|By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, September 14, 2001 - 9:52 am: Edit Post|
Following is an excert from an interview with Jack Vaughn about the Peace Corps in the 1960's in the Tucson Citizen at:
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."
Following the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, which ended Nixon's presidency, the number of Peace Corps volunteers began to decline.
"The Peace Corps was clearly saved by a director by the name of Loret Ruppe," he said. "She was a remarkable woman, and she turned the Peace Corps around. The Peace Corps now is nonpolitical and open and is probably better today than when I was in it."
But Vaughn worries about President Bush's nominee for Peace Corps director, Gaddi Vasquez, a Californian who was a supervisor in Orange County when it went bankrupt and more recently was an executive with Southern California Edison, a utility company.
"As they say on the racing tout sheet for a horse that is not in the running: 'Nothing to recommend,'" he said. "He has little experience . . . and little to indicate that he understands how to run the Peace Corps or any international organization. It's clearly a political payoff, and it would be a shame to see him approved."