Chapter 1: An Ugly War Encourages Me to Join the Peace Corps

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The main street of Gbarnga Liberia in 1965 where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Tears tracked across Jo Ann’s cheeks and I struggled to be sympathetic. It wasn’t easy.

We had just left her parents in San Francisco and boarded a United Airlines jet bound for New York City. Except for the time I surrendered five hard-earned dollars for a helicopter ride at the El Dorado County Fair, it was my first flight ever.

The jet taxied out on to the runway, climbed above the bay, and banked toward the east. We were leaving family, friends and life in the US behind. While Jo wrestled with the past, my thoughts were on the future.

Africa, teaching and adventure beckoned.

For seven hours we would be winging across America and gazing down on cotton clouds, mountain ranges, deserts, plains, cities, towns, farms and forests.

We waved goodbye to California as the plane flew over the Sierra-Nevada Mountains. The towering granite of the Crystal Range gave way to the deep blue of Lake Tahoe. My mind turned to our new status as Peace Corps Volunteers. Six months earlier we had serious doubts this day would arrive.

It was the spring of 1965 and Uncle Sam was looking for recruits. He’d bought a used colonial war from the French and needed soldiers to fight. Being a 22-year-old male about to graduate from college, I was a prime but reluctant candidate.

The conflict in Vietnam dated back to 1946. It was born ugly. France had lost her colonial empire in Indochina to the Japanese during World War II and Charles de Gaulle wanted it back. The Vietnamese Marxist Ho Chi Minh wanted independence. War was the result. Russia sided with the North Vietnamese in hopes of expanding her influence. NATO and the US jumped in to thwart Russia and support France in her colonial ambitions.

By 1955 France had abandoned the fight as a costly, no-win disaster that had sucked up more and more of the nation’s human and financial resources. Now, it was our turn. We would provide ‘military advisors’ and financial aid to the politically corrupt but anti-communist regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Over the next ten years our support continued to grow.

By the time I was ready to graduate, the US was ready to send in the troops.

The Cold War was raging. America’s leaders saw Vietnam as a critical step in stopping the spread of communism and communism was seen as an anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-democratic evil extending its cancerous tentacles throughout the world. Lose Vietnam, the Domino Theory argued, and all of Southeast Asia would follow.

My political science professors in International Relations at UC Berkeley had a different perspective. Communism was changing. It was no longer monolithic in nature but had taken on a nationalist flavor. Communism in Russia was different from communism in China. The Russians were as fearful of Chinese massing on their border as they were of the US’s nuclear weapons.

One day I arrived at my class on Comparative Communism and learned my professor had been invited to Washington to provide advice on Vietnam. The message he carried was that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first and a Marxist second. He was seeking independence for his nation. He was no more interested in being dominated by Russia than he had been in being dominated by France.

Becoming involved in a full-scale war was not in the best interest of the United States and might prove to be a costly mistake.

Washington refused to listen. America’s leaders had grown up on a steady diet of Cold War rhetoric. Not even the insanity of McCarthyism had shaken their faith. Being ‘soft on communism’ was political suicide. When Khrushchev banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations and said he would bury us, we banged back.

But I was convinced there was more to the fight in Vietnam than a communist grab for power. My International Relations major was focused on Africa and the news out of Africa in 1965 was on the struggle for independence from colonial powers.  I felt Ho Chi Minh was involved in a similar fight.

I decided Vietnam was not for me. Fighting in a war I didn’t believe in and killing people I didn’t want to kill was at the very bottom of my bucket list. And there was more. I am allergic to taking orders and can’t stand being yelled at. I’d make a lousy soldier.

I saw a court-martial in my future.

If drafted, I would go, however. I couldn’t imagine burning my draft card, running off to Canada or hiding out in the National Guard. I actually believe we owe our country service. Luckily, a temporary solution popped up. Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to Berkeley.

John Kennedy proposed this idealistic organization to a crowd of 5,000 students during a campaign speech at he University of Michigan on October 14, 1960. He was running four hours late and it was two in the morning. The response was overwhelming. One of his first acts as President was to create the agency.

Peace Corps service would not eliminate my military obligation but it might buy time for the Vietnam War to end. Of more importance, I felt the Peace Corps provided a unique opportunity to travel, represent the US in a positive way, and hopefully, do some good.

I talked the idea over with my fiancé. “Let’s do it!” Jo Ann responded. She and I would go together as a husband and wife team. When the Peace Corps recruiters opened their booth in front of the Berkeley Student Union, we were there to greet them.

“Sign us up,” we urged.

“Fill these out,” the recruiter responded, handing us two umpteen page blue applications. “You will also have to pass a language aptitude test in Kurdish and provide letters of recommendation.” I had my doubts about the Kurdish.

Apparently we looked good on paper. In a few weeks the Peace Corps informed us that we had been tentatively selected to serve as teachers in Liberia, West Africa. My brain did a jig. The age-old question of what you do when you graduate from school and enter the real world had been answered, or at least postponed.

Uncle Sam with his growing hunger for bodies to fight the Vietnam War would have to wait.

Next blog: My roommate at Cal tells the FBI and Peace Corps I am running Communist Cell Block meetings in our apartment.