The US Peace Corps: Looking Back and Moving Ahead

By Paul L. Doughty
University of Florida

It is the 50th anniversary of the ambitious, daring and popular Peace Corps program formed upon President Kennedy’s inaugural call for citizen involvement in international life. Americans eagerly volunteered when his Executive Order in 1961 created the Peace Corps and Public Law 87-293. The Order stated the PC would “provide help to peoples of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for skilled manpower,” and “to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people. To date about 200,000 volunteers have served in over 100 countries.

Lest we forget that this was a hot period in the “Cold War” era, it is not surprising that Kennedy saw the program as a way of addressing the “threat of communism” with creative non-military actions that would “counter ideas of American imperialism abroad and help revitalize our economic assistance efforts” (PC Founding Documents). Kennedy selected his businessman brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to organize and direct the program. He gathered a group of “head-hunters” to recruit staff in the countries willing to receive volunteers. In January 1962, one member of that early PC staff, Cornell anthropologist Bob Textor,[1] suggested that Shriver invite me to go to Peru to help set up the program and remain as a PC staff member.[2] Shriver offered me the position, but after some consideration, I called back to say thanks but that I had another priority: finishing my dissertation at Cornell. “Paul,” he said, “you are turning down a great opportunity to serve your country, and I am sorry for you.”

As that thought weighed heavily on my mind other opportunities arose. With the dissertation completed in the summer of 1962 and Cornell given the contract to train 100 PCVs for Peru, I found myself organizing, designing and lecturing in the general orientation program for the group, and, continuing on to direct a two-year field evaluation of this group’s work in Peru as in-country (and last) director of the Cornell Peru Project. [3]

The First Volunteers
Peru was one of the first offering to accept volunteers. At the start, plans were delayed by a coup d’état that ended the Prado government, but the first three groups of PCVs arrived there the fall of 1962. Full of their imaginations about both Peru and what Peace Corps volunteer work would be like, the volunteers were quickly scattered throughout the coast and highlands of the nation working in a variety of Peruvian government and other programs: Credit Union development, “Food for Peace” school lunch programs, education, Indigenous community development, UN projects, literacy projects. Individual communities requested volunteers to work as well.

Of the volunteers among the first three contingents we evaluated, only 8% were fluent Spanish speakers at the start and none spoke either Quechua or Aymara. Nevertheless the PCVs plunged into this environment with well-intentioned efforts, seeking to translate their engagement with international issues by applying their skills to address real local needs. Volunteers worked under varying degrees of Peruvian institutional and community guidance, an experience fraught with all of the misunderstandings, good things and disasters one should expect from such a venture.

Facing the PCVs were various levels of expected and unexpected relationships, almost all of which differed dramatically from those which customarily faced Embassy personnel or USAID experts. These distinctions quickly emerged as the idealistic assumptions and theories about PCV roles and possibilities were challenged by the process of operationalizing them. Unlike others in the American Embassy or with AID establishments or well-financed agencies, the volunteers were sent to live amongst lower class Peruvians and, roughly speaking, at similar levels of subsistence. They were expected to participate in the life of the neighborhoods and communities where they were living and be in close personal contact with counterparts and neighbors. This was a grassroots, participatory program in contrast to the experts and functionaries who managed the trickle down strategies of foreign aid and lived in the best districts of the capital. Peace Corps work was to be a 24-hour-a-day occupation of direct interactions with Peruvians, an anthropological adventure.

The Challenges of Engagement
Several challenges confronted the PCVs: how to utilize the skills and modify unrealistic expectations they brought to their task; the effects of culture shock and adjustment to the norms of Peruvian society; relationships with Peruvian institutions and personnel; and, PCV relationships with the US institutional establishment in Peru. The difficulties and experiences encountered as PCVs worked out a modus operandi in their Peruvian ambience help explain the variety of results that flowed from the work, from notable successes to total failures, with the large majority falling in between.

Quechua villager from Yungay, Peru ca 1970. Source: P. Doughty.

In the initial recruitment process only 6 men (no women) possessed any rural or farming experience even though most of the group we studied was scheduled to be working in or with peasant farming communities. There were some skilled individuals such as carpenters and teachers, but on the whole, the large majority came to be classified as “A.B. generalists.”

PCVs needed to be willing to fit into an on-going program activity and be able to develop productive roles in that context. The most successful volunteers, we discovered, did this in impressive ways, but many could not. For example, the erstwhile PCV farmers, although knowledgeable, largely proved unable to put their skills to good use. They were unable to fit their skills into local practices.

Conversely, the Peruvian institutions and personnel with whom PCVs worked seemed often at a loss as to what to expect or how to employ them. When it was realized that the volunteer was not the great Gringo expert they wrongly assumed any American would be, uncertainty in relationships was created. Sometimes when the Peruvian project leader was uncomfortable in giving orders or correcting the Gringo volunteer, he or she would simply ignore the volunteer and let the person “figure it out.”

Culture Shock and Peruvian Society
The demands on volunteers to learn how to function in the socio-cultural context were to be expected and understood from the beginning, at least intellectually. Although no one of those studied “went native,” all volunteers made accommodations to the culture. Only a handful managed to learn some Quechua and most — but not all, surprisingly — improved their Spanish. As it turned out, high fluency in Spanish, per se, did not necessarily predict volunteer success because of social circumstances and the volunteer capacity and willingness to learn. A number of PCVs, however, basically gave up on the cultural challenges, spending much time in their lodgings and pursuing personal interests such as reading, managing their living space and the like.

As the volunteers left for home, interviews revealed that several could not name ten people in the community where they had lived for two years. When our Peruvian interviewers later visited those places of residence and work, similarly, the volunteers’ neighbors and others could not say what their names were, or what they did with their time.

PCVs and the US overseas establishment
The reception of the PCVs by the US embassy and USAID was, if anything, less enthusiastic than that of then President Fernando Belaunde Terry. Although making all the correct diplomatic noises, many of the professionals regarded the PCVs with discomfort as these eager citizens prowled the countryside and on occasion invaded the embassy environs in downtown Lima. The PC offices were in a separate building a short distance away, and volunteers visiting Lima from the “provinces” as well as those working in the city made frequent use of embassy facilities: the cafeteria, bathrooms. In addition they used the embassy as a place to make contacts about programs they were working on. It wasn’t long however before problems emerged from these contacts.

In cooperation with a USAID/Ministry of Education program to support primary education in Lima’s squatter settlements, PCVs were promoting neighborhood school construction and bringing barrio leaders and parents to the AID office in the Embassy to request delivery of the promised TV sets and other materials. These groups of lower class cholos (local term referring to Indigenous highlanders in the process of changing their identity to mestizo) from squatter settlements, accompanied by a PCV, would encounter smartly dressed Peruvian middle class women receptionists who responded by ignoring them and on one occasion summoning the Marine guards to expel the “communists.” The clash led to angry words, and the AID project director had to personally escort the group to his office. Such episodes led the ambassador to ban volunteers from the embassy cafeteria and limit their access to “by appointment” only arrangements.

There are numerous examples of PCV successes in this period and, of course some striking failures. Community level, participatory work by volunteers with the social skills and cultural acumen was both predictably successful and mutually satisfying when things fell into place. It is quite clear that when community members were sufficiently motivated and mobilized around issues that concerned them, doors were opened for project success and the volunteers could be useful participants, even key factors in some cases. But the people had to “own the project” to support and work on it. If not, volunteer efforts failed.

Appreciating the PCV experience back home

Volunteer Ida Shoatz, 23, of Philadelphia, runs a school lunch program in 13 villages in the Peruvian Andes. Here she greets a young friend in the Pisac market where she has gone to buy food. Source: J.F.K. Library, photo shot by Paul Conklin.

Many volunteers went through difficult and stressful periods and a few departed early because of these things. Most others however lived through these contretemps to make progress towards reaching their original goals for joining the PC. About 34% of the PCVs did much more than that, making significant and measurable contributions to the places they lived in and to the institutions with which they worked. Of the total sample, 20% were well above the rest in positively aiding Peru through their work as PCVs. At the other end of the scale, about 20% produced virtually no positive, measurable result from their two years

Of the PCVs we studied, many years later those whom I have been able to contact or learn about had their lives usefully altered by the experience. Many have returned to their work sites “to see what happened.” Upon leaving the Peace Corps, it appears that a significant percent changed directions in their lives, pursuing new careers suggested by the experience. Statements from volunteers in the group studied indicate that even though their own PC careers were not outstanding, the experience itself, in the words of one: “(gave) me a new, different, and lasting perspective on life and living.” This person was in the lower echelon of volunteer performance, but her life changed. Another whose work had actually measured as negative in impact terms, years later confessed, “It was the best learning experience of my life.” Indeed, in this early period, the Peace Corps became a veritable recruiting ground for anthropology and I suspect that it continues to do so.

One of the hypotheses underlying our research 49 years ago was that the impact on the volunteers themselves would be a significant contribution to their lives and others at home. Unfortunately follow up research on those studied was not to be, because the PC felt at the time it would lead congressional opponents to diminish funding. As a civilian, international cross-cultural enterprise, the PC has succeeded despite errors, critiques and politics. As Margaret Mead noted, “the greatest benefit will accrue not to the countries to which the volunteers go but to America to which they will return. In an even broader sense the Peace Corps program can and certainly does constitute a response to an interdependent world” (1966:ix-x). One might call it a recommended course in “Popular Applied Anthropology 101.”



  1. One of the most outstanding successes in this period was that of PCV Ralph Bolton who helped lead the relocation of a village to found a new community on former church property. Last year Bolton received the Franz Boaz Award from the AAA for his anthropological work. Forty years later, he returned to Chijnaya to elaborate upon his PC work. (Chijnaya
  2. See Textor’s Chapter, “An Anthropologist Helps to Create the Peace Corps in Darkest Washington” in Alice Kehoe and Paul Doughty, editors, Expanding American Anthropology 1945-1980: A Generation Reflects, University of Alabama Press, 2011 (in press)
  3. Measurement of Peace Corps Program Impact in the Peruvian Andes: Final Report (with Henry F. Dobyns and Allan R. Holmberg). Cornell-Perú Project, Department of Anthropology, Cornell University, 650p, 1965. Offset edition issued by U. S. Peace Corps, 329p, 1966.

Editor’s note: Saturday Session at SfAA’s Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps

At the recommendation of various members, Seattle Meeting Program Chair, Darby Stapp, has secured a room for a Peace Corps Celebration. The tentative title is: Celebrating the Peace Corp’s 50th Anniversary. It will be held on Saturday from 10-11:50AM (Stevens). Stapp writes to say, please send this message off to anyone you think might be interested in this session. It would be nice to have an organizer who could come up with a plan for the time slot. The idea is more an informal gathering than serious discussion, although it would be great to get a policy statement from this session, even if it just said: “the Peace Corps is great and anthropology has contributed to its development in the following ways… ”And even better if it closed with, “As applied social scientists, we would like to see the Peace Corps improve by doing the following: …”

Anyone interested in helping with this session, please contact Darby Stapp [].

One Response to The US Peace Corps: Looking Back and Moving Ahead

  1. Paul Doughty says:

    Tim, thanks for finding the photos, but I have minor correction. The first photo of a man playing the “caja y roncadora” is in Huaylas, enlivening a community volunteer work party cleaning up after the 1970 earthquake.
    The second photo, of PCV Ida Shoatz in Pisaq, Cuzco shows her interacting with indigenous women. Ida was one of the few African American volunteers in Peru in 1964, but one of the most successful in her job as an elementary teacher, and, with her friendly and enthusiastic personality, a very popular person locally.
    One of the things we discovered in Cuzco was that many indigenous (Quechua) people possessed very negative, fearful views of Blacks, despite the fact that there were at the time only a very tiny number of Afro-Peruvians the area. Another PCV working in the city of Cuzco was so uncomfortable because of this, he left the PC. A reason for this, we hypothesized, was that in colonial times, African slaves were used to punish indigenous people and memories of that “image” remained embedded in local culture. This action is illustrated in the famous 1613 Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala “letter” the King of Spain, showing a Black slave whipping an Indian.

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