Three Reflections on the Peace Corps After 25 Years

Wylie, Times assistant Opinion editor, was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, 1961-63

Come as You Are: The Peace Corps Story by Coates Redmon (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95)

Making a Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-five, edited by Milton Viorst (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $16.95)

The Gringo Brought His Mother! by Geneva Sanders (Corona, 1037 S. Alamo St., San Antonio, Tex. 78210: $13.95, hardback, $6.95 paperback)

These three volumes, from quite different perspectives, deal with a federal agency that some doubted would be around to celebrate its 10th anniversary, let alone its 25th.

For youths of the humdrum '50s, the advent of a new Administration headed by a dynamic President born in this century, promising to send Americans overseas not to fight wars but to work for peace, was an exhilarating prospect.

And indeed, off we went. By the hundreds in that first year, 1961, and eventually by the thousands: More than 120,000 have served in 93 countries. "I'd never done anything political, patriotic or unselfish because nobody ever asked me to. Kennedy asked," says a Peace Corps volunteer in the Viorst book.

Kennedy's death could have spelled an early end for "Kennedy's kids" and the freewheeling Peace Corps bureaucracy. But the agency has survived, if it has not always prospered, under a series of administrations. Today even the Reagan gerontocracy--after first proposing deep Peace Corps budget cuts--has yielded to the bipartisan appeal of a program that has enlarged America's understanding of the Third World and contributed thousands of experienced recruits to government and other public-service careers.

A Fuller Narrative

While each of these three volumes has something to recommend it, a more comprehensive account was published last year by a Scot, Gerard T. Rice: "The Bold Experiment: JFK's Peace Corps" (Notre Dame), for anyone interested in a fuller narrative of the Peace Corps years.

Coates Redmon, a one-time Peace Corps staff writer, offers an anecdotal account of the early Peace Corps years. Her chatty volume is filled with asides about the character and life styles of those instrumental in shaping the organization, most of all R. Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's brother-in-law who was given the task of making the Peace Corps a reality after the presidential candidate offered a sketchy proposal during the 1960 campaign.

Shriver, the charismatic, indefatigable, two-briefcase man who hit the ground at full gallop and rarely looked back, had the first volunteers overseas by August, 1961, through the efforts of a freewheeling can-do staff recruited by raiding colleges, law firms, newspapers and government agencies. The key players are well-limned: Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Bill Haddad, Frank Mankiewicz, Charles Peters, Elizabeth Harris and Harris Wofford; and their exploits put in context of what certainly was Washington's most unbureaucratic bureaucracy.

Redmon uses long interview excerpts to let many of the principals tell their own tales, a device often more satisfying than her own prose, which trips up occasionally on the well-worn phrase (Shriver "had success written all over him") or empurpled passage (". . . Cupid's arrow struck him, besotting him with a passion for the Peace Corps"). Her title comes from a response by Shriver to a prospective staff member who protested that he couldn't be in Washington the next day because he was skiing in the Rockies: "Come as you are. Seeya tomorrow," Shriver said, and the man came, ski boots and all.

The Viorst volume, commissioned as part of the Peace Corps' 25th anniversary commemoration, includes essays by Shriver, Moyers, Wofford, Wiggins and Mankiewicz, and by Loret Miller Ruppe--now the longest-serving Peace Corps director and probably the most effective since Shriver. But the meat of the book is in its random reports, letters and miscellaneous snippets of writing by volunteers, staff and evaluators.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) tells of his days as a volunteer in the Dominican Republic in 1966, living in a tin-roof shack without running water and organizing a project to build a maternity hospital. "Almost nothing in life has satisfied me more than working on that hospital," Dodd says.

Pungent Remembrance

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux contributes a pungent reminiscence of his tour as a volunteer in Malawi: ". . . the country affected me as no other country has, before or since. I felt I belonged there, I was happy, I was committed. I has having a good time as well as doing something worthwhile--what could have been better?"

On what it all meant, Theroux addresses a question that many a former volunteer ponders:

"I still do not understand who was running the show, or what they did, or even what the Peace Corps actually was, apart from an enlightened excuse for sending us to poor countries. Those countries are still poor. We were the ones who were enriched, and sometimes I think that we reminded these people--if they needed such a thing--that they were left out. We stayed awhile, and then we left them. And yet I think I would do it again. At an uncertain time of my life, I joined. And up to a point--they gave me a lot of rope--the Peace Corps allowed me to be myself. I realized that it was much better to be neglected than manipulated, and I learned that you make your own life."

Geneva Sanders wasn't a volunteer, but her son Richard was--and she went to visit him, in his tiny mountain village in Colombia. Her encounter with the Third World, after a jet-lagging trip from Texas, is funny and accurately observed. This slender volume could serve as a primer for any American on the flavor of life in a developing country. "It was probably the most strenuous 15 days of my life and permanently dislocated my point of view," the author writes of her visit to the remote and impoverished community.

Revered Ground

That kind of dislocation was addressed by Moyers a few weeks ago in a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, commemorating the deaths of nearly 200 volunteers who have died in service. The Peace Corps is "not an agency, program, or mission. . . . It is a way of being in the world . It is a very conservative notion because it holds dear the ground of one's own being--the culture and customs that give meaning to a particular life--but it is revolutionary for respecting the ground revered by others. This is the new politics and the new patriotism that may yet save this fragmented and dispirited age. . . ."

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