Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jimmy Hlam

Let’s begin again, shall we?  I think we got off on the wrong, ever so slightly smelly foot yesterday.  I will play things straight-up today and talk about the formation of the Peace Corps, 50 years ago today (I’m writing this on March 1st).  Quite frankly, although I was in the Peace Corps, I really don’t know much about the history of this now-August institution.  This probably makes me a bad RPCV.  I will quickly remedy the situation and drag you all along with me.

Ok, first of all, why do we fix March 1st as the date of the formation of the Peace Corps?  The answer to that is pretty simple.  March 1st, 1961, was the date John F Kennedy signed an “Executive Order” mandating that the State Department create a new agency called the Peace Corps, with the basic aim of providing assistance abroad.  I found a copy of the actual document on line, it’s pretty neat!  It looks yellowed with age, vintage.  Typed by a secretary in a white house office pool, no doubt.  I wonder if presidents do their own typing these days?  The second page has a signature on it that is presumably that of JFK, but at first blush doesn’t look like it spells his name.  To me it looks more like “Hlam A Jimmy”.  I should talk;  My signature looks like "Sl^_li R Sl%^\ds_e". Could there be controversy from the get-go?  Back to Google and we discover that the signature does indeed look like JFK’s regular signature.  Ok, I can dispense with my “Jimmy Hlam is a Vietnamese double-agent and the Peace Corps was a front for the Viet Cong” conspiracy theories for now.

Peace Cops.  Peace.  Corps.  Why call it Peace Corps?  The more I think about it the more odd the name sounds.  It’s a bit of oxymoron, you know?  Like “Jumbo Shrimp”.  Or “Table Mesa”.  No wait, that’s something else.  To me, the term “Peace Corps” even has a slightly Orwellian doublespeak feel to it.  Like UN Peacekeeping soldiers.  Baby blue helmets and black steel rifles.  As a volunteer I can without hesitation tell you that we were given no rifles, and our helmets were of the bicycle riding sort.  Mine may have been baby blue though.  And thank goodness I had one, as you will soon learn.

Let’s dissect this further and past the point of all reason.  Peace Corps.  Why “Corps”?  The term corps does have a militaristic etymology associated with it.  Corps is typically a term used to describe a large group of soldiers.  Why not, say Peace “Group”, or Peace “Volunteers”?  Heck, now that I’m into it, why “Peace” at all for that matter?  I don’t think the intent was to go out there and “Wage Peace” all over the earth, was it?  I get the image in my head of a bunch of beatnik hippies disembarking from a Marine landing craft, a la, Normandy at D-Day, singing “…everybody get together, try to love one another right now”, while putting flowers in the barrels of Nazi rifles.  But maybe I’m taking a too literal view of things here.  Let’s break it down and see if we can figure this out, shall we?

Reading JFK’s brief executive order from 1961, I discover that The Peace Corps was founded under the authority of the “Mutual Security” act of 1954.  To me that also sounds like a euphemism for something militaristic.  So I looked it up, and it turns out the Mutual Security act of 1954 authorized, among other things like a “discretionary contingency fund” (where the beer for the embassy party comes from no doubt), development assistance, and food aid to foreign countries.  That actually sounds pretty reasonable.  The reason for the odd name is probably due to the fact that the Mutual Security Acts (there were several) were more or less continuations of the famous Marshall Plan, which had its roots in World War II.  So the Peace Corps can be seen as an extension of post-war rebuilding efforts.  In my opinion, the Marshall Plan did provide Mutual Security by helping to rebuild Europe after World War II and keep us from having to get involved in another costly war. 

For those of you unfamiliar with such things, the Marshall Plan was a massive and expensive project that the United States funded to assist European countries affected by World War II in their rebuilding efforts.  US allies (France, UK, etc.), independents (I’m looking at you, Switzerland, how did you manage to get Marshall Plan aid when you did not participate in the war?) and enemies (Germany, Italy) received aid for rebuilding.  Why give aid to Germany?  Didn’t they cause most of this mess?  Very true, but the prevailing thought was that by penalizing Germany with enormous and punitive war reparations after World War I (named in retrospect, of course), the allies unwittingly planted the seeds that blossomed into the Nazi state and ultimately World War II.  So this time the victorious allies figured a different approach might be better.  Hence the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Germany instead of another round of economy crippling, hyper-inflation inducing war reparations and, potentially, WWIII.  We had the Soviets for that, anyway.

It is likely that our entire foreign aid policy can trace its roots to the Marshall Plan, which in my opinion can be distilled to this simple concept:  Help those who are less fortunate than yourselves, because it’s the right thing to do of course, but also in order to prevent them from fighting amongst and between themselves, and with you, and dragging you back into their mess. Sounds reasonable now, perhaps, but was likely not an obvious course of action then.  Since the policy more-or-less worked in Europe then it would stand to reason that it could work in other places as well.  So the aim of Mutual Security is to prevent war, because war is costly.  And the opposite of War is, wait for it, Peace. 

Viewed in that context, I think the term “Peace Corps” is appropriate.  Certainly I did not feel like I was “Waging Peace” in Ghana although I did spend a lot of time listening to Simon & Garfunkel while I was there, and my hair was longer as well.  But in a way I suppose I was waging a little peace.  If I did nothing more than learn about another culture, and allow others to do the same about mine, then I think I can say that I contributed in some infinitesimal way to peaceful relations between the USA and Ghana.  And as far as the aid; well, this was no Marshall Plan, but I was contributing to the local economy, spending USA taxpayers’ money in a small village in Ghana.  Mostly I supported the local food market and, uh, beverage distributors, but it was something.  I plan on discussing foreign aid at length in another post, but although I never built a road or a school, I am happy to have directly supported in some small way the local economy of a poor country.  Hope you don’t mind me spending your hard-earned tax money that way.

The concept of the Peace Corps actually predated JFK by some several years.  It was known as the “Point Four Youth Corps” for a while.  It would appear as though JFK came up with the term “Peace Corps”, but the truth is it was an aide to Hubert Humphrey, Peter Grothe, who coined the term while writing for Sen. Humphrey a draft of a foreign relations bill that Humphrey was working on in early 1960, about one year before the Peace Corps executive order was signed.  There is an interesting article on it here.  From what I can gather, the term mostly stuck because, for all its faults, it was just darn catchy.  Peace Corps.  Jumbo Shrimp.

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