Magazine | March 7, 2011, Issue

The Peace Corps at 50

A few observations (mainly conservative)

Toward the end of the 1960 presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy made a stop at the University of Michigan. He got there just before 2 a.m. Obviously, Bill Clinton did not invent late-night campaigning. Some 5,000 adoring students were gathered to see Kennedy. On the steps of the student union, he gave them a speech full of his usual charm. “I come here tonight,” he said, “to go to bed! But I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort.” What effort? He was talking about the Peace Corps, which he had proposed earlier in his remarks.

He established that corps in the very first weeks of his presidency: on March 1, 1961. The first director was his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, who died in January of this year at age 95. His death occurred just a month and a half before the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

They will celebrate this anniversary in high style, with Chris Matthews, Bill Moyers, Harris Wofford, and other luminaries — liberal luminaries, by and large. The Peace Corps has been, in many respects, a liberal project, for good or ill. But conservatives have been involved, and we will meet a few.

Since 1961, about 200,000 Americans have volunteered in the Peace Corps, serving in approximately 140 countries. Elaine Chao was director of the organization in 1991 and 1992, under the first President Bush. The “republics” of the Soviet Union were newly free. Chao sent volunteers there. She says there was resistance from what you might call the Peace Corps establishment: former volunteers, present staff. The Peace Corps had traditionally concentrated on Africa, and maybe a couple of other regions. Chao thought that needs could be met in the former Soviet Union. She was particularly interested in small-business training: the inculcation of entrepreneurship, which these lands sorely needed (and which everyone needs, it’s true).

Since 1993, we have had volunteers in China, and they teach English. They’re known as “U.S.-China Friendship Volunteers.” Why not “Peace Corps volunteers”? Because, to the Communist government, the word “corps” has unacceptable military connotations. We know that the Chinese Communists are the most devotedly pacifist of people.

The Peace Corps has “three simple goals,” to use the words of the organization itself. They are 1) to help people in “interested countries”; 2) to promote a better understanding of Americans by those peoples; and 3) to promote a better understanding by us Americans of those peoples. The second and third of those goals are fairly easily met. The first is much more problematic. There is a great debate about whether, or to what extent, the Peace Corps has rendered genuine help. Suffice it to say that former volunteers — or “returned volunteers,” in the parlance of the Peace Corps — are far more likely to say what the experience did for them than what they themselves were able to do for others.

One of the best-known returnees in the conservative-libertarian world is Charles Murray, the political scientist, author of Losing Ground, among other important books. He served in Thailand in the mid-1960s. He left for the Peace Corps the day after he graduated from college. “I wanted to see the world and do interesting stuff,” he says, “and the Peace Corps seemed like a good way to do that.” He adds something with his typical humor: “I wasn’t against doing good. In fact, I was perfectly happy to do good. But that’s not the reason I signed up. And I suspect it was the same way with most of the other guys who went in at that time.”

#page#Murray says that he could not contribute much to the Thais: He was a newly minted undergraduate, what did he know? (Never mind that he went to Harvard, like President Kennedy.) But he learned a lot about government, society, and people. He found that the central government had one set of priorities for villages in remote areas, and the villagers themselves another set of priorities. And the villagers — the people themselves, right on the scene — knew a lot better. They were also better at solving their own problems.

You know what they wanted help with? Water-buffalo thieves. They figured the government should stop them (quite rightly).

Joseph Pickett is an entrepreneur working and living in Virginia. He volunteered in Russia, from 1996 to 1999. He says, “I went in right of center and came out strongly conservative-libertarian.” The reason? “Because I saw up close the physical and moral wreckage that a Communist system brings.” He says he enjoyed his time in Russia “a great deal,” but it made him “much, much more appreciative” of the United States.

He tells a story that he says illustrates the mentality he found in Russia. A teacher he knew was awarded a visa to come to America. “Naturally, I was happy for him, and told a few people. He approached me on the bus one day and said, ‘Joe, please don’t tell anyone else.’” The Peace Corps volunteer asked why. “Because they are jealous and will try to sabotage me.”

Pickett says that most everyone he knew in the Peace Corps was on the left, believing in the power of big government, and ever bigger government, to solve problems. Pickett, as we have heard, went the other way.

Thames Fulton is a business consultant in Chicago. He served in Senegal in the mid-1990s. He and his wife, Mary, met there, as fellow volunteers. They were somewhat conservative — and would become much more so. Thames says, “We appreciated more than ever the value of free markets, the abundance of opportunities we have, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights,” and so on. He recalls that many of the dreamier, flakier volunteers opted to leave their service early. They saw that they could not make a quick, decisive impact. What was in the offing was “hard, incremental work,” as Fulton puts it. Still another group of dreamers, or ex-dreamers, did not leave early but “effectively gave up.”

Some volunteers there were very high on organic farming. The Senegalese themselves, less so. “All they cared about was whether they could feed their children tomorrow.” Fulton lived for a while with a family who had lost two children to malnutrition. And many of the subsistence farmers in the area would have given their right arms to land a factory job: anything that would have provided a steady income.

Fulton emphasizes that volunteers with particular experience and skills can truly help a population in need. He remembers, for example, the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, who had a degree in animal husbandry or nutrition and worked like a Trojan. He came up with a rabbit feed, made of local ingredients. “Someone like that brings a heck of a lot of value,” says Fulton.

#page#Earl Aagaard and his wife Gail had a very good experience in Venezuela. That was in the mid-1970s. Aagaard is a retired professor of biology living in California. He and Gail stood out from their fellow volunteers in that they were conservative and religious (members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church). But the Aagaards did their thing, and the others did theirs. Earl says that his time in the Peace Corps increased his distaste for government. How was that? “Because of all the waste I saw.” There were some fine people in Peace Corps administration, but it was “seriously overstaffed.” There was the usual sitting around and paycheck collecting. “My dad had been in the service, and what I saw confirmed the things he told me about the way the government works.”

People such as Aagaard, Fulton, and Pickett say that the Peace Corps is worthwhile, for all its flaws. Charles Murray has his doubts. If it went away, chances are nobody would be worse off, he says. “But bear in mind that I would say the same thing about most of our government agencies.”

Elaine Chao believes that the participation of conservatives can make just about any agency or organization better. If those entities are going to be there anyway — which they are — why leave them to liberals, alone? Thinking of the Peace Corps in particular, she says, “We are for individual freedom, and national freedom, and all of these countries that volunteers go to yearn for freedom in one way or another.” Chao says that Americans can set a positive example just by being themselves. “American women walk with confidence. They swing their arms and take long strides. That’s unusual in many parts of the world.” By the way, Chao is the daughter of a Chinese couple who fled to Taiwan. She came to this country when she was eight years old, in 1961, the year the Peace Corps was founded.

(It is necessary to mention a serious problem of the Peace Corps: rape, among other crimes committed against volunteers. An ABC News study found that more than 1,000 of our female volunteers have been raped or sexually assaulted since 2000. Former volunteers I have talked to say that, while they would be happy to have their sons follow in their footsteps, they would be wary about seeing their daughters in the Peace Corps.)

A retired Foreign Service officer remembers being in Mali in the 1960s. The people would marvel at the Peace Corps volunteers: They were working for nothing, which was stupid. Stupid and extraordinary, of course. Chao says, “Volunteerism and charitableness are parts of our national character, our national identity.” She goes on to note that, in other countries, “people help one another because they are connected by blood or marriage.” But Americans are different.

There is a lot of puffery about the Peace Corps, and they still draw on Kennedy-era glamour and cachet. There is at least as much idealism in another corps, the Marine Corps, and that latter corps has done infinitely more good. Same with the other branches of the armed services, of course — the War Corps, you might call them. But the Peace Corps plays its role, and is certainly entitled to a happy anniversary.

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