Stanley Meisler: True to the Peace Corps

Roundup: Talking About History

[Stanley Meisler, a former LA Times staff writer, was deputy director of the Peace Corps office of evaluation and research. His latest book is "When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years."]

In some ways, the Peace Corps, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Tuesday, is a shadow of what it once was.

It had so much pizzazz in the early days that newspapers proclaimed the names of new volunteers as if they had just won Guggenheim fellowships. Now, the number of volunteers — 8,655 — is about half of what it was at its highest in 1966, and not everyone knows the Peace Corps still exists.

The first director — the irrepressible, inspiring Sargent Shriver, who put the program together in six months — made the cover of Time in 1963. The current director — Aaron Williams, a former volunteer with decades of experience in international development — barely gets his name in the papers. At a panel discussion at George Washington University a couple of years ago, Christiane Amanpour, then chief foreign correspondent of CNN, listed factors that had contributed to American worldwide popularity in the past. "There was a Peace Corps," she said.

Yet the Peace Corps, despite its loss of celebrity and size, has improved a great deal during its 50 years. It probably does a better job at one of its main goals: providing skilled manpower to poor countries in need. The volunteers are better trained than in the early years, arriving at their posts speaking not only the official language of the host countries but the local tribal language as well....

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