By Steven V. Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:43 PM
WHEN THE WORLD CALLS
The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years
By Stanley Meisler
Beacon. 272 pp. $26.95
In 2008 Christiane Amanpour illustrated America's declining role in the world by telling a foreign policy conference, "There was a Peace Corps." After the session a former volunteer named Jon Keeton angrily corrected CNN's chief foreign correspondent: "There still is a Peace Corps." As author Stanley Meisler recalls, "Amanpour blushed but pointed out that there must be something wrong if someone like herself did not realize the Peace Corps still existed."
The Peace Corps is a forgotten player today, riding the far end of the government's bench and seldom getting into a game. Some years ago a State Department document referred to it as the "Peach Corps" and no one caught the error. But the Corps still sent 7,671 volunteers abroad in 2009 (down from a peak of 15,556 in 1966). And these public-spirited people still improve lives around the world - one village, one school, one fish pond at a time. As Meisler, a former correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, puts it: "The Peace Corps has its share of failure. But the best Volunteers do accomplish a kind of magic. . . ."
No one embodied that "magic" better than R. Sargent Shriver Jr., the first director, who died last month at 95, six weeks before the Corps's 50th anniversary on March 1. Meisler, who worked for Shriver during those early years, says every director since then has lacked his boss's "dynamism, charisma, influence and national standing." Sure, much of Shriver's "influence" flowed from his marriage to President Kennedy's sister Eunice; and some of his "charisma" was manufactured by the Kennedys' hyper-active myth-making machine. But the testimonials to Shriver after his death reveal his enduring influence. As Larry Koskin, a volunteer in the Philippines in the late '70s, told a Post reporter at Shriver's wake: "If you go to the Peace Corps building, his spirit is very much alive. You feel an incredible optimism for what is possible."
Optimism yes, perfection no. Some volunteers "fell into the trap of living like a colonial," and the author recalls a "disconcerting" lunch in Cameroon when his host tinkled "a little bell to signal an African servant to patter in and clear the dishes." Others badly misread local customs. In another Cameroonian village a female volunteer waved casually at a young soldier and soon received a gift of eggs and potatoes, "the customary first step of a marriage proposal."
More seriously, the Corps has never resolved a basic contradiction. It was formed as an independent agency, separate from the State Department and clearly "not an instrument of foreign policy." But it has periodically become ensnared in politics, most notably during the Vietnam War. Applications plummeted, and those who did serve often turned strongly against their own government and their own agency. One disillusioned volunteer branded the Corps "a kind of graduate school for imperialism."
This book's biggest flaw is its focus on bureaucratic infighting and petty squabbles. Meisler devotes more than a page, for example, to a boring spat in Tanzania between the ambassador and the Peace Corps director over embassy cars. I'd prefer more stories about volunteers like Donna Shalala, a Lebanese-American who served in Iran (and later became a cabinet secretary and university president). Her grandmother wrote a letter in Arabic addressed to the head man of Shalala's village. Only later did she find out what it said: "This is to introduce the daughter of a great sheikh in Cleveland, Ohio. Please put her under your protection."
Shalala was a college junior, and I was a freshman when Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps six days before the 1960 election. More than 200,000 volunteers have served since then in 139 countries, and it is a mark of their loyalty that they refer to themselves as "Returned Volunteers," not as "former" anythings (as with Marines and priests, I guess, your vows never run out). But the Peace Corps was a mindset, a value system, and its influence ranged far beyond the volunteers who actually joined. It symbolized Kennedy's call for national service and inspired a whole generation of our contemporaries to become public interest lawyers and public school teachers, political journalists and community organizers, dedicated advocates for civil rights, women's rights and human rights.
For years after Kennedy's assassination, notes Meisler, "the Peace Corps Volunteers were known in some Latin American countries as los hijos de Kennedy - the Children of Kennedy." In fact many of us are Children of Kennedy, not just the veterans of the "Peach Corps."
Steven V. Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His latest book, "From Every End of This Earth," is just out in paperback.