Today is Peace Corps Day. Established by President Kennedy fifty years ago today, the Peace Corps has three simple goals:
• Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
• Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
• Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Kennedy predicted “The logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.” Bringing the experience home to America is known as the Third Goal of the Peace Corps.
Americans are relatively isolated by two oceans and the size of our country. Many believe the focus of studying history should be to encourage patriotism. America too easily becomes insular in its understanding of the world.
Going abroad in the Peace Corps often means spending our entire day talking a different language, being a minority of one – for the vast majority a very welcome one – but on our own, needing to understand a foreign culture in order to do ordinary daily chores.
I was in Iran under the Shah, at a university in central Iran, where fertile land once supported a great civilization but had now become a desert. Women students dressed in western fashion, though they had the traditional chador where necessary. Many medical students were women.
My future wife was also a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in high schools in northern Iran, a thousand miles away by bus. The young men where she worked looked out for her, and made sure that a single American woman was treated with appropriate respect.
Volunteers find wonderful people everywhere. Iranians went way out of their way to be helpful, show me places, figure out what I needed, offering to do things for me. Not everyone of course. There are good and bad all over the world; no country is an exception to that law of averages.
One of the first lessons we all learned is the power of nationalism. Most people love their own countries, welcome those who come as friends, and have long memories about ways their countries have been slighted. Volunteers learn how easy it is to misunderstand each other across cultures. We worked it out. But it left me sad when both the US and Iran handled each other with such little understanding, and disastrous results, at the time of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
I was there during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Lots of Persians admired Israel more than its neighbors. There too, more cultural savvy might have made a different, and better, world.
I don’t mean to be pollyannaish. The current government of Iran is scary. Many friends are refugees from an Iran that treated them poorly, to put it mildly. But I don’t see the Iranian people as an axis of evil either. Like us all, they have their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams and fears.
I don’t think my service made some great difference in their lives. But I know that they have enriched mine, and left me more of a realist. For those blessings, I feel very much indebted, to our Peace Corps, my many friends in Iran, and the many people there who treated me with courtesy and respect.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 1, 2011.