April 24, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: An Interview with Jack Vaughn and a History and Analysis of his Leadership as Peace Corps Director
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April 24, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: An Interview with Jack Vaughn and a History and Analysis of his Leadership as Peace Corps Director
An Interview with Jack Vaughn and a History and Analysis of his Leadership as Peace Corps Director
Jack Vaughn led the Peace Corps as Director from 1966 to 1969, a crucial period in the agency's history. The issues of Peace Corps Leadership, Peace Corps Expansion, Volunteer roles in our Countries of Service, Safety and Security of Volunteers, and Volunteer Service during a period in history when much of the world was in disagreement with American Foreign Policy are some of the same issues that face the Peace Corps today.
For that reason, PCOL thinks it is important to review Jack Vaughn's tenure as Peace Corps Director and to analyze the work he did and the decisions he made that helped set the Peace Corps on the course that we are still following today. Read the following interview with Jack Vaughn as he reviews his tenure as Director followed by a history and analysis of Director Vaughn's service as Director written by Kevin Lowther and C. Payne Lucas of Africare excerpted from their book, "Keeping Kennedy's Promise."
Jack Vaughn will be speaking at the University of Maryland on Sunday, May 4 sponsored by the Shriver Center and by the Maryland Returned Volunteers. If you live in the mid-Atlantic Region and are interested in hearing Jack Vaughn talk about issues he faced as Peace Corps Director and their continued relevance today, please follow the link below for more information on his talk and directions on how to get there at:
Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn to Speak at University of Maryland*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn to Speak at University of Maryland
An Interview with Jack Vaughn
Ideals to action
The second director of the Peace Corps, a Tucson man, recalls how JFK's program grew from idealism to usefulness in the 1960s.
By C.T. REVERE Citizen Staff Writer
Jack Vaughn's days as the Peace Corps' first Latin American director were winding down when he realized the fledgling international aid program had been missing its mark.
Thousands of volunteers, most of them young and idealistic, had spread out across the globe to answer President Kennedy's call to help America by helping other nations grow stronger. But as they went about their altruistic tasks of teaching, farming and developing remote and underdeveloped communities, a nagging notion persisted that they could be doing more, Vaughn said.
"Our main lament was that we had a superabundance of what we called 'A.B. generalists,' " the 81-year-old Tucsonan recalled. "They were recent graduates with degrees in things like political science, and the burning question was, 'How do we assign them so they can do something useful?' A lot of times it was hard for volunteers to put their finger on just what they had accomplished."
Then, in 1963, Vaughn met Duty Green.
"Duty Green was a forester, and he went to Chile with a commitment to plant a million trees," Vaughn said. "When his tour was almost over, he sent me a message saying, 'I'm very sorry. I've only been able to plant 900,000 trees in my time here. Can you extend my stay?'
"Here was a guy who would never say, 'What am I doing here?' He could look at a forest and know it was there because of his efforts."
Now, with the Peace Corps celebrating its 40th anniversary, Vaughn looks back on that moment as the turning point for the program he would later direct worldwide.
"This is what we should have been doing - have them plant a tree, clean up a stream," he said. "That was the explosion of awareness that changed the Peace Corps, because I wised up and still had time to do something about it."
Vaughn, who succeeded the Peace Corps' first director, Sargent Shriver, in 1966, gave the program a new environmental focus that has endured ever since.
"Those generalists, with no prior technical training, could be trained to do a beautiful job in just 10 weeks to turn wasteland into forest, to run nurseries, to do earth dam construction and supervision. It's a wonderful and satisfying job for a volunteer," he said.
Today, environmental work accounts for 26 percent of all Peace Corps work around the world, second only to teaching, a job that occupies 39 percent of all volunteers, said Merritt Beckett, a Los Angeles-based recruiter.
Vaughn still spends much of his time trying to solve environmental problems in Latin America, working with various international aid programs.
"I'm a tree-hugger from way back," he said recently while sitting among mementos from a lifetime of public service. "It's a lifelong effort."
A former Marine who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II, Vaughn was tapped for his first Peace Corps post after serving as a U.S. Agency for International Development mission director in West Africa in the late 1950s and early '60s.
But it wasn't his experience in international affairs that got the attention of Kennedy's staff. It was his experience in the boxing ring.
"I was recruited by Sargent Shriver because I had been in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson," Vaughn said. "He loves jocks."
As a youth in Montana and Michigan, Vaughn was an amateur and semipro boxer. He worked occasionally as a sparring partner for notable prizefighters, including Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler.
Robinson was the most impressive in the ring.
"It was horrible. I couldn't touch him," he said.
But Shriver admired Vaughn's courage and felt anyone who would brave the ring with legendary pugilists would have the grit to fight for the Peace Corps in Latin America.
When the Peace Corps decided to send volunteers to teach in Venezuela in 1963 despite the presence of Castro communists looking to seize that nation's oil reserves, he made Vaughn his point man.
"Shriver said, 'Show them your teeth, not your tail,' " he recalled. "Those teachers did great there. I'm sure it was his finest moment in the Peace Corps."
Vaughn can vouch for the Peace Corps claim of being "the toughest job you'll ever love."
"I was not home for dinner for 2 1/2 years, and it was fabulous," he said.
Throughout those early years, volunteers were welcomed in most Latin American countries, where their primary role was community development.
"They were treated like brothers and sisters," he said. "The people of Latin America loved John Kennedy, and these were the children of Kennedy."
Vaughn left the Peace Corps in 1964 to serve as President Johnson's ambassador to Panama, then was named assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs under Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
When Johnson tapped Shriver to head up his "War on Poverty" in 1966, Vaughn was named Peace Corps director.
"It was so good, so positive," he said of the new post. "As a former bureaucrat, to join the Peace Corps was pure joy. All the stuff I knew we shouldn't do, we didn't do. All the things we should do, we did efficiently, effectively and cheaply."
In the top post, he also began to experience the suspicion with which much of the rest of the world viewed the program.
"As worldwide director, I visited some 30 nations a year, and everywhere I went, I was asked 'How many of your Peace Corps volunteers are CIA?' " he said. "They didn't understand the Peace Corps."
To his knowledge, Vaughn said, no CIA operatives ever posed as Peace Corps volunteers.
Skepticism about the program, which had some 18,000 volunteers working in 65 countries the year he became director, wasn't limited to foreign observers, Vaughn said.
"Congress was very difficult, very quizzical," he said. "They didn't understand it, and it has never been a favorite of legislators."
The problem was, the program had no single message to vouch for its worth, Vaughn said.
"When you're trying to explain to Congress why you need the money, there is no aggregate. It's about 150,000 volunteers giving a lot and getting a lot. The people who supported the Peace Corps were the American people, not Congress."
Vaughn credits former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris with being the Peace Corps' strongest supporters in Congress.
When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, Vaughn found himself out of government work - but only briefly.
"I was the first bureaucrat Nixon fired when he took office," Vaughn said. "But when he found out I was a Republican, he asked me if I'd be his ambassador to Colombia."
A History and Analysis of Jack Vaughn's Leadership of the Peace Corps
By 1965 Shriver had become almost an absentee landlord at the Peace Corps. Having accepted President Johnson's appointment to head the War on Poverty and the new Office of Economic Opportunity, Shriver was forced to divide his time between the Peace Corps and the infant domestic agency. It was a critical stage for the Peace Corps. At the very moment Shriver should have been making an intensive reassessment after four hectic years of unrestrained growth, the Peace Corps seemed rudderless. Morale declined among both Washington and overseas staff, who were less and less able to consult directly with Shriver. An agency that had become somewhat dependent on the guiding presence of one individual now seemed, in his absence, to be slipping into a bureaucratic mold.
A change in leadership was due, but the president put off the matter until an unnamed congressman evidently threatened to make Shriver's dual directorship a public issue. When it was learned that a new Peace Corps director would be selected shortly, speculation within the agency was that it would be someone of national stature who would not be totally eclipsed by Shriver's shadow. Johnson surprised everyone by naming Jack Vaughn. Although Vaughn had left the Peace Corps in 1964 to become ambassador to Panama and was then serving as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, he was little known in the nation. Within the Peace Corps itself he was only slightly more prominent.
Aside from having to follow Shriver, Vaughn faced a host of problems. The war in Vietnam was beginning to escalate and already alienating prospective volunteers who wanted nothing to do with any government program. The civil rights movement and VISTA were competing with the Peace Corps for attention and recruits. And generally the Peace Corps seemed to have lost the flush of the New Frontier. It was but one horizon among many for an adventurous and humane soul to pursue. Applications were down, and it was becoming clear that continued numerical growth was unlikely, that the time had come to consolidate and strengthen the better programs and phase out those that were nonproductive.
Vaughn first had to prove himself to the Washington staff. The old Shriver hands had been traumatized by their hero's departure. They wanted to be assured that the quiet and unassuming Vaughn would exert the same highly personalized leadership as Shriver had. A "silent staff revolt" simmered through mid-1966 (Vaughn had taken charge in March). Discussions centered on Vaughn's capacity to lead, yet all the while Vaughn was moving decisively to reorganize the programming, selection, and training functions for a concerted effort to improve the quality of Peace Corps projects overseas. At the request of concerned staff, Vaughn ultimately spoke to a meeting of the entire headquarters payroll. He explained his own Peace Corps philosophy. It did not differ materially from Shriver's; he merely chose to express it in his own manner. What emerged then and thereafter was that the Peace Corps had reached the point where it would have to mature if it was to accomplish anything of real and lasting impact in the world.
Individual personalities and public relations were less important to that mission than solid programming and better training of volunteers.
Vaughn began running the Peace Corps through a battery of tests. Did the volunteers really have good jobs? Were staff living frugally? Were all those vehicles necessary? Were volunteer living allowances too high? How good were their language skills? Did volunteers and staff really understand the host culture?
Vaughn also began assembling his own team. The major Shriver holdovers gradually left, to be replaced by the best among the middle rank of Shriver appointees. This assured continuity as well as loyalty to Vaughn's plan of action. The most awkward position to fill was that of deputy director. Warren Wiggins had been Vaughn's superior in the first days of the Peace Corps. He had been as responsible for building the Peace Corps as Shriver had. Now he would have to go in favor of the low-keyed director of the program in India, Brent Ashabranner.
The latter choice was a sign that Vaughn would not surround himself with the young lions that had cavorted around Shriver. He wanted capable and intelligent senior staff, but he did not want aides who thrived on bureaucratic gamesmanship. To underscore the point he dispersed the life-and-death power over programs to the four regional offices Africa, Latin America, East Asia/ Pacific, and North Africa/Near East/ South Asia. No longer would they have to jockey for volunteers in the central programming and operations office originally headed by Wiggins.
Vaughn's chief difficulty in asserting his control of the agency was more a matter of style than substance. For all his long experience in Latin America and Africa, for all his cultural empathy and fluency in French and Spanish, for all his dry sense of humor, Vaughn remained to most Peace Corps staff and volunteers a distant and undimensional character. Shriver reached people through seismic waves of personality that extended far and wide. Vaughn reached people through eye contact, always firmly engaged with whomever he was talking to. It took a long time for such a man to obtain the degree of personal staff commitment that Shriver had enjoyed virtually from the start.
Vaughn truly became the Peace Corps director, in the eyes of many volunteers and staff, when he spent two weeks visiting the restless volunteers in Nigeria, some of whom were threatening a sit-down strike. The Nigeria program had been chronically understaffed. The 700 volunteers scattered throughout the enormous country felt neglected and unsupported by the Peace Corps, which was suddenly closing down the hostels it operated for their convenience and clamping strict controls on the use of motorbikes. In the background, meanwhile, Nigeria was disintegrating amid grisly communal violence and military coups. The volunteers wanted to air their grievances, and they wanted Vaughn to come from Washington and listen.
After much debate in Washington, Vaughn decided to go. He was anxious not only to avert a volunteer strike, which would have had devastating consequences for the Peace Corps at home and in other countries, but also to reaffirm to the State Department his agency's prerogatives and de facto independence. (State was trying at the time to influence the assignment of volunteers in Nigeria and wanted the Peace Corps to evacuate its program from the Eastern Region, which seceded several months later as "Biafra." Vaughn said with finality that such a decision would be up to the Peace Corps.)
If he did not realize it beforehand, Vaughn discovered in Nigeria that he had inherited a Peace Corps lacking much of its original grit. The morning after his arrival in Lagos, Vaughn summoned a meeting of the Peace Corps staff. Few of them knew Vaughn. They sat stone-faced as he embarked on one of his patented pep talks about the importance of staff leadership. He conceded that Peace Corps/Nigeria had never received staff sufficient to manage such a large program. But he was certain they could be doing a better job at staying in contact with the volunteers and insuring that they had enough work to keep them happy. "I never get letters of complaint from Volunteers who are busy doing something", Vaughn said, "who are teaching thirty hours a week."
Vaughn had cut to the marrow of the Peace Corps' major problem worldwide. Too many volunteers were being wasted in poorly planned assignments. Too many volunteers were more concerned with proposed reductions in living allowances, vehicle restrictions, and the closing of hostels than they were with the work they had come to do. Too many volunteers had forgotten the meaning of their Peace Corps commitment.
Stay where the Nigerians stay, Vaughn said, the Peace Corps is not in the hotel business. Forget the motorbikes the Peace Corps gave you in a period of misguided generosity. Travel with the Africans, Vaughn said in effect, or better yet stay in your town and get to know the people rather than escaping on weekends to visit other volunteers.
Vaughn listened to the volunteers. He told them when he thought they were right, and he told them when he thought their demands were unreasonable and incompatible with being a Peace Corps volunteer. He told them why they had joined the Peace Corps and come to teach in Nigeria. He told them in moving, human terms the meaning of their presence there, and that was something Vaughn could do perhaps better than anyone else.
There was to be no sit-down strike (if, indeed, the volunteers had been that serious). Many volunteers probably shared the reaction of a young woman who told a staff member after hearing Vaughn: "He expressed the enthusiasm that I first felt when I joined the Peace Corps. It was good to know that he has it. After hearing him talk, I felt it again."2
Vaughn's performance in Nigeria set to rest many of the lingering doubts in Washington about whether the Peace Corps had a leader. More important, the revelation of the large Nigeria programs weaknesses had confirmed Vaughn's worst suspicions about the need to improve the quality of agency programs. He would devote the remainder of his tenure as director to making program development in the field and program review in Washington a professional process. It was the most necessary of his contributions to the Peace Corps.
Vaughn was also a stern disciplinarian. He angered many volunteers with his absolute ban against beards, especially in Latin America. His concern over the sloppy appearance of some volunteers seemed less eccentric to observers familiar with the casual attire common among Peace Corps personnel. But the most troublesome issue involved volunteer's dissent on U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Vaughn sympathized with the peace movement privately but showed little tolerance for volunteers who expressed their opposition openly abroad. They threatened to politicize the Peace Corps in foreign eyes, entangle the agency in an issue that could only harm it, and enrage a hypersensitive president. Thus, when a volunteer in Chile-where the Vietnam war was a hot political topic-wrote a letter to a Chilean newspaper protesting the war, Vaughn had him summarily terminated. Vaughn was infuriated that the volunteer had been willing to sacrifice the Peace Corps apolitical reputation for the sake of expressing his own opinion. By expelling the volunteer, however, he signaled to thousands of potential volunteers that the Peace Corps was hostile to free speech and that it was an integral part of the untrustworthy federal establishment.
Vaughn cherished his years at the Peace Corps. To him, nothing better embodied the brotherhood of man. It never sounded trite when Vaughn said the Peace Corps meant love. And whenever someone threatened the Peace Corps through a thoughtless or selfish action, he defended it with a lover's passion.
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Peace Corps Directors - Vaughn
This is John McConnell, a retired lawyer living in South Carolina. I have jus tr read the inter- view with Jack Vaughn. I was the Director in Ni- geria when Jack made his visit to that country in the Fall of 1966. I would like to send him congratulations on the well deserved award to be made to him by and at the University of Mary- lamd on Subday. I do not know how much space I am allowed to take for I have some remarks and sime memories to share with Jsck relative to his visit. Please advise how I may do that. John W. McConnell - Email:firstname.lastname@example.org