Making Them Like Us

Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s. By Fritz Fischer. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. viii, 237 pp. isbn 1-56098-889-4.)

This book examines the original cohort of Peace Corps volunteers during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. As such, it is a history of ideology and political policy confronting culture and personal experience: the intentions of the agency’s leaders versus the motivations of the recruits; a heavy-handed training regime versus life and work overseas; how the volunteers changed and, very tentatively, how they changed America.

The ideology of the Peace Corps represented the blend of good-government idealism and progressive imperialism characterizing Cold War liberals before the Vietnam War. As policy, it was a high-profile bauble, used by John F. Kennedy in 1960 to signal youthful vigor and ignored afterwards. What made the Peace Corps more than a Potemkin village was the crusading sincerity of its first chief, Sargent Shriver, and his deputies, who recruited white, middle-class “B.A. generalists” as a new generation of pioneers. As Fritz Fischer underlines, the actual work done by these supposed jacks-of-all-trades (a grab bag of teaching, neighborhood fix-it projects, and community organizing) was secondary to their presumably inspirational presence in the Third World. Where the Soviets, Chinese, and Europeans sent doctors, engineers, and other experts, we deliberately sent unskilled youth, as if to prove the superiority of American life and culture.

By exploring the New Frontiersmen’s basic assumptions about who the volunteers should be and what they should do, Making Them Like Us usefully clarifies the relation of the volunteer archetype to liberal developmentalism and modernization theory, with its assumptions about the “white man’s burden.” But as the author moves into the specifics of the volunteer experience—training, deployment in-country, subjective responses to the exotic, relations with the bureaucracy, return home—the narrative becomes increasingly abstract. This loss of focus and precision stems from two problems: first, a lack of engagement with the full implications of the New Frontier as global counterinsurgency; second, the limitations of his sources and methodology.

Regarding the first, it is notable that the Vietnam War is barely mentioned. The worldwide rejection of America’s hegemony must have had a decisive impact upon how volunteers perceived their role and their reception by “host nationals,” but the politics of Vietnam—indeed, most politics—are absent from the book. Lacking a sense of change over time, even among the volunteers themselves, their experiences take on a static quality, as if those who joined the Peace Corps, the world from which they came and to which they returned, and their engagement with foreigners hardly changed between 1962 and 1970.

The avoidance of the larger political frame feeds into a lack of specificity in the evidence documenting the volunteer experience—compilations of random quotations from the in-house magazine, the Volunteer, in-house reports, and private correspondence. The author chose not to do any oral histories of former volunteers, and his account suffers from this absence. Thus, while this book is a useful start in interrogating the internal life of the Peace Corps, considerably more work needs to be done to deepen that analysis.

BY: Van Gosse