Death of Fran Macy, Peace Corps Tunisia Director 1966-8
“Francis Macy, a dedicated environmentalist, energy activist and citizen diplomat, whose ground-breaking work inspired fresh collaborative ventures with the former Soviet Union, died unexpectedly of an apparent heart attack in Berkeley on January 20th at age 81.” Thus begins an obituary for Francis Underhill Macy. It ends with the following: “He died hours after watching with great joy the inauguration of President Barack Obama, an event he described as a high point in his life.” In between is a sketch of a life of quality and service. (for the full obituary click here).
If I write about Fran Macy it is because our lives and that of his wife, Joanna, crossed in Tunisia 43 years ago where he was the country’s Peace Corps director, a position he held most of the time I was there. Years later – in the early 1980s – I had the good fortune to re-connect with his wife Joanna, who had become a Buddhist, and a kind of spiritual leader in the movement known as the `The Freeze’ – the movement to freeze the production of both US and Soviet nuclear arsenals. She was a keynote speaker at a peace conference at George Washington High School here in Denver and gave a powerful speech that included asking everyone to hold hands. Then she asked the audience to imagine their friend to the left or to the right vaporized by a nuclear blast. I found the whole thing rather hokey actually, but when I turned to Nancy, she was in tears and deeply shaken as were others in the audience. Other than an old cynic like myself, she had touched a deep chord in the audience.
Joanna’s performance that day aside, I saw the Macys only once in the 41 years since leaving Tunisia, that was in Moscow in the late 1980s. I was there for a peace conference and so was Fran. It was during the Gorbachev period and Fan was busy leading delegations of Americans to Moscow – if I recall correctly – to explore joint venture possibilities. We spoke briefly. He didn’t remember me at first but then I refreshed his memory and something came back. I remember he was a bit uneasy. It is true that in Tunisia we weren’t that close. He was dealing with a rough and irreverent group of volunteers and Joanna, well Joanna was `trying to find herself’. She eventually did and then some but those Tunisia years found her a bit lost and at sea. Ours – I was a part of a very large Peace Corps group of teachers and architects – was a group made up to a very great extent of young men preferring the warm Mediterranean climate of Tunisia to the jungles of Vietnam. I don’t know of any of the males in the group who were not – in some way – draft dodgers, although perhaps there were. The women were different – they were a bunch of hardy, indepedent spirited types – extraordinarily so – among the strongest, most fearless women I had run into up until then. Not a draft dodger among them.
It is true that our group made life a bit difficult for Fran Macy. As mentioned below, we greeted a visit to Tunisia by then Vice President Hubert Humphrey with an anti-war petition signed by more than 250 volunteers. Several of us demonstrated for the first time in our lives against the war in Vietnam, not in New York or Washington, but in Tunis! Phil Jones and I went to a reception at the US Embassy with anti-war placards under our sportscoats. When we took them out, Humphrey was quickly hushed away from the scene as was everyone else, leaving Jones and I alone in the Embassy garden. We left our anti-war signs in the branches of an orange tree. Mine said `Napalm Kills Babies’ or something brilliant along those lines. I have heard since that it also kills adults. Then Jones and I walked away. As Humphrey left Tunisia from the airport he was greeted by another Peace Corps Volunteer friend – Dan Cetinich – who hollered `Humphrey Murderer’ at the good Vice President who was still in a state of shock from the little embassy protest. Dan, who had been `free-lancing’ – he hadn’t told any of `us’ – his friends what he was up to – was arrested and spent a few days in a Tunisian jail and was then released. We thought a number of us would be expelled from the country and the program – Macy was pretty embarrased by these events – but nothing happened. Macy easily could have had us expelled. He didn’t. The authorities were especially suspicious of him because he had studied Russian literature. Tunisian students at the University of Tunis also demonstated against Humphrey’s visit – and the US war in Vietnam. They paid a much harsher price for their activism though with several being killed in police riots that went on for days. Dozens were convicted and spent years in prison.
That was in February of 1968 just after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The Peace Corps demonstrations against the Vietnam War which were spontaneously organized in Tunisia, also broke out in Morocco, and Senegal and were gleefully reported in the French Press. It all looked `coordinated’ but the fact of the matter is that we in Tunisia knew no one in Peace Corps in Morocco or Senegal and that there was very little planning, just spontaneous protest about a horrific war the United States was perpetrating against an etire nation…in the name of fighting communism. It was only decades later that I stumbled upon a reference to Humphrey’s visit to Tunisia. It was a part of a larger tour the Vice President was making to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. At the same time that Humphrey was on tour, Dean Rusk had been sent out to Asia. The mission of the two was to find out how US allies would respond to the Johnson Administration’s use of nuclear weapons agains the Vietnamese. Both Humphrey and Rusk were greeted by large, angry antiwar demonstrations virtually everywhere they went. No US ally supported the US moving to `the nuclear option’. These leaders went further – they insisted that if the United States used nuclear weapons in Vietnam that not even close US allies could insure the stability of US interests in their country, including I was told informally Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba. The negative feedback hamstrung Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to escalate the war to the nuclear level. Shortly thereafter unable to either escalate or defuse the US war in Vietnam, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term for the presidency.
Macy was something less than pleased with our anti-war activism which put him in a difficult position. And it is true, I must admit, that by then, frankly, we – those of us who were activists in this campaign – didn’t really care. We had lived through the 1967 Middle East War – which triggered riots and intense social unrest in Tunisia’ we had come to have a rather cynical view of `our mission’; we could not – or at least many of us could not – reconcile our peace making in Tunisia with Washington’s war in Vietnam. By the time our stay was over, whatever innocence we brought with us to Tunisia, had disappeared forever. For many of us, myself included, it was take years to process what it was we had seen, heard, experienced in Tunisia – a country not long independent from French Colonialism, in neighboring Algeria which has suffered one of the most painful wars of the 20th Century, generally not known to Americans. And it was not only the social processes in North Africa that we tried to absorb. Back in the United States Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated while we were in Tunisia. We followed the intense rioting that followed King’s death – the angry turn in the Civil Rights Movement at home, the lightening quick evolution of the student anti-war movement, etc etc. For many of us, life back in the United States appeared rather shallow, just one vast and spiritually empty suburb from New York to San Francisco. In my life, it marked a certain and irreversible turn to the Left…
Fran and Joanna Macy were there through most of it. They could have been a great deal harsher – not that we could have easily been disciplined. But they weren’t. And for that I am grateful. Fran went on – as the obituary details – to live a full, productive and humane life with great interest in both the environment and nuclear disarmament.