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What You Can Do For Your Country

May 2024
2min read

An Oral History of the Peace Corps

by Karen Schwarz; William Morrow & Co.; 316 pages; $21.00.

Is there any college kid who came of age around 1961 who didn’t dream of joining the Peace Corps at one time or another? Many of us recall the Peace Corps and the sit-ins of the early sixties as the two great adventures designed for our generation. How directly we participated depended on how easily idealism overcame timidity, but a significant number of Kennedy’s Children were ready to take on not only the troubles of our own country but those of the world.

Looking back, it all appears a little worn and perhaps warped, and whatever inches we gained then have been lost and won more than once. In “What You Can Do for Your Country,” the author’s tone of knowing cynicism seems to shape the thirty years of testimony of the volunteers she quotes. According to Karen Schwarz, it was never as simple or as pretty as it looked. “Early on, I discovered how far my original idealized perception of the organization was from reality,” she writes. “The Peace Corps, I ultimately realized, is a kind of modern-day myth that projects an idealized portrait of the American character.”

Whatever sense the reader might have that Schwarz began with a thesis and then went on to prove it with a selection of interviews that span the Corps’s thirty years, the book remains fascinating just for its look at American character; the conflicts that roiled the Peace Corps are mirrored in the psyche of each volunteer. A 1965 worker in Panama says: “I have no doubt that the Peace Corps was basically a public relations campaign. The Panamanians loved President Kennedy and they thought it was great that the United States sent young Americans to get to know other countries, and through me they came to know an ordinary American. In the whole scheme of things there’s nothing more important than friendship.” The curse of “public relations” is a theme common to much of the testimony in the book. One of the earliest volunteers in Afghanistan recalls: “The other goal of the Peace Corps, to make people more aware of Americans, was basically propaganda couched in idealistic terms. This was very successful in Afghanistan. They loved us. We were the only foreigners who ever bothered to learn their language or show interest in their culture.” Is this so bad?

From time to time the respondents reveal a sense of accomplishment beyond that of friendships made, but the reader is left with the feeling that lost opportunities and half-baked projects were the rule. Part of this, according to the volunteers and the author, was the fault of bungling government bureaucracies (American and foreign alike) of the sort we all love to hate.

The other problem, which comes clear as one reads the book straight through, is that we have here a history of American policy by other means. Despite the Corps’s professed need to remain apolitical, all the ups and downs of our relationship to the world from 1961 to 1990 are reflected here. The Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, changing forms of government in the Third World, American presidential politics—all of these influenced the actions of the volunteers and created shifting goals in the program.

At the start of the Corps’s fourth decade and at the book’s conclusion, the author finds a newly constituted training philosophy that may yield positive results. At this point the reader has followed so many changes of program, all of which seemed logical in their time and place, that it’s hard to judge the latest one. Perhaps the greatest source of hope is simply that the Peace Corps has survived long enough to enter its fourth decade.

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