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When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years Hardcover – February 22, 2011

4.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Few government programs enjoy the reputation of the Peace Corps, a political afterthought by President Kennedy that became one of the more enduring legacies of his administration. Succeeding administrations have had testy relations with the Peace Corps. Johnson railed against volunteers’ opposition to his invasion of the Dominican Republic, and Reagan tried to use the program to advance his agenda in Central America. Since its 1961 inception, the Peace Corps has had to manage its mission to advance peace and provide development assistance, from teaching to building wells, against political onslaughts within the U.S. and host nations even as it managed its image as symbol of American idealism rather than tool of the CIA. Meisler, a deputy director during its early years, offers informed perspective from the turbulent years of the Vietnam War, when many volunteers were conflicted about their government, to the future direction of the Peace Corps. Drawing on his experience and interviews with former volunteers, he presents the fascinating characters, locales, and political background noise from a near-universally admired program’s 50-year history. --Vanessa Bush

Review

“Recommended. For general readers, but should be owned by all academic as well as public libraries.“—CHOICE

“The Peace Corps has always been poorly understood by Americans, and even its Volunteers rarely know much about the agency’s founding and development.  When the World Calls is an instructive, thorough, and fascinating history."—Peter Hessler, New Yorker staff writer, journalist, and author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze
 
“A thoughtful, balanced story of a program that captured the spirit of America. My Peace Corps service defined me and thousands of others who had the privilege of serving.”—Donna E. Shalala, president, University of Miami, and former secretary of Health and Human Services
 
“This is a wonderful portrait of the Peace Corps, its tangled history, its people, and its mission. It is a timely reminder of how it is possible to bring hope and change to the world. Stanley Meisler—a distinguished foreign correspondent—is just the man to tell this story.”—Paul Theroux
 
“Stanley Meisler delivers an enlightened and engaging narrative of President Kennedy’s ‘most enduring legacy’—the Peace Corps. With humor and a historian’s eye for telling detail, he carries us through this remarkable organization’s fifty years of history and leaves us convinced that 200,000 Volunteers really did make a difference in the world.”—David Lamb, long-time Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and author of Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns
 
“Stanley Meisler is a gifted writer—and one who knows the Peace Corps well, both from his work there in the early years and his decades as a foreign correspondent. This book is full of insights and great anecdotes. It is wonderful history, wonderfully told.”—James Mann, author-in-residence, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (February 22, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807050490
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807050491
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,329,080 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By David Kinchen on February 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover
When the World Calls' Reminds Us There Still is a Peace Corps 50 Years After Its Founding

When I received my review copy of Stanley Meisler's "When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years" (Beacon Press, 288 pages, $26.95) I was frankly surprised that the Peace Corps -- founded in 1961, the year I graduated from college -- was still functioning. Obviously, the Peace Corps not as high profile as it was in the 1960s or in subsequent decades, but in 2009 there were 7,671 "Volunteers" -- the odd name chosen for those idealistic souls who sign up for service in what used to be called "Third World" countries. That designation is so un-PC today, when countries are called "developing," but using a word like "Volunteers" (Meisler capitalizes it throughout) suggests there was a draft or something like it for Peace Corps people.

Meisler, a former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a staffer at the Peace Corps for several years, is an engaging and graceful writer and he includes statistics like the one above. In its peak year, 1966, there were 15,556 Volunteers. In the early years of the Corps, Meisler was deputy director of the Peace Corps' Office of Evaluation and Research, but "When the World Calls" is anything but a cleaned up, authorized history of the organization.

Meisler deals frankly with the scandals and controversies involving volunteers, including young Paul Theroux, later a best-selling novelist and travel writer, in Malawi. The calls 'em as he sees 'em Theroux, to the surprise of no one who has read his books, was accused of meddling in the African nation's internal affairs and was expelled. Born in Massachusetts in 1941, Theroux served in the Peace Corps from 1963 to 1965, teaching in Malawi.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
While the majority of Peace Corps books profile Volunteer experiences, this book is most useful in profiling the institution of the Peace Corps. The events told in this book take place mostly in the offices between the White House and the Country Director position, documenting actions and attitudes of the Peace Corps role players. For someone looking to learn about the Peace Corps, but not from a cheerleader perspective, this is your book.

On a personal note, I served in the Peace Corps from '03-'05 and did not know much about its evolution over the 40 years prior with the exception of the popular Sarge Shriver stories. The impact this book had on me could best be analogized like this: You know how sometimes a lot of the work parents put into raising children is often not known or appreciated until those kids become adults or parents themselves? This book provided me that appreciation for the Peace Corps. Thank you Sarge, and everyone else since who kept the Peace Corps going until it was my turn to serve. I'll do my best to make sure it will be around well into the future!
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the most comprehensive study of the Peace Corps' Washington D.C. politics in print. Any former volunteer or even someone interested in the agency's political workings should read this book. Meisler covers budgets, congressional hearings, debates and controversies. A journalist, the author writes in concise language, best appreciated in tandem with Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010. Together, they form the backbone of 50 years of history.
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Format: Hardcover
"And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." -- Galatians 6:9 (NKJV)

Old timers like me remember how thrilling it was when Presidential candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy called for establishing the Peace Corps: "I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area [fluency in foreign languages among foreign service personnel] be supplemented by a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for three years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service, well-qualified through rigorous standards, well-trained in the languages, skills, and customs they need to know." The idealism captured in that statement was amplified at his inaugural address where the famous call "Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ." resounded around the world. When the president then appointed his own brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to head this task, it seemed like the world was sure to become a more peaceful place . . . friendlier to the United States and humanitarian causes.

I enjoyed learning in this book how that vision was transformed into quite a different reality, with pragmatic desires to help struggling against political pressures to make a splash in Washington. I was fascinated to see how the Peace Corps' esprit helped it to survive attacks and lack of support by those who wanted to scuttle it.

As the Peace Corps' public profile dropped, so did its size, budget, and potential influence. But it continues today . . . something that many people don't realize. I think you'll be glad that its determined volunteers and leaders have built an independent streak that has served the United States and the world well.
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