In March of 1970, a young White House aide named Lamar Alexander wrote a memo summarizing his boss’ plan to “phase out” the Peace Corps. President Richard Nixon saw the agency as a haven for draft-dodgers and other anti-establishment types, but he knew that his opponents would squawk if he simply eliminated it.
So Nixon sought to starve it, instead. “The best place to begin this effort, says the president, is to get an appropriations cut,” wrote Alexander, who would later become U.S. secretary of education and now serves as a senator from Tennessee.
I’ve been thinking about this history since March 15, when all 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers in 61 countries were ordered back to America in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The agency announced a “temporary suspension,” emphasizing that it will “return to normal operations when conditions permit.”
But I worry that the coronavirus will provide a new pretext to starve the agency. In 2017, the Trump administration proposed cutting the Peace Corps budget by 15 percent. And last year, Republicans in Congress introduced a measure that would have zeroed out the appropriation altogether.
Declaring that we should “put America first,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), proposed to use the saved dollars to support disaster relief in the United States. That earned him a stern rebuke on YouTube from a former Peace Corps volunteer in his district, Matt Swing, who called the Peace Corps our “best diplomatic tool.”
That’s a case the agency needs to make, over and over again. Despite what Nixon imagined, it doesn’t send young Americans out to bad-mouth America. To the contrary, it’s one of the most effective national advertisements we’ve ever created.
In the early 1980s, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to rural Nepal. My post was a three-day walk from vehicular traffic, so most of the people I interacted with had never met or seen an American. All they knew was that the United States was “the strongest country in the world,” as one villager told me.
And we didn’t always use that strength to the benefit of the world, either. Nepal was on the cusp of a Maoist revolution, and the left-leaning teachers at my school decried America’s incursions in Vietnam and elsewhere. They also denounced racial inequality in the United States, which Radio Moscow — a fixture of the local airwaves — trumpeted incessantly.
I didn’t try to argue with them; instead, I just listened and learned. I became fluent in the local language, lived with a family, and even named one of its children when she was born. I called her “Santi,” my favorite Nepali name. In English, it means “Peace.”
I don’t know whether I changed anyone’s view of America, nor was I attempting to do so. But now that the villagers had met an actual American, they were less likely to accept stereotypes about us. I wasn’t the imperialist ogre they heard about on the radio.
That’s why we must keep supporting the Peace Corps, starting with the recently evacuated volunteers. Fortunately, the stimulus package passed by Congress last week contains $88 million to assist them.
And once the virus has abated, we need to make sure that the Peace Corps revives as well. Nixon’s plan to decimate the agency fell short, largely because Americans saw how much it improved our image overseas. It would be hugely shortsighted to turn away from that vision now.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.”