Doing the Blitz
Hal Flemming in the1970s
In addition to my hectic headquarters duties that first year, I was called upon to join recruiting teams on campus, to give talks in classrooms and give more formal speeches. My first assignment took me to Texas Southern University in Houston where I joined four of our recruiters from the euphemistically called Specialized Recruiting Unit, which targeted predominantly black colleges and universities. The team of former Volunteers all attractive young Afro-American women met up with me at our Houston motel the Sunday before our campaign at Texas Southern began. I recall being more apprehensive about traveling South given the unease in the region about civil rights and the pressures for desegregation, rather than about my credibility with students and faculty. Also, my father, who had been born in the then-British West Indies and raised in the East, cautioned me about going south of the Potomac River, and I never had except to National Airport in nearby Arlington, Virginia.
The Specialized recruiting team caused quite a stir at the motel and at dinner. Although the reservations had been guaranteed through Washington and the facility, part of a national chain, advised of our mission, we were probably the desegregation test case. A sales convention was having its kick-off dinner at the same time we sat down to eat, but I believe the stares from the white businessmen had more to do with speculation about my particular role in hosting the four animated and photogenic young women, than with any real discomfort at being in the same dining room with blacks.
Because my staff of information officers and recruiters included many who had gone out in the first Peace Corps days, they had received much coverage in their home town newspapers and in the national media for being the first Volunteers in some of the worlds remotest areas, for living in some cases under extremely primitive conditions, for being Americas new goodwill ambassadors, and, hopefully, for providing practical and lasting help to those Africans, Asians and Latinos they served. To many still in college or in high school, these first waves of Volunteers were larger than life, heroes and heroines of a bright new age.
Unfortunately, the recruiters many accomplishments overseas and all the attendant adulation soon became overshadowed by Americas darkening clouds. Anti-war protests triggered police brutality and worse. With the Civil Rights movement, surfaced deep-seated bigotry. Two days before my recruiting visit to Houston, white State Troopers turned on and shot students at South Carolina A&E, a predominantly black land-grant college. In my brief two years at Peace Corps/Washington, we would be further shocked and embittered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. All of my beautiful, bright-eyed Peace Corps boys and girls would be stunned by what was happening to America, and they saw it every day going from Williamstown to Cambridge, from State College to Ann Arbor, from Southern to Grambling, from Santa Cruz to Berkeley.
On the West Coast, which in the late 1960s produced almost 40% of our prime applications from the big state universities in California, Washington and Oregon, the campus anti-war radicalism, epitomized at Berkeley, began to infect some in our San Francisco office, creating anxieties at headquarters about a possible short-fall in our recruiting targets. In the first time in my professional career, I had to play the heavy and fire people. I identified ten of the most bitter and disillusioned from our San Francisco office and they left without much protest, realizing the damage they were causing but being unwilling to moderate their militancy. I then moved in substitutes from the true believers in the Chicago and Washington offices, who relished a change of venue. I experienced a number of sleepless nights about the lives I had altered in this personnel shuffle, but became forever marked in my Foreign Service career, for better or for worse, as a task-oriented manager.
Among the many Peace Corps Recruiters working for me during this period were: Phil Sheller (Thailand), Jon Sutinen (Kenya), Phillip Yocum (Liberia), Jan Pawlowski (Jamaica), Robert Read (India), Elaine Sutinen (Kenya), Ann Buessing (Iran), Robert Casey (India), Alan Corner ( Sierra Leone), Gloria and David Myklebust (Cameroon), Jon Keeton (Thailand), Priscilla Luders (Malaysia), Frank Garcia (Guatemala), Vern Fulcher (Ethiopia), Robert Fogg (Turkey), Ken Hill (Turkey), and Maureen Orth (Colombia). Never before (or since) have I worked with such dedicated and talented young people.
The Numbers Game
In spite of the unrest across the country and the soul-searching within our own ranks, we managed to significantly surpass our recruiting quotas and fill our training targets. Some said our numbers were so high because young men were joining the Peace Corps to evade military service, since most draft boards quietly and unofficially acknowledged volunteering in such programs as Peace Corps and VISTA as an alternative to military service. In answering Congressional inquiries on this suspicion of draft dodging, we pointed out that we were consistently recruiting males and females in a fifty-fifty ratio. If anything the number of female applicants showed a slight increase. These numbers tended to diffuse the criticism, but did not mute the clamor of some right wing conservatives who had no love for anything that smacked of foreign aid, as well as anything associated with the late John F. Kennedy.
On any given day from September 1967 to May 1968 we had teams of recruiters on 30 to 40 campuses across the country. The leaders of the various teams called into headquarters almost every evening with their application results as well as the news on campus protests and more violent student confrontations with authorities. Various offices of the U.S. Congress would also call in to confirm reports of troubles at universities in their respective home districts, and between five and seven P.M. most evenings at PC/W, I was on the phones. The news media also learned that we were a timely source of such information. The offices of several bachelor Congressmen also called regularly not to learn about campus riots but the whereabouts of recruiter Eileen, or Sue, or Sally. We had among our recruiters and information officers some of the most glamorous women in Washington, for they had been hand picked for their looks as well as their brains.