Fifty years ago this month, Congress authorized the formation of the Peace Corps. Thailand’s foreign minister quickly called the organization “the most powerful idea in recent times.” A few years later, British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, “I believe that in the Peace Corps, the non-Western majority of mankind is going to meet a sample of Western man at his best.”
There were also critics. President Eisenhower called the organization “Kennedy’s juvenile experiment.” Spiro Agnew threatened to shut the entire program when former Peace Corps Volunteers helped organized peace protests; he condemned the organizers as part of “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”
Today, as the 50th Anniversary approaches, the Peace Corps is once again in the cross-hairs. U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) is leading the newest attack. On September 1, he submitted an open letter to his colleagues in which he criticized the work of the Peace Corps in China. He wrote that he finds it “troubling” that American taxpayers are spending $2.9 million a year, “essentially subsidizing [Chinese] higher education costs.” Representative Coffman would like the program eliminated as part of an effort to show “we are serious about cutting unnecessary and wasteful government spending.”
Peter Hessler—who served in the Peace Corps in China a decade before I did— wrote an eloquent response in the Denver Post. I’d like to add to his thoughts.
To begin with, I am baffled by Coffman’s priorities. The United States currently spends more in Iraq in a day than we do on the entire Peace Corps each fiscal year. We spend more each hour in Afghanistan than we did on the China program during my two years of service. Much of the money flowing into Iraq and Afghanistan is spent carefully, but as the Commission on Wartime Contracting recently reported, more than $60 billion has been lost to waste and fraud. Meanwhile, according to one Kenyan ambassador, “there is no overseas program that yields as much return for the taxpayers’ dollar as the Peace Corps.”
Yet Coffman would prefer to shut the Peace Corps program in China rather than vigorously investigate spending in our foreign wars.
Beyond the obtuse choice to attack the tiny Peace Corps while bloated private contractors continue to reap massive profits, I am insulted by Coffman’s assertion that the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China does little more than “defray expenses” for the Communist Party. I worked in Guiyang, the capital city of China’s poorest province. My days were spent at Guizhou University, a school in which the majority of the students came from peasant villages and almost all of whom were the first in their families to attend college. My evenings were spent organizing an after-school program for children from a small ethnic minority group, the Bouyei. These were kids surviving on about $2 dollars a day.
All of my students were working hard to climb out of crushing poverty and all were grateful to the United States for lending a hand. Some were quite simply baffled by my presence; they had soaked in a lifetime of propaganda telling them that the United States would only bring violence to Asia. Instead, I brought grammar lessons, poetry, and friendship.
Coffman implies that in doing this work, I was a stooge for the Chinese government. Yet as Hessler points out, Coffman issued his letter without ever visiting a Peace Corps volunteer, without ever talking to one of our students, and without making any effort to learn firsthand what he was talking about. He might be interested to learn that when the first director of the Peace Corps visited Asia, he was told by an official, “your [Peace Corps] Volunteers may well infect thousands with the ideas of a free society.”
Luckily, most Americans disagree with Coffman’s idea that a non-violent, humble foreign policy is “wasteful.” In fact, more than 200,000 Americans have chosen the Peace Corps as a way to serve both the United States government and the planet’s neediest people.
Representative Coffman served his country in a way I deeply respect: he was a member of the Armed Forces. I would never insult his service the way he insulted mine. He owes Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere an apology.