The Peace Corps at 50 Years Old

By Malcolm, Teresa | National Catholic Reporter, August 5, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Peace Corps at 50 Years Old


Malcolm, Teresa, National Catholic Reporter


I knew just enough about the Peace Corps in the fall of 1987 that I attended this "Visiting Scholar" lecture on my own initiative (more typically I would have been there to fulfill a class requirement). Whatever Loret Miller Ruppe, then director of the Peace Corps, said when she spoke at Rockhurst College in Kansas City Mo., that evening, she fired my enthusiasm. Greeting students afterwards, she told me that, as a junior, I was still too far away from graduation to apply just yet. But I picked up one of the little Peace Corps buttons she was giving away I still have it.

Four years later, in October 1991 in Bangkok, Thailand, I was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer and headed off to serve as an English teacher in a rural northeast village.

I happily recognized Ruppe's name when she popped up in Stanley Meisler's When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, and got a closer look at the director I had briefly met.

She had been an heiress who in 1981 had never worked full time for pay, and her appointment by the new Republican president, Ronald Reagan, initially dismayed the Peace Corps community. But she soon proved herself to be enthusiastic, energetic and fiercely protective of her agency By the time she left in 1989 (still the longest-serving director), staff and current and former volunteers "acclaimed her as the most beloved and inspiring of all Peace Corps directors since Sargent Shriver," Meisler writes.

Shriver himself came to Thailand in 1992 for a reception celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Peace Corps in that country. In an abstract kind of way, I appreciated the chance to meet the first director. Reading Meisler's book made concrete to what degree Shriver forged what the Peace Corps would be.

When John F. Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law director, Meisler writes, the Peace Corps was "a name, a concept, and little more." Shriver took Kennedy's "lightly sketched" campaign promise and the executive order signed on March 1,1961, and by August (50 years ago this month), had the first volunteers departing for their assignments. In the course of those "madcap" months, Shriver, along with his staff, established the essential structure of the agency that endures today--including winning the crucial struggle to establish the Peace Corps' autonomy from the Foreign Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Three weeks after the first volunteers arrived in Ghana, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act, which enshrined the agency's three goals. As stated on www.peacecorps.gov today, they are:

1) Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

2) Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

3) Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Journalist Meisler himself worked for the Peace Corps in the 1960s as an evaluator, but When the World Calls is not all starry-eyed boosterism. There are disastrous missteps in the early years, often attributable to Shriver and company's numbers obsession--deploying more volunteers than host countries could, or should, accommodate. As the Vietnam War escalates, so does tension over volunteers' rights to protest while abroad and under U.S. government employ And over five decades Washington political machinations are a constant, from Nixon's stealth efforts to kill the agency, to Peace Corps staff infighting, to tussles over what to name the headquarters or the agency itself, and ever-present budget battles.

Meisler's book is weighted toward the ins and outs of Washington politics, and he draws the reader into these stories well enough that I'd find myself getting het up about major threats and minor squabbles of decades past. …

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