A former Peace Corps insider chronicles the history of the agency.
Meisler (Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War, 2006, etc.) left journalism to serve as a Peace Corps administrator during its formative years in the 1960s. He then returned to journalism overseas, but kept track of Corps politics and culture. Created during the presidency of John F. Kennedy and directed at first by Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, the Corps sent hurriedly trained American volunteers to nations across the globe, starting with Ghana and Tanzania. Meisler wisely alternates the focus among the political appointees running the Washington, D.C., headquarters, the country directors trying to fit in with embassy diplomats and the volunteers themselves, by now numbering more than 200,000. Although clearly fond of the organization’s mission, the author takes the story beyond valentine mode to discuss manipulation of the volunteers for U.S. foreign-policy purposes, crimes committed against and by the volunteers, White House occupants tone deaf to the Corps culture and unwise budget slashers within Congress. The narrative is filled with surprises, such as Meisler's positive chapter about the directorship of Loret Miller Ruppe, appointed by President Reagan, who appeared to lack even the slightest qualification for the position, given her status as a brewery heiress and the wife of a Republican congressman. However, she became a savvy, non-ideological and even beloved director. In the final chapter, the author discusses the Corps’ status during the Obama administration; Meisler approves Obama's choice as director of Aaron Williams, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. In an afterword, the author grapples with the complex question, “Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?” He answers in the affirmative, with relatively minor caveats.
A rare example of a gripping institutional history.