I had (and still have) an abiding love for the Peace Corps—a passion I shared with Sargent Shriver—that manifested in many ways. I enjoyed bumping along for hours in a shock-free Jeep across rocky terrain to reach remote volunteers. Arriving in Katmandu, Nepal, after thirty hours of flying only to be escorted to a trailhead for a two-day trek to a Himalayan village thrilled me. I couldn't believe how lucky I was.
I often spoke about love as part of the Peace Corp formula, and I received some ribbing for it; such talk didn't become a bureaucrat in those days. I equated love with commitment, the kind of dedication that volunteers needed to work compassionately and productively with human weaknesses, societal flaws, and bureaucratic ineptitude.
Shriver's and my affection for the Peace Corps was a tough love. In 1964 when Panama City exploded in anti-American riots that spread throughout the country, some Peace Corps volunteers and staff took refuge in the Canal Zone. Shriver ordered that they either return to their posts or lose their jobs.
We made sure, with frugal allowances, that volunteers lived in conditions little better than the people they served. Volunteers could not travel home during their tours. In addition to abolishing hostels, I banned beards—a wildly unpopular move in the sixties—and required that volunteers dress respectfully. I had zero tolerance for any staffer or volunteer who gave the Peace Corps a bad name.
In most cases, the volunteers went above and beyond the demands of their jobs, and our role at headquarters was simply to back them up. When Omar Torrijos and his co-conspirator, Boris Martinez, overthrew Panamanian President Arnulfo Arias in 1968, a series of protests erupted across the country. The most violent reaction occurred among pro-Arnulfo peasants in Chiriquí province, where a number of Peace Corps volunteers lived.
Torrijos sent his brutal enforcer, Manuel Noriega, to silence the protests. Noriega had no peer when it came to suppression: his draconian methods ranged from pistol-whipping and beating with cattle prods to slow beheadings and tossing clergymen from helicopters. The vicious attacks against peasant protesters in Chiriquí quickly got the attention of several Peace Corps volunteers, who stood up as defenders of their abused friends and hosts. Major Noriega arrested two of them, a young Peace Corps couple from Minnesota named Susan and John Freivalds.
Since their rural road had been washed out, it took Noriega's goons two days to march the handcuffed Freivalds twenty miles in the mud to a jail in the provincial capital of David. John said later, "You don't argue with a man wearing four hand grenades on his chest." When word reached me that the couple was being held incommunicado and without charge in a Panamanian jail, I was livid. I called Boris Martinez and told him that President Lyndon Johnson wanted to know what the jailed couple had done in violation of Panamanian law.
"There are no charges against them. We just want them out of the country immediately and the problem is solved." The harder I pushed Martinez, the more arrogant and evasive he became. When I insisted on speaking to Omar Torrijos, an acquaintance of mine, I was told that he did not wish to become involved in such a petty matter.
"Petty, my ass," was my reply in Panamanian Spanish.
The Panamanian government had interpreted the Freivalds' stand for their tortured friends as intervention in Panamanian affairs, as indeed it was. Though they had violated protocol, I would have been disappointed in the volunteers had they not acted as they did. After a couple of days the Freivalds were released unharmed—except by prison vermin—and allowed to return to their village. When I spoke with Torrijos about the incident later, he replied dispassionately that Noriega had been instructed to pacify the countryside, a mission supported by the US Army. The Peace Corps was expelled from Panama three years later.
Occasionally, strained relations with a host country arose for completely apolitical reasons. In the Philippines, a volunteer fell in love with the mayor's wife in the town where he taught English, and they decided to elope. They had barely made it out of town when the mayor caught wind of the plan and set out in hot pursuit. There arose a flurry of debate at our office: Should we get involved? What was the embassy's role? Even President Marcos became aware of the situation as the mayor tried desperately to prevent the two from leaving the country.
After speaking with our ambassador to the Philippines, we decided not to intervene. To the consternation of a distraught mayor, the couple boarded their flight to San Francisco. I don't know if they lived happily ever after, but I did know that we could never send another Peace Corps volunteer to that town.
Despite the pressure on volunteers to perform under the toughest conditions and some volunteers' impression of Washington as demanding and out of touch, the staff at headquarters were truly devoted to them. When a young volunteer in India became sick with infectious hepatitis in the summer of 1968, the staff sent him to Breach Candy Hospital in Bombay. Shortly thereafter, the volunteer slipped into a coma, and the Peace Corps went into overdrive to help.
Our medical director, Stan Scheyer, immediately called one of our National Advisory Council board members, Dr. David Rutstein at Harvard Medical School. David told us about Dr. Charles Trey, a colleague who had developed a treatment for liver failure involving exchange transfusion, removing all of the patient's blood and replacing it with donor blood. When we asked, Dr. Trey said he would fly to India immediately.
We booked Dr. Trey on Pan American's flight 1 from New York City, stopping in Calcutta on its around-the-world trip. At the airport, Pan Am informed the South Africa-born doctor that he would not be granted an Indian visa. Since our ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, was a friend of the Peace Corps, we asked the Pan Am officials to board Dr. Trey and promised we would resolve the issue in-flight. Ambassador Bowles pulled the right strings in New Delhi and our doctor landed in Bombay just two days after we had received word about the sick volunteer.
By the time Dr. Trey arrived at the hospital, the volunteer had lost ninety percent of his liver function, and his chances were grim. Peace Corps volunteers in India donated the necessary blood, but Trey couldn't do the full transfusion with the primitive equipment at the Bombay hospital. He performed a partial transfusion, but the volunteer's condition worsened.
Washington staff scrambled and discovered that the hospital ship USS Hope was anchored off the coast of Sri Lanka, called Ceylon in those days. We wired the ship to ask if they had facilities to perform a complete transfusion. The answer came back, "Yes." We chartered a Viscount four-engine plane and flew the volunteer with Dr. Trey from Bombay to Colombo, Ceylon. Trey performed the procedure and it worked: the volunteer's liver function improved, and eventually he flew home to California to recuperate. It was a hair-raising experience for all of us but ultimately a good one for the Peace Corps. It showed volunteers who may have doubted the commitment from Washington that we could and would go all out for them.
My worst moments were the cases of volunteers we didn't have the opportunity to save. The death of a volunteer abroad usually resulted from an accident, most often a car or motorbike crash. Thirty-three volunteers died during the three years I was director, each one a terrible blow. Parents worried constantly about their children in the Peace Corps; in 1966 an internal report showed that one third of Peace Corps dropouts could be attributed to "parental distress."
I was flip about worried moms when I began my recruiting trips in the spring of 1966, saying that the only thing mothers had to lose "was their apron strings." I sobered up quickly after my first phone call to the parents of a volunteer who had died abroad. There was nothing worse than that, and we took great pains to prevent it whenever we could.
If the rough-and-tumble volunteer interactions were the joy of my job, the annual hostility of congressional budget hearings was the pain. I could not duplicate the political performance of Sargent Shriver, who could sway even the biggest ignoramus without seeming argumentative and bear any insult with a smile. I angered quickly, was offended easily, and generally lacked patience for the legislative process.
Regular sessions with Congress, usually dealing with budget approval, almost always became contentious due to one or another strongly biased or misinformed politician. Many of the members of Congress at that time had little knowledge of the Third World—they didn't travel there and didn't understand the cultures, the living conditions, or the mentality.
One of my dust-ups with Congress came as a result of a 1967 New York Times article about husband and wife volunteers assisting doctors at an Indian vasectomy clinic. They were helping to reduce the clinic's infection rate by ensuring standard aseptic practices. The article stated that the wife had assisted in more than 400 vasectomies, alarming many members of Congress who felt that the US government should have no involvement with family planning and certainly not sterilization. My refusal to recall the volunteers, as many had demanded, enraged Rep. Clement Zablocki of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In one budget hearing he ranted, "I am afraid if you do bring them home you will promote them!"
The family planning incident reminded us at the Peace Corps, an organization only seven years old by then, how little some members of Congress still understood or agreed with our mission and philosophy. As I wrote to Rep. Zablocki at the time, "India's great problems are too little food and too many people. The Peace Corps has always taken pride in being the one United States government overseas agency that is responsive to the maximum extent possible to host country requests for assistance. The Indian government request for help in family planning was genuine and persistent, and I think the Peace Corps was right in responding to it."
The program in India had begun under Sargent Shriver. A devout Catholic, he had agreed to help the family planning operation because the Indian government had made such a compelling case for it. Within the Peace Corps, however, Shriver prohibited the distribution of contraception to volunteers. Most of the Peace Corps doctors discreetly provided it anyway. When I became director, I allowed contraception for volunteers and, if an abortion was indicated, it was provided.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Sargent Shriver's wife and President Kennedy's sister, strongly objected to our work in the vasectomy clinic in India. After the Times article came out, Eunice began a campaign with her brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, to remove me from the Peace Corps. They made a good team; Bobby and I had an acrimonious history, and Eunice had never warmed to me. At a party the Shrivers gave for me when I became director, Eunice had described me to her children as "the man who is going to undo all the good your father has done at the Peace Corps."
Shriver, as usual, saved the day by talking his relatives down from their fury over the India program. Though the Peace Corps never admitted wrongdoing, the volunteers were reassigned from clinic work to training and education.
A standard complaint from Congress was that the Peace Corps robbed America of fine young teachers at a time when our inner cities needed them badly. The fact is that the Peace Corps returned to our country four or five teachers for every one it took. The typical volunteer with a bachelor of arts from an outstanding school had at the beginning of service a pretty low opinion of teaching secondary school—no future, no money, no excitement. After teaching children in the slums of Bogotá, that volunteer returned inspired to earn a certificate to teach in the US.
There was no greater favor we could do our country than to bring these bright, experienced, high-thyroid young adults back from the Peace Corps to teach in secondary schools at home. While I was director, fifty percent of returned volunteers went back to school for an advanced degree; forty percent went on to serve their country in education, the nonprofit world, or the Foreign Service.
Seeing the need to build support and understanding for the Peace Corps in high places, including Congress, Sargent Shriver had created an outside body of informal advisors and advocates called the Peace Corps National Advisory Council. The council was first chaired by Vice President Johnson and later by Hubert Humphrey; both men were adept at keeping the diverse and prestigious group engaged and proud. One early board member was the famous IBM president Thomas Watson Jr.
The council convened at Peace Corps headquarters once or twice a year for a sweeping update on volunteer heroics and a glimpse of political celebrities who dropped in for photo ops. After five years of standard beltway fare, and after losing Shriver, some council members grew restless. Eager to get them out of Washington and closer to the volunteers, we organized a trip to the Peace Corps's Puerto Rican Outward Bound training camp. Two full days of intensive exposure to the staff, trainees, and mosquitoes gave the council a taste of the real thing.
One of the trainees present for a Q&A with council members was the future senator from Connecticut, Chris Dodd, bound for the Dominican Republic. Even then a confident and opinionated orator, Dodd launched into a tirade that I sensed he'd been preparing for days. He criticized in the most brutal way every aspect of Peace Corps training: the skills training, the quality of staff, and the language instruction.
Despite his deficient training, Dodd excelled in his post at Benito Moncion as a community development volunteer. His first project was organizing the prostitutes in his province. Legend has it Dodd's project slogans included, "You don't have to take it lying down anymore! Better prices and better beds equal greater dignity."
The idealism, indignation, and ingenuity displayed by Dodd and other volunteers really turned me on; this was how the world would be changed. For all those fervent protesters of war who greeted me on college campuses, I could think of no greater outlet than the Peace Corps. Here was an opportunity to do something important and difficult, to put their skills and talents where their rhetoric was.
Working for an agency of peace during one of the most turbulent and hostile periods in our history seemed, in a way, perfect for a lover and fighter like me. From my youth as a muskrat trapper in Michigan to my discovery of French in high school and my devotion to the sport of boxing, my life's path has pulled me between the violent and the romantic. From fighting in the Pacific as a Marine in World War II to touring the world's remotest corners with the Peace Corps, I came from war to peace.
In Mexico as a professional boxer I learned Spanish and became a lifelong lover of everything Latin—not to be confused with a Latin lover—which led to a lively career with the Foreign Service in Central and South America. In my later years, I stumbled into one last battle of greater proportions than any before it: environmental conservation. Turning green took me back to Latin America and also to my Midwestern farming roots.
Never planned or calculated, my career's trajectory does owe something to my talent for getting fired. Its length I attribute to daily shadowboxing and good luck surviving assassination attempts. Though seemingly indiscriminate, my jobs—more than twenty-five of them—have always kept me close to the fight, which is right where I like to be.
Excerpted with Permission from Kill the Gringo: The Life of Jack Hood Vaughn. Copyright @ 2017 Jane Constantineau. Published by Rare Bird Books. All rights reserved.