Fritz Fischer

(Photo by John Blake)

O Pioneers!

They were the pioneers of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, fueled by a potent mix of idealism and optimism. The U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s were also enthusiastic chroniclers of their experiences in the world's developing countries.

Historian Fritz Fischer (G94) mined a rich vein of primary sources for his history of the Peace Corps' first decade, Making Them Like Us (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998). As a graduate student at Northwestern, Fischer, now a professor at the University of Northern Colorado specializing in diplomatic history, began to explore the role of typical Americans in diplomacy. Assisted by a grant from the graduate school of the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, he researched the extensive archives at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the University of Michigan, where Kennedy first proposed the idea for the Peace Corps at a campaign stop in October 1960.

"I was searching for a topic that would let me move beyond the boundaries of traditional diplomatic history," Fischer says. "Peace Corps volunteers were quasi-ambassadors."

Fischer, who did not serve in the Peace Corps, says his role as an outsider helped him take a balanced look at an organization that tends to elicit an emotional response from returned volunteers and observers. "There is a difference between history and memory, and it helped to come at it from a different perspective."

Fischer's book takes a comprehensive look at both the inner workings of the Peace Corps administration and volunteers' training and personal lives in the field throughout the decade of the 1960s. Fischer follows the organization's formation in the early 1960s under the inspirational leadership of R. Sargent Shriver and notes the difficulties of remaining apolitical during the era of the Cold War.

The book also follows volunteers, from their recruitment and training to their postings around the world. Fischer relied on their reminiscences and Peace Corps newsletters and documents to paint a portrait of the idealism of U.S. citizens meeting the reality of developing areas.

He crafted the book around the idea that Peace Corps volunteers were pioneers on the frontiers of the world, mirroring in many ways the pioneers who settled the western United States in the 19th century. Both groups brought a can-do spirit and evolved technology to areas often ready for neither. Volunteers, like their counterparts a century earlier, saw themselves in part as people who would help those stuck at the starting line in the race to a modern world. "It was too intriguing to pass up, the connection with the new frontier," Fischer says.

Peace Corps volunteers encountered the same obstacles as any pioneers — difficult geography, sometimes hostile indigenous people and often harsh living conditions. Fischer says that, while the Peace Corps' mission of nation-building may not have been realized, it succeeded both in bringing the world to the United States and in educating volunteers about the developing world.

"What it's done is create one of the most efficient graduate education programs anywhere," he says. "Volunteers developed their own understanding of the Third World, and that part of the idealism was a success."

— K.M.