Coffman Attacks the Peace Corps

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.

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One response to “Coffman Attacks the Peace Corps

  1. i was recently talking with a woman who finished a stint teaching english in china for a modest rate of pay. she was upbeat about china endeavoring to make english the second language. i myself do not advocate cultural imperialism, just equal exchange. one person there can learn english if one person here can learn chinese. one person there can study here if one person here can study there. better yet, any and everyone can learn any language for free, under the rubric of freedom of speech and movement. just make suitable learning materials free.

    the peace corps is part of the ebb and flow of the american government and people. however, i think we should not be teaching english to foreigners without them teaching us too.

    but that is OK. one time i met one of the 911 conspirators by coincidence before 911, where they made their arrangements at a south florida fishing pier late on sunday nights. i asked him if he was speaking arabic and he said yes, why do you ask. i said if i knew arabic, though the teach yourself books and software resources were dismal, i could ride a bike around the world, and for the areas that speak arabic i would be able to communicate, navigate and see the best places and make friends. he replied, don’t worry, we all speak english. that man was all over the news a few weeks later, mohammed atta, some unknown arab who spoke good english, enrolled in flight school and fooled american security, ringlieading the 911 hijackings/ crashes.

    if i knew arabic and heard them at a bus stop or a checkout line at the supermarket conspiring to hijack a plane, that would not be disregarded. thus i question the idea of promoting english in china if we don’t know chinese.

    heck, why don’t we teach all the arabs hebrew?! then they would all be friends of israel and peace would break out in the middle east.

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