Peace Corps Writers
Doing the Blitz (page 3)
Doing the Blitz
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Black Like Me
There were sharper confrontations along the way. Along with Marine Corps recruiters, one of our teams was locked up overnight by student protestors in an activity center at a Mid-western university. A gray government sedan acquired from the local Government Services Administration, GSA, motor pool in Atlanta Georgia was riddled with buckshot when leaving a campus. One of our black women recruiters traveling alone in Mississippi fought off a rape attempt by several white airport workers.
     On one swing through the South, Washington asked me to make an urgent side trip to a Peace Corps training facility outside of Baton Rouge. A burning cross had been placed outside the girls’ dormitory and the hundred plus Trainees and staff were understandably quite distraught. The facility, a former U.S. naval officers’ training school complete with several red brick campus buildings, was being used at the time to train health workers, largely female and mostly white, destined for French-speaking Africa. As in all training programs some of the language, technical and cross cultural staff were drawn from the African government agencies for which the Volunteers would be working. The area had a Cajun-speaking population, and Trainees were placed with families on the weekends to attune their ears to a French dialect. Segregation, however, persisted in the area, and at the nearest shopping area, the laundromat among other businesses, remained off-limits to our African guests. On arriving to investigate the cross-burning incident, the training director, a Harvard academic who had never before been to the deep South, recounted the story of how the burning cross had been discovered in the early morning, and how after one call to the State Police the response was almost immediate. I advised him that I wasn’t surprised by the swift action for in that part of the South, the State Troopers and the Klu Klux Klan were often odd bed fellows if not synonymous. The cross burning provoked a flap in Washington and among Baton Rouge’s elected officials with whom I met, for the African instructors traveled under diplomatic auspices. As a positive outcome to the tense affair, however, the “No Coloreds” signs in the nearby laundromat and the one general store came down.

Icing on a rotten cake
University administrators at some of our important schools became unsettled by the campus unrest and barred Peace Corps along with other Federal Government agencies from campus and classroom access. Several of the better-organized protest groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, singled out Peace Corps for attack, labeling it “the icing on the rotten cake of American imperialism.”

Flying High with Pan Am
The most dramatic of these confrontations occurred at Columbia University during the Fall of 1967. Being barred from recruiting on campus, we were able to acquire several New York City buses through the good offices of Pan American Airlines. Pan Am earned about $2 million a year in late 1960s dollars flying groups from training sites to various overseas posts. TWA and Eastern also competed with air chartering new PCVs to their assignments overseas. The quid pro quo for Pan Am’s helpful intervention was a placard for display on the side of the buses reading “Join the Peace Corps, You’ll Go Far and Pan Am Makes the Going Great.”
     The Deputy Head of the Agency was not amused, saying that Peace Corps would be open to criticism by appearing to endorse one particular airline. I countered that in New York, the advertising capital of the world, such marketing tie-ins were commonplace, and no competitor would protest. Others agreed, and we went forward with our plan.
     We arranged for police permits to park the two buses right by the main gates of the University at 116th Street and Broadway, and we gathered up a first string team of recruiters from our Boston and Washington offices. Within minutes of opening up our mobile recruiting stations and turning on our loud speakers, a dozen SDS agitators appeared and began blocking access to our buses. Almost immediately on that bright fall New York City day a counter picket formed. These were international students from Latin America, India and Africa. They said in effect to the stunned and speechless SDS group, “Leave these people alone. They were our teachers.”
     Without lifting a hand to stage-manage the event, I watched the SDS protestors melt away; several even filled out applications to join up, and the four day stand on upper Broadway was a success. The poster version of the Pan Am placard became a hot ticket item with college students, and no competing airline lodged a complaint.

Peace Corps cinema verite
Nevertheless, one of the central issues the Peace Corps constantly faced during this era was how, as a U.S. Government agency, could it distance itself from the official policies related to the war in Vietnam, and so maintain credibility with its main clientele — the college student of the late ’60s. Our challenge in Public Affairs was to develop all the print and electronic materials for recruiting taking these currents into account. We also had help from the public service window of the Advertising Council of America. Additionally, we contracted for one or two films a year on Peace Corps life overseas.
      Despite our popularity and ready access to the media, the Agency for the first time since its establishment had to deal with the troubled domestic reality all around it .We also faced up to the reality of the sometimes disillusioning overseas Volunteer experience. This disturbed some of the staff who felt we should stick to the optimistic and often sugar-coated messages of the past. The Advertising Council understood our dilemma and was quick to respond. For the ’67–’68 recruiting year, we produced several public service spot announcements. The best of these — and one that garnered several awards — was done in cinema verite style showing young adults playing a parlor game. The question addressed to the participants was simply “What is Peace?” All provided thoughtful definitions, but the one that became quoted throughout the dormitories and study halls was simply “Peace is the absence of war.” The tag line on the spot read, “This message brought to you by the United States Peace Corps in collaboration with the Advertising Council of America.” This was a bold statement for its time, and while my neck was on the line for pushing the agency toward this veiled criticism of U.S. foreign policy, the few angry calls from the Congress and the State Department were drowned out by applause.

RPCVs produce a poster
We were somewhat less fortunate with a poster produced by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Committee of Harvard which found its way into our general campus recruiting kits. Far less subtle than our “Peace is the absence of war” message, it showed a line drawing of a carbine and a shovel and read “M16s jam, Shovels Don’t. Join the Peace Corps.” In addition to all its woes in Vietnam, the Pentagon was faced with the malfunctioning of its standard issue rifles. An exasperated Secretary of the Army telephoned me pleading “please don’t do that to us.” Subsequently, there was a witch hunt by the Congress to see if any appropriated U.S. funds had been used to print these posters. None had been, and we dropped the posters and were spared.

Yankees Go Home

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about the film
"Give Me A Riddle"
A controversial feature length documentary made during this period depicted the darker side of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. The film, made by an award-winning Hollywood group, showed no smiling, clean-cut Americans surrounded by happy, appreciative Africans, but those in realistic work and social situations. Some Volunteers were positive about their accomplishments, while others expressed self-doubts about their effectiveness, about themselves, about their ability to understand another culture. Some Nigerians criticized the Volunteers for doing jobs as teachers or health workers they themselves could do. In a closing frame, one Nigerian held up a quickly scrawled sign to underscore his views: “Yankee Go Home, but Leave Your Cigarettes Behind.“
     The Agency’s senior staff was mortified by the film, while the recruiting staff of former volunteers thought the views expressed, while not necessarily universal, rang true. Adding to the furor, the Agency Director banned the film from use in recruiting adding to the furor. The African program chief, C. Payne Lucas, who would go on to found and manage the private voluntary organization, AfriCare, also thought the film misrepresented the views of the Nigerians, but finally agreed to let the film be shown as a test case to a group of returned volunteer graduate students at the University of Michigan. He was invited to Ann Arbor to moderate the discussion after the screening on whether the volunteer experience in Africa had been accurately portrayed. The debate concluded that while no one film could capture the highly variable world of the Peace Corps, the film added to the agency’s credibility by presenting both positive and negative perspectives. Vindicated, we were allowed to show the film on selected large campuses.
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