From Chapter Eight, “The Specter of Vietnam”
On January 6, 1966, two Peace Corps officials embarked on a secret, reckless trip to Vietnam. The goal of their mission was to find out whether Vietnam might be a suitable country for a Peace Corps program. That goal was foolish and fanciful. President Lyndon Johnson had already dispatched thousands of combat troops to South Vietnam and ordered the continual bombing of North Vietnam. Antiwar rallies were already dominating campus life on universities throughout the United States. Peace Corps Volunteers were joining protests. Any attempt to place Volunteers in Vietnam would have crippled the Peace Corps. Even news of the exploratory trip would have damaged the Peace Corps badly.
The two officials were Warren Wiggins, deputy director of the Peace Corps, and Ross J. Pritchard, director of Far East regional operations. Within the Peace Corps, Wiggins and Pritchard were known as the most fervent players of the numbers game—they relentlessly promoted massive new programs without worrying about meticulous planning. But it was not their idea to go to Vietnam.
Wiggins, who died in 2007, never discussed the Vietnam adventure publicly. But Pritchard, retired in Tennessee, says they flew to Vietnam because Johnson ordered them to go. Pritchard says he and Wiggins knew that a program in Vietnam “would ruin the Peace Corps, absolutely wreck it. Because of the mood on campuses, it would cut us off at the knees.” But Bill Moyers, the former Peace Corps deputy director who was now White House press secretary, told them that Johnson insisted they go. According to Pritchard, “We went with great, great reluctance.”
They should have resisted. But Johnson’s insistence came at a time would not take over the agency until March 1.
Despite their reluctance, Wiggins and Pritchard sent a rather enthusiastic cable to the U.S. embassy in Saigon announcing their arrival. The cable, written by Pritchard, boasted, “Peace Corps elsewhere and its ability to provide significant numbers of Volunteers suggests there may be a useful role in Vietnam.”
“While it is important for the Peace Corps to maintain an independent, nonpolitical stance in order to avoid jeopardizing its worldwide acceptance,” the cable went on, “the ability of the Peace Corps to work with and attract host country participation may have potential in Vietnam now and more especially in the future.”
The two officials provided a cover story and assured their hosts that the Peace Corps was prepared to lie about the mission. “We desire to avoid publicity for this visit,” they said. “If questioned here [Washington], the Peace Corps will take the position that both men are in vicinity Southeast Asia on business and interested in exploring possible role for Peace Corps Volunteers and/or other international Volunteers with refugee work in Vietnam.” There was no need to invoke the cover story. The press never spotted the adventure. In fact, hardly anyone in the Peace Corps itself knew that Wiggins and Pritchard had left for Vietnam.
In Saigon, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. welcomed them and promised that the U.S. embassy would show them whatever they wanted to see. Wiggins and Pritchard looked at six sites, including the battleground city of Hue. In each case, their plane would spiral downward while landing to avoid gunfire.
Wiggins and Pritchard decided to explore neighboring Laos as well. Their reception from Ambassador William H. Sullivan in Vientiane was far different. Sullivan was supervising what would become known as the “secret war” in Laos. CIA agents were leading guerilla units against rebels and North Vietnamese troops. U.S. military pilots, wearing civilian clothes, were flying missions in support of the Laotian government.
Sullivan did not want independent-minded Peace Corps Volunteers stepping into the cauldron.
“Sullivan was absolutely adamant that this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard of,” Pritchard recalls. “He chewed our asses out.”
After their ten-day trip, Wiggins and Pritchard wrote a report. They could not resist sounding expansive about the future. “Under different circumstances, you could put a thousand Volunteers into Vietnam,” they wrote, according to Pritchard. But in view of the dangers of the war and the backlash that a Vietnam program would unleash elsewhere in the Peace Corps, they strongly recommended against launching a program there.
The conclusions of the report did not matter in any case. Vaughn, the new director, made it clear: No Volunteers would go to Vietnam, no matter what the report recommended, no matter what Johnson demanded.
At Vaughn’s swearing-in ceremony at the White House, President Johnson made his case for the Peace Corps in Vietnam someday. While soldiers struggled to halt aggression by North Vietnam and Viet Cong insurgents and provide security in South Vietnam, he said, “other workers of peace . . . must lay the foundation for economic and social progress.” He counted on the Peace Corps to do just that in the future. “The day, I hope, will soon come,” the president said, “when the Peace Corps will be there, too. It must somehow find the day and the time that it can go and make its contribution when peace is assured.”
In at least four meetings during the next three years, Johnson pressured Vaughn to send Volunteers to Vietnam. Johnson promised they would work only in the “pacified” areas. The president said he would be satisfied even with a program of only ten to fifteen Volunteers. But Vaughn turned him down each time.
Yet even as it kept out of Vietnam, the Peace Corps could not escape the war. Gerald Berreman, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, warned students in 1965, “The government wants the Peace Corps to be a playpen for activist students to keep them out of the kitchen while the adults are cooking up the war in Vietnam.” He urged them to stay out of the Peace Corps and protest the war instead.
Some idealistic Volunteers hoped that the leaders of the Peace Corps would stand up to such criticism by forthrightly defying President Johnson and denouncing the war themselves. Marlyn Dalsimer, a former Volunteer in the Ivory Coast, wrote a letter to Jack Vaughn. The letter, Dalsimer recalled later, told Vaughn that “I had observed his never having made a public statement about the war in Vietnam. I told him that as head of an organization with ‘peace’ in its name, I expected him to. We always hoped the Peace Corps would be different.” The Peace Corps was
different, but not so different that its director could oppose the president openly and keep his job.
In 1965, an article opposing the war appeared in a Volunteer newspaper in Malawi. The article was written by Paul Theroux, a Volunteer teacher who would become one of the most distinguished American novelists of the next half-century. The article infuriated U.S. Ambassador Sam P. Gilstrap. He ordered the expulsion of the Peace Corps director, Michael McCone, for allowing the newspaper to publish a diatribe against U.S. policy. (Theroux, chastened but not otherwise punished, was later thrown out by the Malawi government for delivering letters for friends who were opponents of the dictator Hastings Kuzuma Banda.)
As the war intensified and the awful casualties mounted, Vaughn was forced to field protests from every side of the Peace Corps—even from his own staff. Kirby Jones, the Volunteer who helped write the letter of protest to Lyndon Johnson about the Dominican invasion, worked for the Peace Corps in 1967 as the Ecuadorean desk officer. Allard Lowenstein, the militant anti–Vietnam War protester and future congressman, persuaded Jones to join him in drafting a protest letter to President Johnson. Jones then started collecting signatures from returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Vaughn asked him to stop, but Jones refused. “Then he [Vaughn] went through this long song and dance,” Jones recalled, “about how long it had taken him to establish credibility in the White House, since Johnson had always thought of the Peace Corps as a Kennedy creation, full of Kennedyites, and that this was going to adversely affect the relationship between the Peace Corps and the White House.”
“You’re going to have to fire me, because I’m not going to stop,” Jones said
“I’m not going to fire you,” said Vaughn.
The most publicized protest case involved a Volunteer who taught music at the University of Concepcion, in Chile. Bruce Murray and more than ninety fellow Volunteers signed a letter in 1967 protesting the bombing of North Vietnam and calling for negotiations to end the war. The Volunteers planned to pay for the publication of the letter as an advertisement in the New York Times
. But after local Peace Corps officials discovered what was going on, Ambassador Ralph Dungan warned the Volunteers they could be thrown out of the Peace Corps if the letter were published. A similar warning came from Vaughn.
Faced with these threats, the Volunteers abandoned their project. But Murray was angered by Vaughn’s restrictions on the rights of the Volunteers to speak out on American issues. In a letter to Vaughn, Murray accepted the stricture that Volunteers “should not meddle in the politics of the host country.” But he argued that this restriction should not prevent Volunteers from speaking out on “international policies of the United States which may be of interest to the host country.” He sent a copy of this letter to the New York Times
, but the newspaper did not publish it.
The news agency United Press International (UPI) found out about the controversy and released an article describing the suppression of Volunteer antiwar protests by the Peace Corps. The article was published in the newspaper El Sur
of Concepcion. Murray felt that the UPI article did not state the position of the Volunteers fully, and he sent El Sur
a Spanish translation of his letter to Vaughn. The Chilean newspaper published it.
The Peace Corps retribution was swift. Country director Paul Bell ordered Murray home, ostensibly for “consultations.” When Murray arrived in Washington, he found that no consultations were scheduled. He had already been dismissed from the Peace Corps.
“I was very distraught,” Murray recalled later. “I really loved Chile and wanted to stay another year . . . . People at the university were upset, too, because my dismissal was a contradiction of everything the Peace Corps had been saying—that we were independent agents and not called upon to toe the government line. I had voiced a protest and was gone—in the middle of a semester.”
The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case, and Murray filed suit against the Peace Corps for wrongful dismissal. Federal Judge Raymond Pettine in Providence heard the case and ruled against the Peace Corps. While the judge understood that the Peace Corps had “an interest in remaining apolitical with respect to host country politics,” he called the dismissal “a shocking, unconstitutional act on the part of the Peace Corps.” The government, in the judge’s view, could prove no national interest in preventing Murray from speaking out “about matters of vital interest to him as a human being, a United States citizen, and a Peace Corps Volunteer.”
In the wake of the Murray controversy, Vaughn retreated. He set down regulations, revised them, and, in any case, no longer disciplined anyone. As the war ground on, killing many young Americans and many more Vietnamese, the pressure on Volunteers to cry out intensified. Vaughn decided to trust in the good sense of the Volunteers.
A formula of sorts evolved. The Peace Corps administration agreed that the Volunteers, unlike members of the armed forces, had the right to speak out and protest U.S. policy if they saw fit. In turn, the Peace Corps wanted the Volunteers to accept two limitations on their freedom of speech: They must not interfere in the internal politics of the host country, and their actions must not harm the Peace Corps.
But the formula was fragile, dependent on interpretation. When Murray was dismissed, a spokesman for the Peace Corps had said, “The Vietnam War is a major issue in Chile, and it has been the policy of the Peace Corps not to get involved in any local political issue.” This, of course, was a good deal of a stretch—it would be difficult to find any controversial U.S. foreign policy that was not a political issue in most other countries.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from When the World Calls by Stanley Meisler. Copyright © 2011 by Stanley Meisler. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.