The One Word That Almost Sunk the Peace Corps

The One Word That Almost Sunk the Peace Corps

Margert Michelmore receiving instructions with other trainees in Peace Corps Camp.

Why you should care

Communicating across cultures will never be easy. But there are some lessons to be gained from past mistakes.

When John F. Kennedy asked young Americans in 1960 how many of them were willing to spend years in the developing world “working for freedom,” he surely had people like Marjorie Michelmore in mind. What he couldn’t have anticipated is how the young Marjorie almost sent his whole vision for the Peace Corps up in smoke.

Michelmore had just graduated magna cum laude from Smith College when she was selected for the inaugural class of Peace Corps volunteers in 1961. It was a pet project of Kennedy’s, a concept he first broached at a morning campaign rally at the University of Michigan in October 1960, after arriving several hours late. Thousands of students had waited for him — a sign of how much Kennedy excited young people back then. And he, in turn, was excited to tap into their potential to spread American culture and values throughout a rapidly changing world.

Empathy was the bridge back then, and it remains a central feature of the Peace Corps mission today.

In the second month of his presidency, Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps, and Congress passed a law later the same year authorizing the agency to “promote world peace and friendship.” It was a bold experiment in “giving extraordinary trust to young people, partly in the context of the whole Kennedy administration, itself, being youngsters,” says Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, a historian at San Diego State University and author of All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s.

The idea attracted its share of critics who questioned the idealism of the concept and the capacity of young people to conduct the hard work of development and diplomacy. Kennedy’s presidential opponent, Richard Nixon, condemned it as a potential “haven for draft dodgers,” according to a 1960 article from the Harvard Crimson. And the cadre of professional diplomats in America’s foreign service had their misgivings as well.

Which explains why a postcard Michelmore wrote to her boyfriend from her Peace Corps teacher training at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria became such a flash point. America may have been transitioning, but think what Nigeria was experiencing — as a new nation just granted independence from Britain the previous October. It was part of a huge swath of the African continent casting off colonial rule and testing new forms of government and self-empowerment.

So imagine Nigerians’ embarrassment at what Michelmore wrote on the postcard, which she accidentally dropped before mailing. It landed in the hands of a Nigerian student and then on the front pages of the country’s newspapers — and later the world’s. “We really were not prepared for the squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions,” she wrote, noting how she’d “had no idea what ‘underdeveloped’ meant.” She went on to say that it’d been “a very rewarding experience,” but the damage was done. For Nigerians, so proud of their new country, the “word ‘primitive’ was as insulting as anything anybody could say,” says Hoffman. Students launched protests that turned into riots. A distraught Michelmore had to flee the country. “I possibly thought I might have wrecked the whole Peace Corps idea,” she later recalled in Smith’s alumni magazine.

Margert Michelmore (R) telling Peace Corps trainees about her experiences it Nigeria.

Marjorie Michelmore (right) tells Peace Corps trainees about her experiences in Nigeria.

Source Carl Mydans/Getty Images

In the end, of course, the Peace Corps survived, not the least because of the grace and perseverance of Michelmore, her colleagues, their Nigerian hosts and Kennedy himself. When Nigerians demanded the program be expelled from their country, another American volunteer “went on a modified hunger strike,” Hoffman says, refusing to eat unless he could dine with the Ibadan students. At a time when parts of the United States — including Washington, D.C. — were still racially segregated, that kind of gesture resonated. Michelmore apologized to Nigeria’s leader before leaving the country, and on her way home she received a cable from Kennedy thanking her for her “steadfastness” in the face of turmoil. “We are strongly behind you and hope that you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps.” She did, working for the program in D.C. the following year.

The episode was a wake-up call for the young agency about how sensitive it needed to be to cultural differences. People like Michelmore, Hoffman says, were “very well-trained, they were people who were trying to be different.” But they were also young and living in a very different time, uninitiated by today’s modern communications, which have brought us face-to-face with world cultures. “I think it is the context, more than the Peace Corps itself, that’s evolved,” says Hoffman, noting that the agency was responsible for introducing “culture shock” into the American lexicon.

But empathy was the bridge back then, and it remains a central feature of the Peace Corps mission today. At a recent event, Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet emphasized how important compassion is to the organization’s efforts, highlighting how the agency responded to the sexual assault of its volunteers. “I don’t think I’ve ever met such incredibly dedicated, hardworking, compassionate people who care deeply about world peace,” she said. The Peace Corps, she noted, “attracts people like that and always has.”

To Hoffman, that kind of compassion started “at the very top of leadership” in the program’s early days, when a president with a lot at stake responded to an unintentionally scandalous postcard with a gesture of kindness.

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