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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 tenure.

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 Director!

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 retroactively.

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 endeavor.

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!