding road which Tom traveled four times to see the community leader.

Each time, the leader avoided seeing him. On Tom’s final try, however, the leader relented.

“You’re not going to talk us out of being Communists,” he told Tom.

“I’m not trying to do that,” answered Tom. “I only want to talk to you about how I can help.”

The leader stared at Tom and then answered.

“In a few weeks, the snow will come. You’ll have to park your jeep 20 miles from here and come through five feet of snow on foot.” He paused then and stared at Tom, then said, “The Communists are willing to do that. Are you?”

When a friend visited Tom several days later and asked him what he was doing, Tom just replied, “I’m waiting for snow.”

That’s the Peace Corps. That’s what we all were and what we are today. Give us a job and we’ll try to do it.

Why don’t you join, Meghan, then you’ll have a real book to write.






Leave a comment
  • For me, as a volunteer with the first Peace Corps group of 62 to Colombia, there was a strong sense of idealism mixed with adventure, culture and a new language I had begun. My inspirations from the ’50s were Dr. tom dooley who had opened a hospital in laos and dr. albert shweitzer doing the same in gabon. Coming from an upper middle class family in Grosse Pointe, Mi. I felt the obligation to improve the living conditions of those less fortunate. That idealism was certainly
    pierced by the arrows of realism, but I never let it go as I believed we could, and we did, make small changes in the lives of others. I can’t speak for the other volunteers in Colombia I but I was reassured that many felt like I did. Sarge Shriver once told me that the Columbia I group “knew instinctively what to do.” Considering we started from scratch, having no idea what we were to do, our attempts to solve the problems before us would seem to have been driven by nothing less than our idealism. Dan Wemhoff Colombia I ’61-3

  • John,
    Your insights about the Peace Corps and PCVs/RPCVs are invaluable and represent all of us who still believe in the importance of the Peace Corps and the work we did overseas.

  • A great commentary, John ! As you know I have been accused of over-romanticing my experiences as a geologist, in Africa. My conclusion concerning Ms. Kallman’s book, is that there is no single thing we can call “The Peace Corps Experience” There are MANY, and even in Africa, where I worked, the difference in cultural interaction between Ghana in West Africa, and then Nyasaland Protectorate in British Central Africa, was radically different. Even as early as 1967, the Peace Corps itself concluded that the experince in Latin America, was like night and day, contrasted with most projects in Africa. And the dissatisfation rate and early drop out rates certainly spoke to that. Less than 2 % dissatisfaction in African projects, contrasted with 25% overall in Latin America.

    My mind goes back to Ghana, and spirited debates wiith African girls about how to win a man’s heart. Something in the East that would only be addressed most carefully. And Friday night paydays at the local bar, with plenty of Star Beer and spirited discussions with crew-members about newly-independent African politics. AND also some debates about how to win a woman’s heart — and cooperation.

    And, in the East, my heart always will return to those treks across the High Veldt with my Nyasa prospectiing crew, followed in single file by a dozen youngsters from the nearby village, all trusting that when European Mahn, and whom they called “Beeg Chewa Mahn” were up ahead, things would be safe because all the snakes would flee. What memories ! ! And upon return thrrough the village, the elders would smile, knowing the same — that when European Mahn and “Beeg Chewa Mahn” were there, the children alll would be safe. What memories ! ! Today, 56 years later, those charming little village children are themselves elders. I haven’t any doubt that they remember the day European Mahn and Beeg Chewa Mahn came to their village, and all the snakes fled. I wish I could see those elders today.

    John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment -63, -64, -65.

    • John,

      I was in Malawi the same time as you. I was part of Malawi IV (1964-66.)

      I would love to talk. I have written a novel (Not memoir!) about the experience.

      I would love your thoughts as to whether it rings true.

      Kevin Denny



      • Hello Kevin, Yes, I do remember your name, and if memory serves, you would be involved in the creation of the Malawi Chiildren’s Village, providing schooling for orphans.

        I would love to read your novel. Tell me the title, and where I can find a copy.

        Over the years I’ve written a lot about what the PC classed as “Technical Projects” (like mine), and how they figured into the PC’s Three Goals, — and early PC officials (none with any volunteer or host country experience) worries that Second and Third Goals would be shorted in favour of emphsis on First Goal productivity and results. That and an underlying uneasiness about PCVs being in a position of authority over host country individuals.

        The second thing I’ve frequently commented on is the rmarled difference, socially, between the area of West Africa, contrasted with Bantu-dominated East Africa, Central Africa, and then that colonial bastions in the Rhodesias and South Africa. And then-Portugese Mocambique before the war. In the early days, there were more than just one group which qualified as indigenous to Africa. The Colonial Era was, I suspect, a very different reality than what a recent PCV finds today..

        I would welcome the opportunity to visit with you, as you suggested above.

        Best personal regards, John Turnbull 505 466-9329 JAT123@Cybermesa,com

        • John,

          I know you have posted here much about your Peace Corps experience. Do you have any other records, etc. that might be publicly available?

          • Hi Joanne, Unfortunately, everything I’ve written has been on forums (Fora) like this, and our local New Mexico RPCV website (now largely defunct), and has been scattered to the winds.

            Another factor for early returning PCVs (at least the male volunteers) was the reality of the Vietnam War, which seemed to neutralize and negate much of what the early PC had stood for. It was a time of anger, betrayal. and confusion for many, whose purposes up until then had been pretty clear. It was only with the books by naval intelligence officer Wm Lederer, and his colleague Eugene Burdick, that we began to realize that our peacecorpsy values were in fact, correct. But it was an era that wiped out a lot of the early reflections on PC service.

            I’m looking forward to reading Kevin Denny’s novel. Do YOU have the info on where to obtain it ? Thanks, John Turnbull

  • In my experience, Volunteers join the Peace Corps for many reasons; service to others, adventure, burnishing one’s resume, trying out a field (public health, education, etc) to figure out what to do in graduate, following in parents’ footsteps (Yep, I had one PCV tell me this when she terminated early. Not the best reason to join, which she found out. Anyway, among of the PCVs who came through Ethiopia when I was country director, there was a significant dose of idealism. I don’t think that dies during service — or after for many people — but work at one’s site can be a lonely, often individual pursuit, trying to find something meaningful to do in a place where most people can’t figure out why you’ve come. I suppose for some, then, that rugged individualism and perhaps jaundiced view of service and the development process left them less explicitly idealistic than they were when they came. Also, perhaps, more realistic as to what can be done or what they might achieve. The important thing, which you draw out, John, is that the author’s sample was very small and her depth of understanding too shallow. I think trying to explain the Peace Corps experience to someone who has not been a PCV can be tough task, and conversely trying to understand that experience as one who has not gone through it can be equally challenging and might lead to false conclusions. Well, my two cents.

  • One of the first things our group heard at the start of training in 1964 was, “Africa is littered with the skeletons of well intentioned projects.”

    To steal from Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it own way.”

    Failed projects in Africa are all alike; every successful project in Africa is successful in its own way.

    We can ponder what the internal thought process of a Peace Corps Volunteer might be, their political views and how living for two years as a “stranger in a strange land” shapes the remainder of an individual’s life. This may be an interesting subject to research on an individual basis, but as the comments here would seem to convey, the notion the unveiling any legitimate and useful findings about the commonalities of over 200,000 PCV’s over sixty years time is fatuous.

    The bones of several centuries of well-intentioned efforts to benefit the wellbeing of families in our world who live on the very edge could possibly be studied by social scientist and historian, but to what gain? Failures are all the same … dust to dust. But where are the successes and how do we tell these stories?

    Conjecture for the moment that you have been called to testify to Congress on the reasons why the Peace Corps should continue as a part of our national policy.

    One of the first questions you are bound to encounter from a skeptical congressman might be, “Let me share with you that I have never been of the belief that supplying college graduates the resources to discover the world is the government’s mandate. But, I will express my views on that at a later time. But, let’s focus on the benefits of the Peace Corps. Can you kindly present for this committee specific and meaningful examples of how the lives of those in need have benefitting from having Peace Corps Volunteers in over 160 countries. Now, please try to be specific.”

    The question is legitimate. It is asking: What has the Peace Corps done? Can you tell us about your success? More importantly, can you tell us why the project was a success?

    This may not be a question of interest those who communicate through this platform. But, the continued existence of the Peace Corps is in jeopardy. We should be prepared to be asked some difficult questions.

    • Kevin,

      Excellent questions. I think those are the questions Peace Corps should be asking of every Volunteer and keeping a record of all the answers.

      • This reply is to Kevin and John Turnbull.

        Kevin, How can your novel be found? I checked Amazon, but could not find it. That history is so imporant.

        So much of Peace Corps history is found in blogs and webpages which don’t preserve. University of New Mexico has an excellent archive of all the Peace Corps Training which took place in the early 60s at UNM. If you were to find any of your writing or copies, I would think UNM would archive them, even tho, your training was else where.

        Your observation about Vietnam are critical. Kallman, in her book about “Idealism” is very superficial, in my opinion. She does not publish her questionnaire. The 60s should have all kinds of data about Vietnam, the Draft and the Peace Corps.

        Thanks for what you have written.

  • I think I’ve read all or parts or four Peace Corps history books and was quoted (unfairly I thought) in two of them from some of my stuff in the RPCV archives in Boston. It’s difficult, even in writing, to explain a situation which can be as ambiguous as the Peace Corps, especially when people will always want to make what you have to say fit into their preconceived biases. One of the Peace Corps history books I read which came out in 1998, the same year as the Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman book, was titled Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s by Fritz Fischer. I’m still not sure if Fischer meant the double meaning, but, if what I’ve read about the 1960s Peace Corps is true, the double meaning would be very apt. Fisher wasn’t an RPCV but he had a lot of things to say about volunteers having to unlearn what they’d been taught in training.

    One of the hardest things for me to deal with was that, in the end, I had to admit that a lot of the Thais thought they knew me because of what I represented and never really cared to know who I actually was. Or maybe the problem was that I came to realize it was impossible to separate one from the other, because both were always there. Maybe that’s true for me anywhere, even in the States, but it was surely more so for a volunteer who couldn’t speak the dialect, spoke with a sometimes undecipherable American accent. when he spoke Thai, and couldn’t sit on the floor without sprawling out all over.

    Even amongst RPCVs I sometimes say too much or else have to bite my tongue. Like the deal about Peace Corps volunteers living sacrificially on a stipend which covers only their basic living expenses. I’ve read where volunteers coming home are saying the same thing today. Is that actually true in some Peace Corps countries? Or are other Peace Corps countries like Thailand was in the 1970s when our pay was equivalent to that of a college educated host country national? It wasn’t until I read a book by a well-known economist who’d served in Nepal that I found another RPCV who was willing to say he didn’t feel as wealthy as he had in his village while in the Peace Corps until twenty more years had passed back in the States. But that was just one thing. Like Dan, I come from Grosse Pointe. I didn’t actually live there, but that was my Peace Corps home of record. So I was a rich kid even before I joined the Peace Corps and I’ve been rich my entire life. Not rich by American standards but because I’ve always thought of myself as being rich. .

    In retrospect, the best thing I did in the Peace Corps might well have been to arrange for an evening English school for adults which was sponsored by AUA, the most prestigious language school in Bangkok. But my Thai coworker didn’t want me to teach. He wanted GIs to teach, so I bowed out. At the time I really needed a job, so that bummed me out, but I still believe that school may well have became an important avenue of communication between GIs and Thais outside of their entertainment district which hadn’t existed before. I hated how that happened, but it was probably to the good, and I know I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been in the Peace Corps

    I ordered the book. I guess I’ll have to read it. .

  • Well said John! Thanks for keeping the flame of the Peace Corps alive. As many have said, everyone’s experience was personal and can’t be summarized in one book. I would rather have my tax dollars spent on the purposes the Peace Corps promotes around the world than all the money we waste in the military. And there are many “success” stories that can be told if Congress wants to have hearings on what it does and the contributions it makes in host countries and the impact the volunteer is able to have back in the US after their PC experiences of living in another culture. I believe in this country we would not be so divided as we are now if more people had a chance to live and work in other cultures around the world.

  • Kevin- That is a good question. I served during the “professionals” era, post Watergate. I was an urban planner sent to a destitute nation under a military government which wished to invest in infrastructure. The problem was that Honduras had very few local architects, civil engineers or urban planners. We were put to very good use and the results included new schools, new highways, improved water, sewer and electric infrastructure. Some of my peers trained Hondurans in surveying. Others taught their counterparts drafting. These were useful skills they had after we left.

    Several of the comments have already mentioned this- with more than 50 years of history, the Peace Corps story has all kinds of winding roads and very personal stories. Success is difficult to measure. I had already served in the army reserves before reporting to Honduras and that took more guts because we were unarmed and alone. There were no uniformed buddies outfitted in battle gear carrying weapons.

    And usually the unarmed folks have a much better chance of actually making friends. John Coyne served in the Air Force before the Peace Corps if I remember correctly. Out of 104 volunteers in country during my service, we had no less than four Vietnam War Veterans- men who had served in the army or marine as grunts. My guess is that we are remembered a lot more kindly in Honduras than in Vietnam.

  • Oh, Kevin. I forgot. The amount of taxpayer’s dollars spent in Honduras between 1963 and 1983 pales when compared to what the Reagan administration spent for Operations Big Pine I and II (better known as the Contra War). We still operate an air force base halfway between Tegucigalpa and the North Coast, counter to the Honduran constitution.

  • Thank you John Coyne and others who commented on “What about The Death of Idealism”? You brought back a vortex of memories about suddenly leaving health post coworkers and friends in western Brazil where I was a small town health post’s sole PCV for two years.

    Since I have not read the book I’ll springboard off the comments to what I learned in that time about the generosity of others as well as about myself.

    Because I had finished, or handed over, various projects to local people my project director, the late Jim Creasman, asked me to help with the logistics and end-of-service paperwork for an unusually large group of PCVs. I think we were around 100 departing volunteers. Within two days of receiving the director’s telegram I had to pack, bid farewell to my boarding-house family and grab the morning bus for the 4-hour trip to the nearest airport. From there it was a 350-mile flight to the state capital.

    This abrupt shift in my departure required leaving many people who were dear to me without a proper Brazilian good-bye, which usually meant a party with plenty of beer. I knew some townspeople would be disappointed but I felt relief, too. I had a few achievements but was unsure of how I would react if the farewells became emotional. Those coworkers I managed to tell as I wrapped up belongings were as surprised by my speeded-up exit as I was but the new job spared me any lengthy explanations.

    The night before I was to take the bus out one of my best friends showed up while I was finishing packing to announce I was needed at a local school where “a few” residents wanted to say good-bye. However, it looked to me like nearly the whole town had turned out. A number of ladies had baked sweet cakes and someone else provided beer and soft drinks. I was made to sit up front. Musicians played and, starting with the mayor, a long line of speakers told funny stories about how bad was my Portuguese when I arrived or how half-wild chickens destroyed my first (and only) attempt to start a community garden.

    They also recalled the children’s games and donated tooth brush prizes that came with health talks by my coworkers; the new concrete privy floors shipped from the capital, and the town’s first mimeographed newspaper which would continue to publish after I left. It was a wonderful, laugh-filled evening showing the kind of drive and organization I had hoped to foster with public health projects. It also gave me a feeling that these good people would do just fine without me but maybe, just maybe, my brief visit helped fan the flame of their self-confidence.

    My heart goes out to PCVs prematurely evacuated under the threat of the COVID-19 virus but this is not the end of the Peace Corps experience. It is up to PCVs past and present to fight for the spirit as well as for the agency so others will have opportunities such as we have enjoyed. What we learn about ourselves from serving local people is worth the time and effort.

    Vic Cox
    Brazil 1964-66

  • For some of us, there was some idealism in what we were about as Peace Corps Volunteers. But it didn’t have so much to do with making an African village a better place, as returning to the United States as more grounded individuals in the realities that confronted many less-advantaged populations around the world. I wound up a Foreign Service Officer and brought the perspective for development from my time in a Chadian village. I think Peace Corps service allowed me to speak among diplomats with more honesty and effectiveness about the ways the U.S. government could be enhancing its profile around the world. Often, I was ignored at the State Department but sometimes my ideas were implemented as U.S. policy. I admit that was a rare outcome, but I know I am a much fuller human being from having lived among Chadians and identified our commonalities even as we celebrated some of our differences. To this day, I still mourn that I had to leave my village in the middle of the night due to the Chadian Civil War and our evacuation. I know that my students arrived the next day at school full of anticipation, only to be told that the American had left. That saddens me even 41 years later, yet Peace Corps shaped the rest of my life and there are no regrets for having taken up that challenge.

  • It is so good to read all these comments. I hope Dr. Kallman reads them.

    I also don’t think her book can easily be dismissed. Her Amazon biography states she “is an assistant professor at the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is coauthor of The Third Sector: Community Organizations, NGOs, and Nonprofits (2016) and an elected official in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.”

    Her research was underwritten by two Science Foundation Grants among many other grants. Her acknowledgements are for many professionals in the field.

    The hard copy of the book sells for $110 dollars. There are Kindle and paperback copies. All appear to be selling well. My assumption is that this book will be on college and university reading lists.

    Her conclusion is Peace Corps is an organization which is part of the overall failure of development efforts and changes young Volunteers from idealism to professionalism.

    If the Peace Corps is subject to “reexamination”, I assume she would be an expert involved in such a “reexamination”. I think attention should be paid.

  • PCVs are or become idealists in service. Those who don’t, choose to leave during the intensive training or the first months of site realities. That spirit of idealism never leaves us and is manifest in what we do and who we are.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2022. Peace Corps Worldwide.