The Peace Corps: Making Love, Not War

The United States has always been about liberty and justice for all. So says our Pledge of Allegiance. But it occurs to me that we Americans have taken this pledge beyond our borders in a pugilistic manner, with the U.S. perennially engaged in war and conflicts all over the world in pursuit of these ideals.

I was born at the advent of World War II and lived almost my entire life seeing my country involved in one international engagement after another, from German/Japanese wars to the Korean Conflict, then the Vietnam War interspersed with the Cold War with Russia and, in between, military invasions in Santo Domingo and Panama and other unruly territories.
Cuba was famously on the list but failed due to the U.S.’s botched-up support and dependence on a ragtag army of exiled Cuban freedom fighters.

We are more than 10 years into wars in the Middle East costing us trillions of dollars and thousands of young American lives, and regardless of what our Washington leaders say, there is no show of an imminent exit, with escalation a probable necessity.
Libya was our latest intervention. We might describe it as only dropping bombs to protect the innocent, but it sure looks like war.
U.S. journalist Fareed Zakaria said in a Playboy Magazine interview, “The rhetoric of Washington is absolutely pernicious – rhetoric that views the outside world as evil. In Washington, it’s all-chest-pumping machismo.
“Our foreign policy is trying to convert people to nirvana – that is, our way – or beating them up, humiliating and punishing them,” Zakaria said.
It may be naiveté or wishful thinking, but why can’t we pursue our policies more like the U.S. Peace Corps, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary of promoting American ideals without threats, bayonet rattling or confrontations?
Maybe it’s because the Peace Corps, true to its mis-sion, is about love, not war, by providing or teaching oth-ers useful skills, perhaps the best way of championing Americanism. No one has ever accused Peace Corps members of being gun-toting CIA moles or propagandists for America policy.
Most people have forgotten and many of the now generation don’t even know that a Peace Corps exists because it works in relative obscurity, unattached to the diplomatic corps and other U.S. international agencies in the field.
I am a partisan of the Peace Corps because I saw its performance when I went abroad to study in South America. For the money, it’s the best investment the U.S. has made in foreign relations when you consider the alternative, with our seemingly endless foreign conflicts and intrigues costing us trillions.
The Peace Corps budget in 2011 is $400 million, the same as in 2010. The Department of Defense Budget for the same period is $725 billion, with supplementary infusions expected.
U.S. casualties in today’s wars total 5,885 and counting. The last Peace Corps casualty, which is rare, was a 24-year-old volunteer from Florida killed last year in the African kingdom of Lesotho in a failed robbery attempt.

The current number of Peace Corps volunteers and trainees is 8,655 – 60 percent female and 40 percent male. The average age is 28, and 7 percent are 50 years or older. Ninety percent have at least an undergraduate degree.
Volunteers are now working in 77 countries. The total number of vol-unteers to date is 200,000-plus who have worked in 139 countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America, and largely on education and health projects.
Minorities – 547 of them Latinos – comprise 19 percent of the corps. Californian Gaddi Vásquez was the first Hispanic director, from 2002-06. The current director is African-American, Aaron S. Williams.
President John F. Kennedy is credited with originating the Peace Corps idea in a 1960 campaign speech to University of Michigan students and built on it in his “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” inaugural address.
However, it was then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey Jr. who first floated it in 1957, introducing a bill that failed, he said, because some of his colleagues considered it a “silly and unworkable idea.”
Before him, Sen. Brian McMahon, D-Conn., had pro-posed “an army of young Americans to act as ‘mission-aries of democracy’” that also went nowhere.
I was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News when I was sent to spend a week in El Paso with the first con-tingent of Peace Corps volunteers, training for assign-ment to Tanganyika, now Tanzania.
They were a group of fuzzy-tailed, excitable young Americans preparing as if in a Marine boot camp for the wilds of Africa – and some wondering if they should pack a tux for any formal diplomatic events to which they would surely be invited.
I hung around with a group of Peace Corps volun-teers when I went to Lima, Peru, in 1965 to study on an Inter-America Press Association fellowship, and I can vouch for their commitment and the thinking that they could and indeed were making a difference, even if in small strides.
Not all was wine and roses early in the Peace Corps adventure, with some dubiety, as in Nigeria, which was offended when a volunteer described her surroundings as “primitive and living in squalor.” Some Africans feared the program was a scheme to foster neocolonialism.

In Colombia, some citizens said the volunteers were teaching the farmers how to cultivate coca crops and tooting it up with their hosts.
The fact that the Peace Corps is still around 50 years later – and prospering – speaks for its success and the commitment of American volunteers of all ages who have shown there are alternatives to guns and bombs to carry out our mission.