The Peace Corps and the Vietnam War: Effects of the Conflict on the Peace Corps

In 1965, the United States expanded its role in South Vietnam into full-fledged combat. [1] By the time that the United States withdrew its troops in 1973, the country had divided between the conflict’s supporters and those who opposed it. During the war, a significant number of Peace Corps Volunteers were among this opposition. The war would impact their experience with the Peace Corps, as well as the organization itself. Two of the main ways that the Vietnam War impacted the Peace Corps and its Volunteers were through the draft and Volunteers’ various acts of protest.

The Peace Corps and the Vietnam War Draft

One of the main ways that the Vietnam War impacted the Peace Corps and its Volunteers was through the draft. Starting in 1964, the United States expanded its peacetime draft to provide soldiers for its escalating conflict. [2] As the U.S. presence in Vietnam increased, the draft would impact the Peace Corps in two key ways. First, men eligible for the draft increasingly utilized the Peace Corps as a way to avoid military service if they were opposed to the war. This avoidance took multiple forms. For example, Dan Krummes, who volunteered in Senegal between 1972 and 1974, received Conscientious Objector status. As a part of maintaining this status, he was required to do community service. The Peace Corps was an option for fulfilling the requirement, which he chose. [3]

<img src="Krummes_0001" alt="Dan Krummes standing under a tree by a school.">

Dan Krummes outside the school where he taught in Senegal in 1973.

Another route many draft-eligible men took was to quietly apply for the Peace Corps without Conscientious Objector status and not state their true intentions, since the Peace Corps was in the process of strongly pushing back against accusations that the organization was full of “draft dodgers.” [4] For instance, Guatemala Group XI, which served between 1968 and 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War, had several members who mentioned years later that they joined to avoid the conflict. Peter Shack, for example, had completed law school and could no longer avoid the draft through continuing his education. Therefore, he applied to both the Peace Corps and the Foreign Service, choosing the Peace Corps when he was accepted to both. [5]

Second, a controversy erupted between the Peace Corps and the military over the deferred status of Peace Corps Volunteers. Draft-eligible men who were serving in the Peace Corps, no matter their opinion of the war, joined because they thought that they would be able to receive a deferment from the draft in order to serve their full two-year term. The Peace Corps secured this arrangement during its creation in 1961, as the government deemed their work to be in the national interest. However, as the war continued, multiple male Volunteers received notice of being drafted while serving. A handful of local draft boards chose not to grant the deferment, forcing the Volunteers to end their service early and report back to the United States. [6]

One of these incidents occurred in Honduras, where the affected Volunteer group was so incensed that five members wrote to the Peace Corps Volunteer, a magazine for Volunteers. The publication featured their joint letter in its November 1967 issue. Four members of the Honduras group had received word that they were in the process of being called for military service from their draft boards, despite appeals from Peace Corps staff. The authors (three men and two women) included in their arguments that the process of removing Volunteers in the middle of their work could only be detrimental to the relationship between the United States and host countries. In addition, such incidents showed that the United States was a country much more supportive of war than peace. [7]

The Peace Corps began to take a more active role in working with Volunteers to help them continue their service, with director Jack Vaughn announcing that he would even be writing letters of recommendation for Volunteers who sometimes needed to convince not only their local board but the State and Presidential Appeal Boards as well. [8] The organization also refused to accept the Volunteers most likely to be drafted who had not already received a deferment. These strategies would help to alleviate the issue. [9] However, discussions of the complicated relationship between the Peace Corps and draft boards continued to feature in the Peace Corps Volunteer through November 1969.

Protesting Volunteers

The Vietnam War also impacted the Peace Corps and its members when Volunteers around the world began to protest the conflict, forcing the Peace Corps, a government organization, to respond. A notable example is that of Volunteer Bruce Murray. In 1967, he wrote a letter to the New York Times protesting the war during his service in Chile, which the newspaper did not publish. Murray, who was serving in Chile, sent it to a local paper, which did publish it. At that, the Peace Corps terminated his service without giving him an opportunity to contest it and sent him home. Once there, his local board drafted him and denied his application for Conscientious Objector status, despite the fact that he had a deferment. He then sued the Peace Corps over the incident, winning in December 1969. [10]

After this very public fiasco began, the Peace Corps relented but was still much more likely to tolerate intergroup forms of protest. The organization tried to strike a balancing act between Volunteers’ freedom of speech and the Peace Corps’ preferred apolitical stance for Volunteers. For example, Jeff Fletcher, who volunteered in Bolivia, was a regional editor for the Pues magazine, written by Bolivia Volunteers for their peers. The February-March 1969 issue included multiple articles stating clear opposition to the Vietnam War. This included a work of satire suggesting that the United States replace its current troops with mercenary armies and bounty hunters before arguing that all war should end. [11] However, the authors and editors of Pues, and other Volunteers creating similar anti-war media, were not subject to punishment from the Peace Corps.

A form of protest that went very smoothly for both Volunteers and the Peace Corps was the participation of Volunteers around the world in the Moratorium Day protests of October 15, 1969. On that day, over two million Americans across the country assembled in opposition to the war. [12] Protesting Volunteers included Bob and Susan Irwin, who were serving in Malawi at the time. They wrote a letter to President Nixon, describing the difficulty they had as Peace Corps members representing a country that was demonstrating much greater interest in war than in peaceful international service. [13] Richard Nixon’s presidential administration chose to push back against Americans’ protests as a whole. However, Peace Corps Director Joe Blatchford neither punished Volunteers nor changed the organization’s stance on protest or the Vietnam War. [14]

<img src="access-3.png" alt="15 Oct, 1969 Dear President Nixon, We are United States Peace Corps Volunteers and we are finding it increasingly difficult to explain to people we work with that both the words United States and the word peace can be used together. Probably one of the questions we are most often asked is, “How can you expect us to believe that you as citizens of the United States are here to promote the cause of peace when we can clearly see what you are doing in Vietnam.” General disappointment and disagreement with present United States policies is most probably one of the reasons the Peace Corps has been asked to leave Malawi. We therefore ask you, Mr. President, to demonstrate to the peoples of the world that the greatest nation on earth is truly interested in peace. Please, before it is entirely too late, begin to take positive steps toward ending the war in Vietnam. Only then will we be able to proudly and with a free conscience call ourselves United States Peace Corps Volunteers.">

The Moratorium Day letter written by the Andersons.

Some group protests among Volunteers caused other types of difficulties for the Peace Corps, especially if they happened in a more public or internationally-facing way. One example of this was the brief Volunteer protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan upon the occasion of Vice President Spiro Agnew’s January 6, 1970 visit. Designed by the Volunteers in such a way to register their dissent while not creating an international incident, the American media nevertheless heavily covered the protest in connection to local Afghan demonstrations. Members of the media included Arnold Zeitlin, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer now working for the Associated Press, who wrote an article about the incident. [15] This led to the Peace Corps having to respond to national pushback against the incident and defend the Volunteers under scrutiny. However, the initial action only took place because the Volunteers had explicitly worked to make their protest small and only directed towards Agnew. Volunteer protest against the Vietnam War, and the Peace Corps’ various reactions to it, would have a defining impact on the organization until the end of the war.

The consequences of the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam very much extended to the Peace Corps. During the conflict, a significant number of Peace Corps Volunteers joined the Americans opposed to the war, but the war would also impact all Volunteers and the organization as a whole. Two central ways that the Vietnam War impacted the Peace Corps were in relationship to the draft and opposing Volunteers’ various forms of anti-war protest.

 

 

 

[1] “Overview of the Vietnam War,” Digital History, University of Houston, 2021, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraid=18&smtid=1.

[2] “The Military Draft During the Vietnam War,” Resistance and Revolution: The Anti-Vietnam War Movement at the University of Michigan, 1965-1972, Michigan in the World, accessed December 14, 2022, https://michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits/show/exhibit/draft_protests/the-military-draft-during-the-.

[3] Douglas S. Brookes, “Daniel S. Krummes: A Brief Biography,” Unpublished biographical note, American University Archives, Washington, D.C.

[4] Molly Geidel, “Ambiguous Liberation: The Vietnam War and the Committee of Returned Volunteers,” in Peace Corps Fantasies: How Development Shaped the Global Sixties, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 160-162. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt16ptn2s.8.

[5] Shack, Peter. Interview by Douglas Noble. Peter Shack.mp4†, TheirStory, American University Special Collections, https://theirstory.io/stories/6193d32472f16a0005b5d9f7/author/. Accessed 14 December 2022.

[6] “A Look At PCVs Who Face the Draft,” Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 7 No. 4 (March 1969), 20, American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2348.

[7] Summary from Romania Green, et al, Letter to the Peace Corps Volunteer, Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 6 No. 1 (November 1967), 21. American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2334.

[8] “Peace Corps to intervene for Volunteers Seeking Deferments,” Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 7 No. 2 (December 1967), 24, American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2335.

[9] “PCVs Who Face the Draft,” 21.

[10] Summary from “The Bruce Murray Case,” Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 8 No. 3/4 (March-April 1970), 11, American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2359.

[11] Mickey McGuire, “A Modest Proposal,” Pues No. 3 (February-March 1969), 3. American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://auislandora.wrlc.org/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A3156.

[12] “Moratorium Day: The day that millions of Americans marched,” BBC News, 15 October 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-49893239.

[13] Bill Irwin and Susan Anderson to Richard Nixon, 15 October 1969, copy of letter, American University Archives, Washington, D.C. In response, they received a form letter and packet describing the reasons why the United States was fighting in Vietnam.

[14] “Volunteers Join Moratorium with Petitions, Vigils,” Peace Corps Volunteer Vol. 7 No. 13 (December 1969), 2-3. American University Archives, Washington, D.C. https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2357.

[15] Summary from, “Protest in Afghanistan (A Case Study),” Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 8 No. 3/4 (March-April 1970), 13, 22. American University Archives, Washington, D.C., https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/peacecorps%3A2359. Outside of a quote included in the Peace Corps Volunteer, a copy of Zeitlin’s article could not be located. Correspondence and mementos from Zeitlin’s service in Ghana from 1961-1963 are also in the Peace Corps Community Archive.

A Peace Corps Murder Mystery

Happy Halloween! In honor of the upcoming holiday, today we present to you the story of a special Peace Corps-themed whodunnit. Author Rosemary Yaco served in the Peace Corps in Togo from 1983-1986. [1] She then served as a Fulbright professor in Togo before working as the Director of the English Language Program, which was at the United States Information Agency American Cultural Center in Benin, until 1996. [2] From 1998 to 2006, Yaco published a series of four murder mystery novels whose main character, Lynne Lewis, solved crimes in the West African settings where Yaco had worked. [3] The first book in this series, titled Murder in the Peace Corps, reflected Yaco’s service in Togo. It drew on a tragic event that happened during her time as a Volunteer, while also involving several twists, turns, and an enigmatic group of suspects.

Inspiration From Tragedy

(Content Warning: This section contains discussions of murder and police violence.)

 

 

Rosemary Yaco’s 1983 Peace Corps group included Jennifer Rubin, a young woman who started her own project to help Togolese women make more efficient earthen stoves, reducing the work needed to gather firewood for cooking. [4] In 1984, she realized that the daughter of the family she rented an apartment from, a close friend, was stealing her belongings. When Rubin mentioned this to the father, he turned his daughter into the police, who beat her until she confessed. A few days later, when she was released, she contacted two men from another village, who killed Rubin. [5] The two men who killed her were sentenced to life in prison. [6] This senseless death of a Peace Corps Volunteer clearly impacted Yaco, as can be seen in her book. Murder in the Peace Corps begins when Lynne Lewis hears word of a fictionalized account of this murder, and Lynne’s sadness and hope to find a resolution grounds the mystery in the shadow of Rubin’s death. [7]

Thickening the Plot

Just as in real life, the Peace Corps and Togolese government in Murder in the Peace Corps quickly resolve this first murder. However, when Lynne and the other Peace Corps Volunteers assemble to grieve and obtain more information about the murder, the Ambassador of the United States to Togo dramatically dies in front of them. Lynne quickly sets off on a cross-country adventure, involving both help and hindrance from the American Embassy, her fellow Volunteers and supervisors, and the local Togolese people. Rosemary Yaco weaves intrigue, romance and surprise into her plot, and the mystery is resolved through several unexpected twists. In addition, she includes details that clearly come from her own Peace Corps experience, such as the delicious food Lynne eats or the types of housing she lives in. However, not all of these specifics are delightful. Not unlike many other thrillers, the sexual orientation of multiple characters is used to signal “deviance” and suggest the characters have malicious or jealous motives because of their suppressed sexual orientation.  Yaco’s Peace Corps Volunteers also sometimes get angry at the cultural differences between the United States and Togo, assuming theirs are always superior, or they exoticize the Togolese they come into contact with. Yaco also underscores the isolation and difficulty adjusting that can occur when Volunteers have isolated posts, or the irritation which comes when they don’t get along with each other. [8]

The Final Conclusion

Rosemary Yaco’s Murder in the Peace Corps is a mystery that uses more than just suspense to spin a tale. By incorporating real-life experiences, Yaco transports readers to Peace Corps service in 1980’s Togo, accompanied by a plucky heroine and an intriguing set of supporting characters. Interested readers can find the digitized book online in Yaco’s collection within the Peace Corps Community Archives, here.

 

 

 

 

Notes

[1] “September 1, 2001: Headlines: NPCA: Fortieth Anniversary: Custom Conference: Who signed up for the original Peace Corps 40th – sorted by Country of Service (Part 3),” Peace Corps Online, http://peacecorpsonline.org/messages/messages/2629/2023295.html. Accessed September 28, 2022.

[2] “Lynne Lewis: West Africa Murder Mysteries,” Sonia Yaco, https://soniayaco.com/lynne-lewis-west-africa-murder-mysteries/. Accessed September 28, 2022.

[3] Rosemary Yaco, Murder in the Peace Corps (Anlex Computer Consulting, 1998), 1, https://soniayaco.com/murder/peace_toc.htm; Rosemary Yaco, Murder at a Small Embassy: Evil in Benin (Anlex Computer Consulting, 2006), 6, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://soniayaco.com/murder/evil_embassy1.pdf.

[4] “Jennifer Rubin ’83 (Togo, 1983-84),” Hamilton Online Review, Fall 2007, in “Jennifer Rubin,” Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers Memorial Project, https://fpcv.org/volunteers/jennifer-rubin/, accessed September 28, 2022.

[5] “AN IDEALIST’S SHORT LIFE ENDS IN A KILLING IN A TOGO VILLAGE,” The New York Times, July 4, 1984, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/04/world/an-idealist-s-short-life-ends-in-a-killing-in-a-togo-village.html, accessed September 28, 2022.

[6] “3 ARE CONVICTED IN TOGO OF KILLING AMERICAN: Three residents of the West African country of Togo have been found guilty of killing a 23-year-old Peace Corps worker from Oneonta, N.Y. in June, a spokesman for the Togo mission to the United Nations said yesterday,” The New York Times, September 20, 1984, https://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/20/world/3-are-convicted-togo-killing-american-three-residents-west-african-country-togo.html, accessed September 28, 2022.

[7] Summary taken from Yaco, Murder in the Peace Corps.

[8] Summary taken from Yaco, Murder in the Peace Corps.

Susan Ephross (Irwin) Anderson in Malawi and Mali

Countries of Service: Malawi, Mali

Place of Service: Nsanje (in Malawi)

Service Type: Health

Dates in Service: Malawi: 1968-1970; Mali, 1970-1972

Keywords: Education, Community Development, Health, Youth

Accession Date: April 15, 2022

Access: No restrictions

Collection Size: 1 linear foot

Document Types

  • Correspondence
  • Photographs
  • Reports
  • Publications

Finding Aid:

Box 1

  • Papers
    • End of Peace Corps in Malawi; Potential Work in Nigeria, 1969-1970
    • Financial and Insurance Matters, 1968-1969
    • Malawi Teacher and Medical Training/ Communication/ Conferences 1968-1970
    • Medical Conferences and Reports, 1968-1969
    • Motorcycles/Machinery Repair, 1969-1970
    • Pre-Departure and Training, 1968
    • Reaction to the Vietnam War, October-November 1969
    • Science Classes in Malawi, 1969-1970

Box 2

    • Souvenir Insurance, 1969-1970
    • Susan Anderson’s Personal Papers, 1968-1973
    • Telegraphs and Trip Plans, April-December 1969
    • Miscellaneous Topics, Malawi, 1968-1970 (1 of 2)
    • Miscellaneous Topics, Malawi, 1968-1970 (2 of 2)
  • Photos

Box 3

  • Publications
    • Educational Materials for Peace Corps Volunteers, c. 1968
    • Malawi, Health Manuals, c. 1968-1970
    • Malawi Medical Bulletin, January-March 1969
    • Malawi Medical Bulletin, September-December 1969
    • Malawi Medical Bulletin, March-December 1970
    • Malawi Peace Corps Volunteer XIV Training Book
    • Materials from Mali, 1970-1972 [includes hand-painted cards]

Box 4

    • MOYO issues, c. May 1970-1971
    • Newsletter and Reports put out by Anderson’s Peace Corps Volunteer group in Malawi, 1969-1970
    • Various Publications, c. 1969-1981

Voting in the Peace Corps, Then and Now

At the time of writing, the 2022 midterm elections are approaching, and many Americans (this author included) are making their preparations to vote by mail. For decades, Peace Corps Volunteers have been among the voters who need to use mail-in ballots. This included Susan Anderson, who served from 1968-1972 in Malawi and Mali. Before she even reported for training, the Peace Corps sent her an article, included in the January 1968 edition of the Peace Corps Volunteer, to explain the process of voting overseas. Written by Elizabeth White, a Peace Corps employee and former Volunteer, the article “How to vote in ‘68” attempted to lay out both the importance of and obstacles to voting.

“How to vote in ’68,” by Elizabeth White. This article highlights the difficulties of voting overseas for Peace Corps Volunteers.

Voting by Mail in 1968

White’s article is only meant to be a brief introduction to mail-in voting for Volunteers who were or would be overseas for the primary or general elections that year. It includes encouragement to raise the very low number of Peace Corps Volunteer votes from 1964 and provides key information geared towards first time voters. (In 1968, the minimum voting age was still 21, so a large number of Volunteers would not have voted before starting their service.) However, White’s main point was the self-responsibility of each Volunteer- every state and locality had slightly different rules, and most greatly restricted the participation of overseas or otherwise absentee voters. For example, six states required voter registration in person, so any unregistered Volunteers from these states who were already training or serving could not vote at all. Seven states did not accept the Federal Post Card Application (the federal forms to permit voting overseas), so Volunteers from these states were warned not to waste time filling out these forms and contact their state and local governments directly. Five states had either partial or total restrictions on mail-in voting for primaries. Alabama and Mississippi directly prohibited mail-in voting if a Volunteer had never voted in person before. White also acknowledged that there were several other restrictions and deadlines on a state-by-state level. She noted that, at the end of the day, Volunteers had to decide for themselves if all of these restrictions were too prohibitive to attempt voting. [1]

Voting by Mail Today

In the years since, federal and state governments have made changes that have made it easier for Peace Corps Volunteers to vote by mail during their service. While many states still have various levels of restrictions for voting by mail, several of these laws provide exceptions for those overseas, including Volunteers. [2]  The federal government has passed several different rounds of voting-related legislation, which has also smoothed this process. Most important was the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, passed in 1986, and amended by the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act in 2009 (though only fifteen states have fully implemented the amendment). This legislation allows members of the U.S. military and other U.S. citizens living abroad to vote in federal elections and receive their ballots forty-five days before an election. [3]  Today, the Peace Corps continues to help Volunteers vote, and they include necessary information and forms on their website.[4] While access to voting overseas and in the Peace Corps has changed since 1968, the importance of voting has not. So don’t forget to cast your vote this November in person, absentee, or by mail!

 

 

[1] Summary from Elizabeth White, “How to vote in ’68,” Peace Corps Volunteer, Vol. 7 No. 3 (January 1968), 16, American University Archives, Washington, D.C.

[2]  Information from “Absentee Ballot Rules,” Vote.org, https://www.vote.org/absentee-voting-rules/. Accessed September 27, 2022. For anyone looking for voting resources, Vote.org is a great place to start.

[3]  “The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act,” The United States Department of Justice, last updated February 18, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/crt/uniformed-and-overseas-citizens-absentee-voting-act; “Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act,” Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/Military_and_Overseas_Voter_Empowerment_(MOVE)_Act, accessed October 4, 2022.

[4] “Voting Assistance,” Peace Corps, https://www.peacecorps.gov/voting-assistance/, accessed October 4, 2022.