Peace Corps Fantasies

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Molly Geidel is a lecturer in American Cultural History at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Peace Corps Fantasies: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties.

Can you briefly describe your book?

My book is a cultural history of the 1960s Peace Corps. It’s about the heroic image the early Peace Corps projected of Americans in the world, particularly the emergence of development work as a popular fantasy, the idea that the person-to-person impartation of a kind of general ingenuity can solve global poverty. It’s also about how 1960s volunteers, especially women volunteers, related to this fantasy of heroic development work. Finally, it’s about the influence of development on the civil rights, Black Power, and antiwar movements: I argue that the idea of development work returns home to these movements and begins to reshape the thinking of activists. Because the book is about the migrations of Peace Corps fantasies into places beyond the international development sphere, I also look at representations of the Peace Corps in 1960s popular culture, including the many pulp and young adult novels written about the figure of the Peace Corps girl.

What initially drew you to your topic?

In retrospect, it seems like a million things. I grew up in Vermont, in an area with a large radical and countercultural community. So I was surrounded by the legacy of the sixties, but I also, like many people who grow up with privilege, had a spirit of volunteerism instilled in me from a very young age. As I got a little older, I began to notice that there was development and charity work happening seemingly everywhere, while all the time inequality was worsening and the United States was intervening pretty relentlessly into the affairs of poorer countries. I wondered a lot about how all those things fit together: how liberal volunteerism and radical movement ideas were connected, but also about the connections between global inequality, U.S. power, and the idea that person-to-person development work could bring people out of poverty. So the book is my attempt to work out those puzzles. For me, the Peace Corps—and in particular the image it projected of heroic volunteerism as a solution to structural inequality—provided a key to understanding the way a lot of Americans thought about the world, and particularly about social change, in the sixties and beyond.

How did you develop your archive for this project?

I did my Ph.D. in Boston, so I started out at the JFK Presidential Library; they have founding director Sargent Shriver’s papers as well as an extensive Peace Corps collection. Then I followed the leads I found there to other archives—most importantly the LBJ Library, the National Archives in College Park, and various archives in Bolivia—as well as to 1960s volunteers and activists who agreed to be interviewed. One great thing about doing a project on something iconic and fairly recent is that lots of people you talk to, particularly older people, immediately have a story to tell or an incident to ask about. I could then use my archival research to track these stories, fleshing out and assessing the veracity of things people had heard or vaguely remembered. I also used less conventional research venues—for example, I found many of the Peace Corps girl novels on eBay.

What was the strangest or most interesting thing you found in the archives?

One thing was a letter I found early on that led me to do more research into the Peace Corps and its early sensibility. Jack Vaughn, a Peace Corps official, was dispatched by LBJ to quell the 1964 flag riots in Panama, which had quickly escalated to the point where Panama cut off diplomatic relations with the United States. In the middle of this volatile situation, Vaughn wrote this letter to Shriver, and in the letter two things intrigued me. First, I found it interesting that Peace Corps volunteers were speaking out against the U.S. presence in Panama: Vaughn writes “How do you stop volunteers from giving press conferences?” Second, Vaughn actually devotes most of the letter to praising Shriver’s leadership at the Peace Corps, and closes by requesting a “signed, glossy, 8 x 10 photo” of him, which Shriver promptly sent. This made me wonder: why did Vaughn have to have this photo, of all things, in the middle of a diplomatic crisis? What did it have to do with his attempt to quell anticolonial rage in Panama? I attempt in my book to answer that question, and also to explore the extent to which volunteers developed a critique of U.S. imperialism.

Another interesting thing I discovered—my smoking gun, insofar as I had one—was that the United States had been pursuing a population control program in Bolivia. They got in trouble for it soon after it began, when Jorge Sanjinés’ classic radical film Blood of the Condor accused volunteers of sterilizing indigenous women and, alongside widespread protests, got the Peace Corps kicked out of Bolivia. After the film came out and accusations started flying, the Peace Corps in Bolivia backpedaled, swearing up and down that they had never distributed birth control; this in turn led to heightened popular suspicion of birth control in Bolivia, where people continue to this day to associate it with imperialism. Other historical writing on the expulsion relies on correspondence decades later with the Bolivia Peace Corps director and repeats the claim that the Peace Corps never distributed birth control. However, I found documents by both the director and volunteers at the time clearly showing that despite not always having medical credentials, volunteers inserted IUDs in Aymara women with whom they likely couldn’t communicate well—not sterilization, but also not nothing. This shows the danger of relying on official accounts of events like this, and disregarding popular rumors; sometimes the conspiracy theories are right, or at least more right than the official sources.

What surprised you while writing this book?

I set out to write a book about the connections between the 1960s liberal establishment and radical movements, so going in I had a sense that the Peace Corps provided a heroic fantasy that brought even diametrically opposed sides together. But the scenes of concrete connection still surprised me. There’s one moment at a March 1965 Peace Corps convention shortly after the United States began bombing North Vietnam, when Harry Belafonte, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Shriver, and the Vice-President Hubert Humphrey linked arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” together; in retrospect, these aren’t all people you think of in the same breath. Just a few years after this happened, the Peace Corps was attempting to recruit the leftist antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for leadership positions, and a number of SDS members went to visit and speak at Peace Corps training sites. So I could see when I started out that symbolically the Peace Corps’ heroic development-worker ideal could transcend the ideological spectrum, but I wasn’t expecting that there would be so many actual, concrete moments when the Peace Corps united liberal interventionists with the antiwar left.

Have you received feedback from Peace Corps volunteers or officials? Was it difficult challenging a popular narrative about the benefits of the Peace Corps and global development?

I knew everyone wouldn’t agree with me, and there are definitely volunteers commenting on websites who say I’ve disregarded their accomplishments. But it seems to me that as we continue to employ endless experts to address the “puzzles” of poverty and inequality, more people need to hear critiques of both neoliberal development and the liberal development schemes that came before. These critiques are well within the mainstream in history and anthropology, but they very rarely filter into non-academic discussions of international development, at least not in the United States. Focusing on the Peace Corps allowed me to bridge this gap a bit.

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  1. I was in the PC Group Nepal 6 in Nepal from 1965 to 1967. At that time Nepal was completely undeveloped. The only other westerners who had been there were the British Gurkha recruiters and a few prior PC groups. We were trained in the Saul Alinsky “community felt needs” method for three months. My analogue is to take a village Nepali who had never spoken English; give her/him three months of English and some social theory and then transport them to the USA to a mayor or commissioner’s office and tell them to help. The Nepalis were and are very sophisticated politically and socially. Don’t forget that they had no means of communication with the exception of face to face talking. No phones, no TV, one radio station Radio Nepal and a newspaper that came late to the villages. These two main communication vehicles were controlled by the monarchy which still ruled. Many people in the villages were illiterate. This was 1965. News about anything and everything travelled the human grapevine. This was the time of the war in Vietnam, a poor asian country with a population of subsistence farmers, much like Nepal. But the thing was, Nepalis loved Americans. We were warmly welcomed everywhere by everyone. We were not destroyers or warmongers but peace loving harbingers of a democratic free market society they knew about vaguely. In retrospect our development efforts were nil compared to the effect of our simply being there, present to them, talking to them, wearing western clothes, having wristwatches, radios, guitars, tape recorders, and other accoutrements, the stuff, of American living. Our Nepal Peace Corps Volunteers were the last humans on earth to have to walk on our own legs for work. What do i mean by this? Since forever, to the time of the industrial revolution, people have had to walk, row, sail, or ride a horse or carriage to get to a destination. Now in the world, no one does this. We did what Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, Moses, Jesus, Muhammed, Washington, Lincoln, etc. etc. did. We participated in the world around us while traveling for a distinct purpose, not pleasure. This makes an enormous difference on the human psyche. It keeps us healthy and connected to reality. We meet rich and poor alike on the road, we talk, we share stories and tell of the byways and possible hazards of the road we just travelled. At night we stay in a small room with others by the fire, or outside drinking tea and consuming the fresh air, the sky, and the fellowship of other humans. Who does that in today’s world? No one. Indeed we changed Nepal and Nepal changed us. What we experienced can never be recovered. It took me three days to walk to my post under the himalayas. Today there is a road with busses, cars, cycles. Here in Baltimore we have almost 10,000 immigrants from Nepal who are in business, nurses, social workers, etc. Some work for the federal government where one must be a citizen. One young man I met was born 100 meters from where I lived in the village of Kusma, now a minor metropolis.

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