Jack Vaughn: Peace Corps Legend
Last week I finished a piece that I have been working on for several months: a biography of Jack Vaughn, the second director of the Peace Corps. Vaughn, a lifelong Republican, was appointed the second Director of the Peace Corps in 1966 by Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson and led the Peace Corps on a non-partisan basis for three years through some of the agency's most challenging times.
Before joining the State Department Vaughn fought professionally under the name of "Johnny Hood." "I was bumming around Mexico one summer when I ran out of money," Vaughn said. "I decided I would take my boxing and turn pro, but I didn't know enough Spanish at the time to tell whether the agent said I would get 60 pesos for four rounds or four pesos for 60 rounds. You can guess which figure was correct." Vaughn fought 26 featherweight bouts as a professional. Vaughn tells the story that the first time he fought professionally in Mexico, the fans cheered enthusiastically but he couldn't make out what they were saying and he thought they were cheering him on. It was only later that he learned that what the fans were shouting was "Kill the Gringo!" Mata al Gringo! later became the title for Vaughn's unpublished memoirs.
Vaughn was appointed Peace Corps Director on February 16, 1966. Vaughn was in a bar at 12:30 on M Street in Georgetown when the bar telephone rang and the bartender asked, "Is there a Mr. Jack Vaughn here?" Vaughn answered yes the bartender says, "it's someone who says he's the president of the United States." "Let me finish this drink," replied Vaughn taking his time before picking up the phone and saying hello. On the line was President Lyndon Baines Johnson himself. "Vaughn," said LBJ. "How would you like to be the director of the Peace Corps?" "Mr. President," Vaughn replied calmly, "I thought you'd never ask."
When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, Vaughn found himself out of a job. One report says that Vaughn was asked by Nixon's Secretary of State William P. Rogers to stay on as Peace Corps director to emphasize the nonpolitical nature of the Peace Corps. Instead, Vaughn was informed in March, 1969, that he would be replaced after all and reports that Vaughn had been asked to stay on as Peace Corps Director in the Nixon administration were reported in the media to be untrue. "I was the first bureaucrat Nixon fired when he took office," Vaughn said. "But when he found out I was a Republican, he asked me if I'd be his ambassador to Colombia."
Vaughn opposed George W. Bush's nomination of Gaddi Vasquez to become Peace Corps Director in 2001. "As they say on the racing tout sheet for a horse that is not in the running: 'Nothing to recommend,'" Vaughn said. "He has little experience . . . and little to indicate that he understands how to run the Peace Corps or any international organization. It's clearly a political payoff, and it would be a shame to see him approved." As a Republican it pained Vaughn to have to oppose a nominee by a Republican President, but Vaughn came to Washington on his own and appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to speak out against the appointment of Vasquez. However Vasquez cleared the United States Senate Foreign Relations committee by a vote of 14-4, and was accepted in the full Senate on a voice vote.
Top Photo: Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn meets with reporters and answers questions in fluent Spanish in Honduras in February 1969. From the Peace Corps Volunteer magazine May, 1969.
Bottom Photo: Caption: Jack Vaughn, the second Director of the Peace Corps, (center) with C. Payne Lucas, President Emeritus of Africare (left), and Hugh Pickens, Publisher and Co-editor of Peace Corps Online. The photo was taken in 2007. Photo cannot be not be used without permission.