Peace Corps/Turkey: A Retrospective
by David N. Weinman
During the heady days of 1961/62 R. Sargent
Shriver, the first Peace Corps Director, spent many hours flying overseas to
discuss the idea with countries eager to learn about the new "mid-level
manpower." These "different Americans" were to symbolize a powerful
antidote to the old images of tired diplomats and "ugly" foreign aid
technicians who often lived in deluxe styles far removed from the average
host country national. In many instances Volunteers actually became
the first significant American presence to reside in a country.
Consequently early pictures of Peace Corps life abroad often showed
Volunteers being greeted by host country Presidents and other high officials
expressing warm words of welcome and appreciation for their coming. In
case the reader can't recapture the picture, that was "not" Turkey and for
some very understandable reasons!
Within the framework of a well-ensconced Cold
War and influenced by the generosity of the Truman plan's aid to Greece and
Turkey, the U.S. and Turkey had forged a very close and interactive
partnership which had resulted in large numbers of U.S. military and foreign
air technicians going to Turkey. By September 6, 1962, when Turkey 1
disembarked at Ankara's Esenboga airport, the trappings of "dostluk" had
been in evidence for some time. Turkey agreed to accept "middle-level
manpower," but there was not a genuine understanding of the concept, and,
therefore, no impetus to assess its potential contribution in glowing terms.
Turks had long since become accustomed to skilled technicians criss-crossing
Anatolia. Thus, Peace Corps/Turkey (PC/T) from the beginning was not
granted that feeling of specialness which many other Volunteers experienced,
at least until they had integrated themselves into their respective towns.
In Ankara the Turkish officials assigned to work with Peace Corps staff were
lower level in rank and generally bureaucratically conservative in
attempting to derive full return from one more U.S. contribution. With
a Peace Corps staff of one having preceded the Volunteers by only seven
weeks. Turkish officials were basically content to watch and hold
their breath that the younger Americans would not embarrass the government,
local officials, or themselves by ignoring the constraints of a secular but
Muslim culture. This stance did not change dramatically during PC/T's
Programmatically the Government of Turkey
(GOT) wanted TEFL volunteers, but beyond that was in no hurry to identify or
seek the availability of other skills. As a result, the milieu for
developing a Peace Corps presence differed significantly from those in more
enthusiastic settings. This was further attenuated by the fact that
the Volunteers were clearly not going to suffer severe physical deprivation,
a situation at odds with the ever constant hair-shirt image of early Peace
Corps. The knowledge that Turkey would prove to be one of the most
difficult programs in terms of Volunteer mental health pressures growing out
of a gender-segregated society was yet to be learned!
As Peace Corps/Washington (PC/W) on a weekly
basis regaled the Acting Director with tales of huge requests for Volunteers
being generated in neighboring countries, Turkey 1 worked quietly to
establish the recognition and value of a different kind of foreign aid.
The Ankara office was not besieged by Foreign Ministry requests, though
private individuals began to call. Staff in fact was excessively
engaged in trying to convince GOT that eight Agricultural Volunteers could
make a contribution, even though they were not technicians. The
ultimate irony of that particular effort was wrought in the Spring of 1963,
when a Washington evaluator came to review the first year. About a
month before his arrival and first exposure to a developing country, PC/T
had finally secured permission to place two PCVs in a village outside
Ankara, surely the forerunner to rural community development! Toward
the end of the evaluator's stay after his visits to both TEFL and the
disenchanted Ag Volunteers, the Acting Director and he went to the new
village, the former with great relief at moving closer to PC/W's "real Peace
Corps," the latter about to experience a virulent form of culture shock due
to observing a rural Turkish way of life spanning centuries! Early-on
the two jubilant PCVs, feeling useful for the first time in six months,
casually mentioned their new badges of acculturation, bug-bites. On
the ride back to the office the evaluator ordered the Director to remove the
PCVs from the village, a mandate which was most diplomatically rejected with
the equivalent of F... you. The evaluator did not forget, when he
later wrote the program in Turkey was operating quite well, except for the
In its first year Turkey 1 performed as
hoped, and the result was a second request for TEFL, to be followed by
Turkey 3, an amalgam of 30+ Volunteers with backgrounds in Nursing, Home
Economics, and Business Education arriving in December '63. Ross
Pritchard, a former college Professor and congressional candidate from
Memphis, arrived in September '63 to become Director. Many Turkey 1
Volunteers moved to open new sites for their second year, as TEFL in Turkey
grew beyond 100. The new Director, steeped in evaluation reports he
had read on the importance of Community Development, moved quickly to sell
GOT on that "felt need." The government responded by requesting Turkey
5, while displaying little real understanding of what they had ordered.
Turks have always been sensitive about the conditions of their villages, and
it was only their lack of knowledge about Community Development which
allowed them to consider placing foreigners there, if that's what the
Americans wanted. Peace Corps/Turkey numerically took off, and by
September '64 totaled over 300 PCVs. In the Fall of 1964 the mosaic of
PC/T changed dramatically, when Volunteers moved for the first time into
villages and as singly assigned teachers to remote kazas of eastern Turkey.
As this was happening, an external event of
major significance for the Peace Corps occurred. The Turkish/Cyprus
crisis flared, forever lowering the odds that even a modest, very carefully
planned program, which PC/T was not at that time, would be able to survive
the effect. As the pace of Turkish external and then internal politics
began to accelerate, so did the watchful stance of GOT, as it observed
foreigners living intimately in all geographic areas. By September
1965 PC/T was heading toward its numerical zenith, soon attained by Turkey
12's arrival in late Fall. Turkey 12 embodied the worst of Peace Corps
planning both in its specifics and in stretching PC/T's ability to manage
the overall program which had reached almost 600 and was third largest
worldwide. Even the Peace Corps was not exempt from charges of hubris!
The situation was probably best illustrated by the quick transition between
the outgoing director and Dr. David Berlew, the new Director and former MIT
professor, consisting of an earlier brief U.S. meeting and a twelve-hour
overnight between Pam Am flights, when Berlew arrived in Ankara. It
turned out to be a portent of things to come!
Turkey 12 stands thus as PC/T's hydra, both
high-water mark and Waterloo. Its genesis was a small experiment in
Ankara's Gulveren gecekondu, later known as Urban Community Development.
Dr. Ihsan Dogramaci, Director of Hacettepe Hospital in Ankara and creative
founder of Hacettepe University, finally agreed with the PC/T Director to
bring a larger group to continue and expand the experiment country-wide.
Turkey 12 was recruited and had almost finished its training, when Dogramaci
backed out of the project. The Peace Corps hastily decided to add one
month to the training and reframe the concept to have PCVs work in TB labs
in the morning and do urban CD in the afternoons, being careful not to
emphasize the latter to Turkish officials who believed they were getting
PCVs for a full day.
The program imploded in barely five months,
as it became clear that the TB center "mudurs" had no real work to offer
PCVs except clerical. Volunteer disillusionment under those
circumstances was natural, quick, and sharp. One solution made sense,
and that was to end the program immediately, transferring those who wanted
to remain to other ongoing activities and allowing the remainder to return
home. Unfortunately Peace Corps/Washington insisted on charging the
transportation costs to the PCVs, in line with the existing policy for
jearly departures. Nevertheless, a letter signed by the PC/T staff to
Director J. Vaughn, Shriver's successor, supporting the payment, ultimately
had an effect, which PC/W one year later changed its policy, sadly not
Earlier in the Fall of '65 PC/T had suffered
another blow to its credibility with the arrival of its largest group ever,
200+ Volunteers in Turkey 8. It turned out that GOT had not made plans
to utilize them at all, and so a cadre of 30 or so were left to depart
Ankara and move around Turkey looking for TEFL positions. Finally
everybody was placed, but neither Turkish officials who heard about it nor
the PCVs involved, ever quite forgot the embarrassment. A year later
when staff held a round of regional meetings, the anguished comments of the
Volunteers were still to be heard along with their impatience at Ankara's
admin operation not being able to meet their needs quickly enough.
Thus PC/T, having violated the dictum that small can be beautiful, foundered
on managing a very large program in an increasingly fractious environment.
As a result the map at headquarters which had a pin for each site gradually
shrank. No longer were Volunteers to work from Cesme in the west to a
village just west of Lake Van.
The unanticipated transfer of Dave Berlew added to the now seemingly jinxed
Peace Corps life. This was one event of a series which made the spring
of '66 memorable! In April PC/W, though forewarned, was shocked to
learn that GOT had dramatically cut back its requests, especially in CD
where only Turkey 10, having trained during the previous summer after junior
year, was allowed to arrive. The cut also caught PC/T by surprise,
since a key piece of knowledge had not been communicated during the
transition of Directors. The new Director did not know that no request
for PCVs was ever to be considered official until processed from the
oversight ministry through the Foreign Ministry. The impact of this
oversight was even more clear after PC/T officials were called on the carpet
by the Foreign Ministry to explain how some PC group (actually Turkey 12)
had never been officially cleared for Turkey but was apparently in country!
Donovan McClure, a former journalist and
Peace Corps Director in Sierra Leone, arrived in mid-1966 as PC/T's fourth
Director. Collectively McClure and his staff worked hard to change
directions, aided and abetted by the GOT which, if it wasn't sure what it
really wanted, knew it did not want more American friends in suspect places
such as villages and schools which now had sufficient Turkish English
teachers. Volunteers were admonished to be strict in their
demeanor and appearance. Most were, but the 1966/67 school year
brought some discomfort as non-Ankara PCVs contemplating facial hair were
discouraged, and a few who insisted on bringing America's new drug habits to
Turkey were sent home. Overall, however, life became calmer, and
smaller numbers brought a respite, as GOT continued its support of TEFL,
Child Care, Nursing, and sought a new Tourism project.
Summer 1968 brought the arrival of PC/T's
last Director, Jack Corey, a Social Welfare Official from California.
Turkey's domestic politics brought PC/T's greatest challenge, as escalating
violence raised the issue of assuring Volunteer safety, especially in the
universities. Groups 15, 16, and 17 witnessed a Turkey wrestling for
its soul. The inevitable happened, and by Peace Corps/GOT agreement
the program was terminated at age eight. PC/W had asked the first
Director to make a field assessment which was followed by a few additional
U.S./Embassy contacts in the summer of 1970. The Peace Corps offered a
change in program and sought direct administration by GOT. Turkey
discussed the possibility of receiving more technical skills along with TEFL.
In the end it appears that both parties heaved a small sight of relief and
agreed to talk again at a future date uncertain! One Volunteer English
teacher stayed to finish his tour in June '71.
In retrospect, Turkey without question was a
very difficult Peace Corps assignment. The kudo's, and there were a
number at the actual working level of the Volunteer, were more often
overridden by the journalistic headlines and charges of CIA agents at work.
It was not categorical that the program had to die in eight years, but the
combination of GOT's low-level involvement (though at one point GOT actually
made a small host country contribution), Turkey's descent into the morass of
violence and radical politics, and PC/T's occasional lapses into developing
"our" program formed an explosive mix. Had the students who learned
English, the children who found an improved orphanage life, or the patients
who learned what nursing care is really about, had a voice, there might have
been a different ending.
With the above I have attempted to provide a
generally chronological and purposely anecdotal summary. In discussing
the Peace Corps experience in Turkey as elsewhere, there are many other
questions worthy of discussion. One thinks immediately of asking what
the real contribution to Turkey was. Unfortunately in a world where
information increasingly drives our days, there is not real backlog of such
data, though we made PPBS estimates as all federal agencies did.
Personally I am content to let each PCV and staff member answer the question
on his or her terms. It is clear from all the visits with Turkish
officialdom that much service was rendered. A good number of children
and adults learned English; hospitals glimpsed what up-graded nursing skills
could mean; orphanages began to consider that baby-sitting small children
might not be the best alternative, and rural villagers learned new
techniques to lessen the poverty surrounding them. Holding an
incremental view of development I have personally not wavered in strongly
believing that the Peace Corps, warts and all, was and is a truly noble
Moving the query further along, individuals
can provide the best in-depth analysis of what life in Turkey did or did not
do for them. It is in this vein that it was considered worthwhile to
gather as a total Peace Corps program of 17 groups and bring our collective
consciousness to bear. It is hoped that the brief time allotted to our
small seminars will prove useful in sharing and sharpening the perspective
that the years since Turkey have tempered.
When Turkey 1 trained, they were told by
instructors and staff that their upcoming life would be in a fishbowl.
It was not until 1970 during the interviews that were a part of the final
review that we confirmed for sure just how big a fishbowl it had been.
The memurs and mudurs could recite in detail, especially those who had
supervised different PCVs over a number of years, how they remembered the
smallest aspects of personality, work ethic, and service. Had
Volunteers pondered long that type of observation, it would have made the
task immeasurably more difficult. That final round of interviews,
however, also made it unequivocally clear that Turkey's Volunteers and the
staff that supported them left a mark on Anatolia. Who knows, perhaps
in 2000 years we can officially join that great historical list of those who
have traversed the plains and made it the magnificent living museum it is!