The Peace Corps was in deep trouble even before President Nixon sent the troops into Cambodia, and its problems have been symptomatic of much else that has been happening in the country. Founded in the heady early days of the Kennedy Administration—almost a decade ago— the Peace Corps was to represent the best that was in us. Idealistic volunteers, drawn mainly from our young, would be sent throughout the developing world, taking our superior techniques, and showing the goodness of the American people.
And after they went out, the stories came back about the city boy who saved a rice crop in Pakistan; the Southern belle who became a midwife in Sierra Leone; the girl who organized a mental hospital in Pakistan; the young man who started a successful handicraft industry in Colombia. There was a girl who became English teacher, track coach, and school bus driver in Ghana, and who really did live in a hut. The volunteers were inventive, tough, and risk-takers. At the Washington headquarters, a talented group of staff members worked hard, fought hard, thought it a disgrace to take a vacation or not to work until midnight at least once a week, and were passionately devoted to the Peace Corps. They were the kind of people who went on to other things in public life: Bill Moyers, Richard Ottinger, Frank Mankiewicz, Harris Wofford, and John D. Rockefeller IV.
The idea, and it was always more important as an idea than as a program, began to go sour in the midsixties. The largest but not sole cause was the Vietnam War. Not only had peace been replaced by war, but Kennedy had been replaced by Johnson. Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director, had been replaced by a competent but less inspiring leader. As the agency aged, spontaneity was replaced by bureaucracy. America discovered its own problems of poverty and race, and many who might have served in the Peace Corps concluded that there was more important work to be done at home. Recently, the Nixon Administration has attempted to turn the Peace Corps into a more businesslike, middle-American, dissent-free, technical assistance program. In so doing, it is transforming the idea of the Peace Corps, and tearing the institution apart.
Applications for service in the Peace Corps have declined by nearly half. The number of volunteers serving overseas has dropped from about 13,000 in the mid-sixties to about 8400. Of those who go abroad now nearly 40 percent return home for various reasons before the end of their two-year tours. Some countries have asked the Peace Corps to leave. Congress, which has always been tolerant, if not understanding, of the Peace Corps, has begun to cut its funds. And many, including former volunteers and staff members, think the Peace Corps should be abolished. Since the decline of the Peace Corps is a metaphor for so much else, it is worth exploring how it happened.
The good old days
There were a number of motivating forces behind the original Peace Corps idea. Several people, then Senator Hubert Humphrey in particular, were pushing the idea before presidential candidate John F. Kennedy took it up. Some Peace Corps founders feel that the most important force behind it may have been the book The Ugly American, a best seller in the late fifties. The book portrayed American government representatives abroad, especially those who worked in aid programs, as a national embarrassment. They could not speak the language; they lived ostentatiously and kept to themselves; they made no effort to understand the people of the countries where they served. The Peace Corps evoked a theme Americans wanted to believe: that we were more likable than that. It fit nicely, if not explicitly, into the fifties’ and early sixties’ coldwar struggle “for the hearts and minds of men.” The idea came along, moreover, after the doldrums of the Eisenhower years, when a whole generation of college students had nothing, or thought they had nothing, to do.
It was considered far more important in the beginning to launch the Peace Corps in a big, bold way than to figure out what it was. Shriver traveled around the world selling the idea to sometimes dubious countries. There were efforts to meet specific needs for manpower, as defined by the recipient countries, but these efforts often gave way to the drive for an instant program, and to practicalities. The volunteers who were recruited were largely those most readily available—unskilled, recent college graduates. These were, moreover, the ones most likely to cope with the requirement that Peace Corps workers live in the same conditions as their foreign counterparts. Attempts to recruit skilled and older volunteers ran into nearly insuperable problems of mortgages, seniority ladders, and disinterest. There were sometimes too many volunteers in a country, without enough to do. In some cases they supplanted, rather than supplemented, local professionals. Many taught English “as a second language,” often in areas where there was barely literacy in the first.
Despite the talk about the necessity for relevance to economic development, that goal was not taken very seriously. “The most successful thing about the Peace Corps,” says Warren Wiggins, one of Shriver’s associates in starting it, “is that in sixty countries people saw Americans and liked them. Secondly, what happened to those 30,000 volunteers in terms of their own lives is tremendously important. You would be hard-pressed to find any comparable group that will measure up to that 30,000 in terms of that experience and what it did to them.”
It did not always turn out so well. Several volunteers returned disappointed or embittered—by the hopelessness of the conditions they found, and in some cases because of what they saw of American foreign policy and interests at work. Paul Cowan, in his recent book. The Making of an Un-American, writes:
In many cases the Peace Corps . . . with its close ties to conservatives in the State Department, its insensitivity to the local culture and the careless planning that insensitivity produced, subverted the idealism that some of the volunteers had brought to training and transformed the vague xenophobic instincts . . . into active prejudices against hostcountry nationals.
A small group which formed a Committee of Returned Volunteers concluded that the Peace Corps was an “agent of imperialism.” The Committee “liberated” the Peace Corps’ Washington offices during the May demonstrations against the sending of American troops into Cambodia. Its leaflets said, “We found that U. S. projects in these countries are designed to achieve political control and economic exploitation; to build an Empire for the United States. As volunteers we were part of that strategy; we were the Marines in velvet gloves.” However, it is not just radicals who have been thinking that it might be time to end the Peace Corps. Countries which have asked the Peace Corps to leave now include Cyprus, Ceylon, Indonesia, Guinea, Pakistan, Mauritania, Gabon, Tanzania, Libya, and the Somali Republic. Ceylon and Guinea did invite it back. Nationalism was rising, and America wasn’t proving to be all that lovable after all. The Peace Corps was overly visible, a bit too reminiscent of the colonial and missionary white-man’sburden tradition, and an obvious political target, In some countries where the Peace Corps has remained, political tensions have made life more difficult for the volunteers.
The war led to serious disputes over the volunteers’ freedom to express their dissent. They are not, strictly speaking, government employees, but they are sent abroad and paid by the government. There was a major upheaval within the Peace Corps when in 1967 a volunteer was dismissed for writing an antiwar letter which appeared in a Chilean newspaper; upon his return to the United States, his draft board reclassified him. Last year a court ruled that he had been wrongfully dismissed and illegally reclassified. The Democratic Administration developed a policy, continued by the Republicans, that volunteers could speak out, and sign statements, as long as their actions did not involve the politics of the country in which they were serving. But this line, it turned out, was not so easily drawn.
Hanging up the hair shirt
The Nixon Administration has put its own imprint on the Peace Corps. The changes range from matters of purpose and values to the small matters of style which have meant so much to the Peace Corps’ determinedly hair-shirt image. It was widely noted when a senior staff member and his wife inspected a project in Barbados during the winter season; when one of the new leaders showed up in Africa wearing a safari helmet.
The emphasis is on making the agency more businesslike, and on hiring businessmen, whether or not there is anything in their experience to give them a feel for what the Peace Corps has been about. A consulting agency was brought in to suggest reorganization. Yet new staff members have come and gone with unusual frequency. There has yet to be assembled a complete or competent new group of administrators.
The Peace Corps, like so much of the Washington bureaucracy, is heavily populated by liberal Democrats who have a hard time accepting the facts that there is a two-party system, and that the other fellows won. And that having won, they have a prerogative to try to impose their own policies. These tensions are troublesome within the Peace Corps as elsewhere. But a great deal more than bureaucratic drag and partisanship has been plaguing the Peace Corps. And the issues are affecting not just the bureaucrats, but also the volunteers, present and potential.
Joseph Blatchford, the thirty-five-year-old new director, decided that the Peace Corps needed a new definition. “I found a lot of debate at senior staff level, and the debate flared up often,” he said. “At one meeting there was a lot of heated yelling and screaming about what the Peace Corps is. I broke the meeting up and I said, ‘Hold it, fellows, I think we ought to come up with a new definition.’ People here had put great value on the Peace Corps as an outlet for the young person, so the recruitment was on campus, in the liberal arts schools. We seem to have hammered out a definition which calmed everybody down: its first priority was to serve the needs of the countries as expressed by those countries. The program had to rise or fall or justify itself on what contribution it made to the country, in its terms. You can’t justify sending people overseas for itself.”
Blatchford later announced the Peace Corps’ “New Directions.” There would be great efforts to attract blue-collar workers, experienced teachers, businessmen, and farmers. Families would be recruited. There would be new emphasis on recruiting minorities; the Peace Corps has been a white middle-class organization. All of this has been tried before, and Blatchford’s efforts have been running into some of the old problems. He and his aides put out figures to document their success, but there is more than a little puffery involved. They say, for example, that applications by people over thirty have increased by “110 percent” over last year; this means that last year 6 percent of the applicants were over thirty, and this year 13 percent were. They say that applications by bluecollar workers are up by 50 percent, meaning 464 over 304. Blatchford talks about sending 200 families overseas this year, and says that there is “tremendous enthusiasm” for that program; thus far only ten families have enlisted.
Should the “New Directions” happen to work, there would be a different sort of Peace Corps. Families would need to be near schools, and that would have to be in the major cities, close to the rest of the American community. It has already been found that older volunteers are less adept at learning the foreign language or adjusting to the living conditions. The emphasis on measurable results turns it into a development program requiring certain performance on the part of both donor and recipient. The new direction, in other words, is back to foreign aid.
The real collision, however, has come not so much over the articulation of new policies as over the Peace Corps’ relation to politics. With a Kennedy brother-in-law running it, the identity of the Peace Corps was naturally linked to the Kennedy Administration. Nevertheless, it was an essential part of the Peace Corps concept that it be nonpartisan, independent, and nonresponsive to government pressures. Staff and volunteers in the early years did feel that its independence was being protected. But insulation over the years may have been an unrealistic aim, and an impossibility when a war is dividing a nation. The advent of the Republican Administration, less tolerant of dissent than its predecessor, and clumsy in its attempts to bend the government to its politics, nearly finished off the Peace Corps.
Blatchford’s own style and political background complicated the problem. He ran for Congress in 1968, and is suspected of further political ambitions. “There is a question here,” said one staff member who is sympathetic to Blatchford, “as to where his real interests are. If his political interests collide with getting this agency’s job done, where will he be? There weren’t these questions about his predecessors. Now his politics, the politics of the Nixon Administration, and this agency have to collide.” Blatchford addressed a Republican dinner with a strong partisan speech, which was then distributed throughout the Peace Corps. He explained to an angry Senator J. William Fulbright that this had occurred through a “clerical error.”
He first became interested in voluntarism, his eight-page biographical statement begins, “when thenVice President Nixon was threatened by a mob in Caracas.” Following Mr. Nixon’s crisis in Latin America, Blatchford organized his own Latin American goodwill tour of tennis players and jazz musicians. He was disturbed by what he saw, and returned to the United States to form a voluntary organization called ACCION. “This was,” his biography points out, “a full eighteen months before President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps.” The program was funded by large American corporations doing business in Latin America, and Latin American businessmen. Blatchford is now considering ways to form joint Peace Corps-business programs overseas, an idea many staff members find heedless of local sensibilities, and anathema to the Peace Corps concept.
Looking for white bucks
The new Peace Corps director’s most difficult problem has been to try to negotiate the wide, perhaps impassable, distance between the Nixon White House and the Peace Corps constituency. The essential Peace Corps constituent of 1970—a young university graduate born around 1950—feels the war is intolerable, and government is not to be trusted. Richard Nixon has spent his adult life seeking government power; when he spoke to students about the war during the mid-May demonstrations, he talked about Neville Chamberlain. The Administration’s recent frantic efforts to “reopen communications” with the young, however, have probably come too late. Blatchford has had to answer to the White House when volunteers have spoken out or written letters against the war. There was a major crisis when volunteers in Afghanistan were reported to be planning to meet Vice President Agnew with protest signs. The anti-Agnew demonstration never took place, but Agnew has never forgiven the Peace Corps nonetheless. At least two hundred Peace Corps personnel took part in last year’s Moratorium activities. “The image is held in some quarters,” says Blatchford, “that it is a giant agency of hippies and draft dodgers.”
Peace Corps officials have tried to discourage dissent without angering the volunteers, but their efforts have not always worked. Official panic over dissent has usually been self-fulfilling, intensifying the volunteers’ determination to speak out and drawing attention to the issue. Peace Corps officials intimate that some volunteers have been fired for protest activities, when in fact they have not. “The problem about the ‘firing,’ ” explained a staff member, “is that it hasn’t happened, but Blatchford has to make certain people think it has, in order to keep the organization going. He is walking a tightrope between the Administration and the group here.” “Dissent is a very difficult issue,” says Blatchford. “So many volunteers don’t understand this. They don’t realize the unbelievable reaction this would have at home.”
Another way, of course, of trying to retain official forbearance of the Peace Corps in a period of dissent is to try to fill it with the kinds of people who won’t dissent. Thus it is not just for their skills that bluecollar workers and older volunteers are so sought after now. There has also been a beating of the bushes for the sort of recent college graduate who might be less troublesome, who fits perhaps some officials’ view of what a college graduate ought to be. “You can’t go back to the straight, white-bucks, fraternity president kind of guy,” said a staff man friendly to Blatchford. “He doesn’t exist anymore, but they don’t know that yet. They talk here about how there are technical students who are where the generalists were in the early sixties, but they aren’t. The revolution has hit everyone. You can’t turn off the bachelor of arts and turn on the engineers. The value systems are more unified than that—against the war and against government.”
In the family
In mid-April, Blatchford’s office prepared a memorandum for members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on “Specific Steps Taken to Deal With Protests and to Recruit New Types of Volunteers.” “We inherited a very difficult situation resulting from volunteers just out of college with strong liberal views,” it said. “We have also had to weed out many members of a hostile staff hired during the past eight years of Democratic administration. . . . There was no personal screening of volunteers prior to training. There was no adequate staff training. Some members of the press were anxious to embarrass the Administration by exploiting a few volunteers’ protests against U. S. foreign policy. In spite of this, the Peace Corps offers the Administration great potential if the correct steps are taken. I believe we are well on the way toward eliminating public protests and changing the type of volunteers who go overseas .... In little more than a year from now, all volunteers overseas will have been selected during this Administration.” The memorandum talked about the new types of volunteers: “They are skilled tradesmen, very idealistic, and support the Administration’s policies. Some have sons in Vietnam.”
The memorandum led to a confrontation meeting between Blatchford and nearly two hundred members of the staff. It took place during the turbulent week after the President announced the sending of troops into Cambodia. The staff expressed its concerns about what was happening to the Peace Corps, and proposed the presentation of a petition to the President. “The Director of the Peace Corps,” it said, “has been subjected to unfair and excessive political pressures to conform to partisan policies. . . . Mr. President, let it be known in these times of polarization and tension that the Peace Corps has kept its integrity, that it remains an officially sanctioned organization in which any American desiring to effect change peacefully and constructively has an opportunity to serve.” Blatchford asked that the petition not be sent, that the dispute be kept “in the family.” He also said, according to a number of people who attended the meeting, that he was under more pressure than they could know, and that he did not know whether the Peace Corps could survive the Nixon Administration.
Blatchford says that he saw the confrontation as another of the “emotional crises of the Peace Corps. . . . We are trying to bring more businesslike methods to the Peace Corps and work more closely with the White House and other agencies. I think it has to to keep going. But this makes people nervous. It is going through a crisis of growing up, and people don’t know if they can adjust to blue-collar workers and more Republicans, and going on with a Nixon Administration and a war. There had been neglect of the fact that the Peace Corps is part of the political system. I argued in 1961 that it should not be part of the political system, not part of the government with the White House, the Congress, and the State Department.”
He was probably right. It is perhaps impossible to create a government institution that can remain immune to government. Many of the strongest proponents of continuing the Peace Corps are those who began it, but they want to perpetuate something that no longer exists. They may be in somewhat the same position as others who have been in on tne launching of bold new government experiments and who con tinue to defend them when the rationale has faded. It is just that the time span for the Peace Corps has been relatively brief, and the change in its nature and role relatively precipitous. Moreover, it is harder to let it go because the idealism from which it sprang is something we all want to remember.
-ELIZABETH B. DREW