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When the World Calls

The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years

Author: Stanley Meisler

A complete and revealing history of the Peace Corps

When the World Calls is the first complete and balanced look at the Peace Corps’s first fifty years. Revelatory and candid, journalist Stanley Meisler’s engaging narrative exposes Washington infighting, presidential influence, and the Volunteers’ unique struggles abroad. He deftly unpacks the complicated history with sharp analysis and memorable anecdotes, taking readers on a global trek starting with the historic first contingent of Volunteers to Ghana on August 30, 1961. In the years since, in spite of setbacks, the ethos of the Peace Corps has endured, largely due to the perseverance of the 200,000 Volunteers themselves, whose shared commitment to effect positive global change has been a constant in one of our most complex-and valued-institutions.
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“The Peace Corps has always been poorly understood by Americans, and even its Volunteers rarely know much about the agency’s founding and development....[A]n instructive, thorough, and fascinating history.” —Peter Hessler, New Yorker staff writer, journalist, and author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

“In his new and engaging history...Meisler takes us through a concise and affectionate look at its birth, and its various political battles.” —Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times

“Meisler’s affection for the agency permeates every chapter. But he does not ignore criticisms and failures, making for a balanced, satisfying institutional history.” —Steve Weinberg, San Francisco Chronicle

“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 Shalala, president, University of Miami, and former secretary of health and human services

“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....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

“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

From Chapter Eight, “The Specter of Vietnam”

On January 6, 1966, two Peace Corps officials embarked on a secret, reckless trip to Vietnam. The goal of their mission was to find out whether Vietnam might be a suitable country for a Peace Corps program. That goal was foolish and fanciful. President Lyndon Johnson had already dispatched thousands of combat troops to South Vietnam and ordered the continual bombing of North Vietnam. Antiwar rallies were already dominating campus life on universities throughout the United States. Peace Corps Volunteers were joining protests. Any attempt to place Volunteers in Vietnam would have crippled the Peace Corps. Even news of the exploratory trip would have damaged the Peace Corps badly.

The two officials were Warren Wiggins, deputy director of the Peace Corps, and Ross J. Pritchard, director of Far East regional operations. Within the Peace Corps, Wiggins and Pritchard were known as the most fervent players of the numbers game--they relentlessly promoted massive new programs without worrying about meticulous planning. But it was not their idea to go to Vietnam.

Wiggins, who died in 2007, never discussed the Vietnam adventure publicly. But Pritchard, retired in Tennessee, says they flew to Vietnam because Johnson ordered them to go. Pritchard says he and Wiggins knew that a program in Vietnam “would ruin the Peace Corps, absolutely wreck it. Because of the mood on campuses, it would cut us off at the knees.” But Bill Moyers, the former Peace Corps deputy director who was now White House press secretary, told them that Johnson insisted they go. According to Pritchard, “We went with great, great reluctance.”

They should have resisted. But Johnson’s insistence came at a time would not take over the agency until March 1.

Despite their reluctance, Wiggins and Pritchard sent a rather enthusiastic cable to the U.S. embassy in Saigon announcing their arrival. The cable, written by Pritchard, boasted, “Peace Corps elsewhere and its ability to provide significant numbers of Volunteers suggests there may be a useful role in Vietnam.”

“While it is important for the Peace Corps to maintain an independent, nonpolitical stance in order to avoid jeopardizing its worldwide acceptance,” the cable went on, “the ability of the Peace Corps to work with and attract host country participation may have potential in Vietnam now and more especially in the future.”

The two officials provided a cover story and assured their hosts that the Peace Corps was prepared to lie about the mission. “We desire to avoid publicity for this visit,” they said. “If questioned here [Washington], the Peace Corps will take the position that both men are in vicinity Southeast Asia on business and interested in exploring possible role for Peace Corps Volunteers and/or other international Volunteers with refugee work in Vietnam.” There was no need to invoke the cover story. The press never spotted the adventure. In fact, hardly anyone in the Peace Corps itself knew that Wiggins and Pritchard had left for Vietnam.

In Saigon, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. welcomed them and promised that the U.S. embassy would show them whatever they wanted to see. Wiggins and Pritchard looked at six sites, including the battleground city of Hue. In each case, their plane would spiral downward while landing to avoid gunfire.

Wiggins and Pritchard decided to explore neighboring Laos as well. Their reception from Ambassador William H. Sullivan in Vientiane was far different. Sullivan was supervising what would become known as the “secret war” in Laos. CIA agents were leading guerilla units against rebels and North Vietnamese troops. U.S. military pilots, wearing civilian clothes, were flying missions in support of the Laotian government.

Sullivan did not want independent-minded Peace Corps Volunteers stepping into the cauldron.

“Sullivan was absolutely adamant that this was the stupidest idea he had ever heard of,” Pritchard recalls. “He chewed our asses out.”

After their ten-day trip, Wiggins and Pritchard wrote a report. They could not resist sounding expansive about the future. “Under different circumstances, you could put a thousand Volunteers into Vietnam,” they wrote, according to Pritchard. But in view of the dangers of the war and the backlash that a Vietnam program would unleash elsewhere in the Peace Corps, they strongly recommended against launching a program there.

The conclusions of the report did not matter in any case. Vaughn, the new director, made it clear: No Volunteers would go to Vietnam, no matter what the report recommended, no matter what Johnson demanded.

At Vaughn’s swearing-in ceremony at the White House, President Johnson made his case for the Peace Corps in Vietnam someday. While soldiers struggled to halt aggression by North Vietnam and Viet Cong insurgents and provide security in South Vietnam, he said, “other workers of peace . . . must lay the foundation for economic and social progress.” He counted on the Peace Corps to do just that in the future. “The day, I hope, will soon come,” the president said, “when the Peace Corps will be there, too. It must somehow find the day and the time that it can go and make its contribution when peace is assured.”

In at least four meetings during the next three years, Johnson pressured Vaughn to send Volunteers to Vietnam. Johnson promised they would work only in the “pacified” areas. The president said he would be satisfied even with a program of only ten to fifteen Volunteers. But Vaughn turned him down each time.

Yet even as it kept out of Vietnam, the Peace Corps could not escape the war. Gerald Berreman, an anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, warned students in 1965, “The government wants the Peace Corps to be a playpen for activist students to keep them out of the kitchen while the adults are cooking up the war in Vietnam.” He urged them to stay out of the Peace Corps and protest the war instead.

Some idealistic Volunteers hoped that the leaders of the Peace Corps would stand up to such criticism by forthrightly defying President Johnson and denouncing the war themselves. Marlyn Dalsimer, a former Volunteer in the Ivory Coast, wrote a letter to Jack Vaughn. The letter, Dalsimer recalled later, told Vaughn that “I had observed his never having made a public statement about the war in Vietnam. I told him that as head of an organization with peace’ in its name, I expected him to. We always hoped the Peace Corps would be different.” The Peace Corps was different, but not so different that its director could oppose the president openly and keep his job.

In 1965, an article opposing the war appeared in a Volunteer newspaper in Malawi. The article was written by Paul Theroux, a Volunteer teacher who would become one of the most distinguished American novelists of the next half-century. The article infuriated U.S. Ambassador Sam P. Gilstrap. He ordered the expulsion of the Peace Corps director, Michael McCone, for allowing the newspaper to publish a diatribe against U.S. policy. (Theroux, chastened but not otherwise punished, was later thrown out by the Malawi government for delivering letters for friends who were opponents of the dictator Hastings Kuzuma Banda.)

As the war intensified and the awful casualties mounted, Vaughn was forced to field protests from every side of the Peace Corps--even from his own staff. Kirby Jones, the Volunteer who helped write the letter of protest to Lyndon Johnson about the Dominican invasion, worked for the Peace Corps in 1967 as the Ecuadorean desk officer. Allard Lowenstein, the militant anti-Vietnam War protester and future congressman, persuaded Jones to join him in drafting a protest letter to President Johnson. Jones then started collecting signatures from returned Peace Corps Volunteers.

Vaughn asked him to stop, but Jones refused. “Then he [Vaughn] went through this long song and dance,” Jones recalled, “about how long it had taken him to establish credibility in the White House, since Johnson had always thought of the Peace Corps as a Kennedy creation, full of Kennedyites, and that this was going to adversely affect the relationship between the Peace Corps and the White House.”

“You’re going to have to fire me, because I’m not going to stop,” Jones said

“I’m not going to fire you,” said Vaughn.

The most publicized protest case involved a Volunteer who taught music at the University of Concepcion, in Chile. Bruce Murray and more than ninety fellow Volunteers signed a letter in 1967 protesting the bombing of North Vietnam and calling for negotiations to end the war. The Volunteers planned to pay for the publication of the letter as an advertisement in the New York Times. But after local Peace Corps officials discovered what was going on, Ambassador Ralph Dungan warned the Volunteers they could be thrown out of the Peace Corps if the letter were published. A similar warning came from Vaughn.

Faced with these threats, the Volunteers abandoned their project. But Murray was angered by Vaughn’s restrictions on the rights of the Volunteers to speak out on American issues. In a letter to Vaughn, Murray accepted the stricture that Volunteers “should not meddle in the politics of the host country.” But he argued that this restriction should not prevent Volunteers from speaking out on “international policies of the United States which may be of interest to the host country.” He sent a copy of this letter to the New York Times, but the newspaper did not publish it.

The news agency United Press International (UPI) found out about the controversy and released an article describing the suppression of Volunteer antiwar protests by the Peace Corps. The article was published in the newspaper El Sur of Concepcion. Murray felt that the UPI article did not state the position of the Volunteers fully, and he sent El Sur a Spanish translation of his letter to Vaughn. The Chilean newspaper published it.

The Peace Corps retribution was swift. Country director Paul Bell ordered Murray home, ostensibly for “consultations.” When Murray arrived in Washington, he found that no consultations were scheduled. He had already been dismissed from the Peace Corps.

“I was very distraught,” Murray recalled later. “I really loved Chile and wanted to stay another year . . . . People at the university were upset, too, because my dismissal was a contradiction of everything the Peace Corps had been saying--that we were independent agents and not called upon to toe the government line. I had voiced a protest and was gone--in the middle of a semester.”

The American Civil Liberties Union took up the case, and Murray filed suit against the Peace Corps for wrongful dismissal. Federal Judge Raymond Pettine in Providence heard the case and ruled against the Peace Corps. While the judge understood that the Peace Corps had “an interest in remaining apolitical with respect to host country politics,” he called the dismissal “a shocking, unconstitutional act on the part of the Peace Corps.” The government, in the judge’s view, could prove no national interest in preventing Murray from speaking out “about matters of vital interest to him as a human being, a United States citizen, and a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

In the wake of the Murray controversy, Vaughn retreated. He set down regulations, revised them, and, in any case, no longer disciplined anyone. As the war ground on, killing many young Americans and many more Vietnamese, the pressure on Volunteers to cry out intensified. Vaughn decided to trust in the good sense of the Volunteers.

A formula of sorts evolved. The Peace Corps administration agreed that the Volunteers, unlike members of the armed forces, had the right to speak out and protest U.S. policy if they saw fit. In turn, the Peace Corps wanted the Volunteers to accept two limitations on their freedom of speech: They must not interfere in the internal politics of the host country, and their actions must not harm the Peace Corps.

But the formula was fragile, dependent on interpretation. When Murray was dismissed, a spokesman for the Peace Corps had said, “The Vietnam War is a major issue in Chile, and it has been the policy of the Peace Corps not to get involved in any local political issue.” This, of course, was a good deal of a stretch--it would be difficult to find any controversial U.S. foreign policy that was not a political issue in most other countries.
Table of Contents...

1 The Challenge from JFK
2 Sargeís Peace Corps
3 The Pioneer Volunteers and the Postcard
4 The Battle of Britain
5 Friday, November 22, 1963
6 U.S. Troops Invade the Dominican Republic
7 Johnny Hood
8 The Specter of Vietnam
9 The Wrath of Richard Nixon
10 The Fall of the Lion of Judah
11 The Militant Sam Brown
12 Mayhem and Illness
13 The Rich Lady in Her First Job for Pay
14 200,000 Stories
15 A New Name and a New World
16 The Expansive Mood of the Clinton Years
17 The Quiet Bush Years
18 Diplomatic Troubles
19 Obama and the Future
Afterword Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?
A Note on Sources


About the Book

Since its inauguration, the Peace Corps has been an American emblem for world peace and friendship. Across the nation, there are 200,000 former volunteers, with alumni including members of Congress and ambassadors, novelists and university presidents, television commentators and journalists. Yet few Americans realize that through the past nine presidential administrations, the Peace Corps has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. Stanley Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; he reveals how Richard Nixon literally tried to destroy the Peace Corps, and he shows how Ronald Reagan endeavored to make it an instrument of foreign policy in Central America. But somehow the ethos of the Peace Corps endured.

In the early years, Meisler was deputy director of the Peace Corps' Office of Evaluation and Research—and his unswerving commitment to write an unauthorized and balanced history results in a nuanced portrait of one of our most valued, and complex, institutions

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“Stanley Meisler delivers an enlightened and engaging narrative of President Kennedy’s “most enduring legacy”—the Peace Corps. With humor and an 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

"A wonderful portrait of the Peace Corps, its tangled history, its people, and its mission … Stanley Meisler—a distinguished foreign correspondent—is just the man to tell this story." —Paul Theroux

“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 rare example of a gripping institutional history.” —Kirkus Reviews

"Drawing on his experience and interviews with former volunteers, [Stanley Meisler] presents the fascinating characters, locales, and political background noise from a near-universally admired program’s 50-year history." —Booklist

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About the Author

Stanley Meisler, the author of two other books, was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Smithsonian, and lives in Washington, D.C.

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Questions for Discussion

Chapter One-The Challenge from JFK

In what ways did Kennedy's Peace Corps proposal differ from those of other candidates who presented a similar idea of a youth corps? Consider the world events that occurred during the 1930s-1960s and the appeal that Kennedy had, compared to his opponent, Richard Nixon. (Read pages 4–10.)

Chapter Two-Sarge's Peace Corps

How was Wofford and Shriver's involvement with Coretta King vital to Kennedy's campaign? Do you agree that Wofford and Shriver's response to Coretta King's case also helped promote the Peace Corps? (Read pages 14–17.)

In the report "A Towering Task," Wiggins and Josephson insisted that the Peace Corps "must be large enough to make an impact on the developing world" (p. 18). Do you think this was a misguided and overly ambitious initiative? Name some advantages and disadvantages of "A Towering Task." (Read pages 18–20.)

Chapter Three-The Pioneer Volunteers and the Postcard

Discuss some of the successes and failures of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana. Consider Robert Klein's situation at Sefwi-Wiawso Secondary School. What are some possible methods that could have been taken to better prepare Volunteers in classrooms? (Read pages 32–34.)

Explain the crisis that forced Peace Corps Volunteer Margery Michelmore to resign and return to the United States thus helping spark criticism towards the Kennedy administration? Do you support the reaction of the Nigerian students towards Margery's postcard? Consider the history of colonialism in Africa when crafting your answer. (Pages 38–42.)

Chapter Four-The Battle of Britain

Upon visiting Peace Corps sites and interviewing its Volunteers, what were some of the problems that Charles Peter and the evaluators discovered? What was Shriver's reaction to the evaluation report? How were the evaluators able to improve the failures of the Peace Corps and do you agree with the methods undertaken? (Read pages 45–50.)

Chapter Five-Friday, November 22, 1963

The assassination of John F. Kennedy shocked the American nation and the world. Following his death, the Peace Corps experienced a number of significant changes. What were some of those changes? What effect(s) did the assassination of JFK have on Shriver professionally? (Read page 63–69.)

Chapter Six-American Troops Invade the Dominican Republic

Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State, stated that "the Peace Corps is not an instrument of foreign policy because to make it so would rob it of its contribution" (p. 71). Drawing from the political crisis that occurred in the Dominican Republic in chapter six, do you think Volunteers can successfully harmonize their own political interests with those of the U.S. government?

Chapter Seven-Johnny Hood

After invading the Dominican Republic, President Lyndon Johnson telephoned Vaughn and ordered him to write "a complete scenario" of how Washington had urged individual members of the Organization of American States, prior to the invasion, to intervene in the civil war in Santo Domingo. Drawing on the reading, why was Vaughn's report considered a complete failure and what does it suggest about Washington infighting? (Read pages 89–90.)

Chapter Eight-The Specter of Vietnam

In 1967, Bruce Murray and ninety fellow volunteers signed a letter protesting the bombings of North Vietnam and calling for negotiations to end the war. After receiving a warning from Ambassador Ralph Dungan, Murray admits that volunteers should not be involved in the politics of the host country. However, he also argued that volunteers had the right to speak out about the international policies of the United States that may be of interest to the host country. Given the history of an American presence on foreign soil, would you agree with Bruce Murray's argument? Why or why not?

Also, what is your view on the Volunteers' protests of the Vietnam War and their involvement in Chilean political affairs? When developing your response, reflect on the Corps' fundamental mission and its history as an independent agent. (Read pages 98–106.)

Chapter Nine-The Wrath of Richard Nixon

After the death of JFK and the widely publicized protest against the Vietnam War by Peace Corps Volunteers, Richard Nixon looked for ways to tarnish the good image of the Peace Corps. Describe the cunning methods President Nixon used to eradicate the existence of the Peace Corps. Did he succeed? Provide examples from the book to support your answer.

Chapter Ten-The Fall of the Lion of Judah

The author states that "no other country has felt the impact of the Peace Corps as much as Ethiopia" (117). Describe the ways in which the presence of the Peace Corps changed Ethiopia. Did these changes have a positive or negative outcome? Provide concrete examples from the chapter. Also, when developing your response, consider the history of Ethiopia, America's involvement with that nation, and the traditional ruling government of Emperor Haile Selassie I. (Read pages 117–126.)

Chapter Twelve: Mayhem and Illness

Chapter twelve discusses the case of a Peace Corps Volunteer being convicted of homicide in Tonga. Describe the Peace Corps' presence or absence in the trial of the convicted. Do you agree that the Peace Corps should defend all of its Volunteers, regardless of the circumstance? Should individuals be granted diplomatic immunity while serving in other countries? Why or why not?

Chapter Thirteen: The Rich Lady in Her First Job for Pay

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated Loret Miller Ruppe as the new director of the Peace Corps. At first, many Peace Corps members were apprehensive about their new director, but Mrs. Ruppe would prove them wrong. Based on the reading, what qualities did Mrs. Ruppe possess that made her likeable among Peace Corps members and differentiated her from some of the past Peace Corps directors? (Read pages148–156.)

Chapter Fourteen: 200,000 Stories

Many former members have gone on to write memoirs recounting their experiences in the Corps. Chapter fourteen provides detailed accounts of three former Peace Corps Volunteers. Describe each Volunteer's experiences. How were their experiences similar and/or different? What personal challenges did Volunteers face? In addition, how did the memoirs of the former Volunteers change the reputation of the Peace Corps?

Chapter Fifteen: A New Name and a New World

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed Paul D. Coverdell, a former Georgia politician, as Director of the Peace Corps. With this new position, Coverdell renamed the Peace Corps to the U.S. Peace Corps. Then, shortly after his death, the U.S. Peace Corps was once again renamed the Paul D. Coverdell Peace Corps Headquarters. What effects did the name change have on the Peace Corps Volunteers and the Corps' traditions? (Read pages 169–170 and 176–177.)

Chapter Sixteen: The Expansive Mood of the Clinton Years

After the resignation of Carol Bellamy, President Bill Clinton appointed Mark Gearan as the new director of the Peace Corps. As director, Gearan supported the campaign to expand the Peace Corps by increasing its number of Volunteers to 10,000. Based on the experiences of the Volunteers, do you agree with the campaign? Why or why not? (Read pages 183–186.)

Chapter Seventeen: The Quiet Bush Years

The author has provided various examples of Peace Corps Volunteers risking their own position (and at times protection) in order to speak out against injustices. From the Vietnam War to the invasion of the Dominican Republic, many Volunteers were not afraid to protest against their own government. However, in recent years, we have witnessed less vocal volunteers. Meisler states that the shift is due to the "large difference in the mood of generations" (p. 191). Compare and contrast Peace Corps Volunteers of the 1960s to the Volunteers of the 21st century. In your opinion, should Peace Corps Volunteers remain less vocal and out of the public's eye? Why or why not? (Read pages 191–192.)

Chapter Eighteen: Diplomatic Troubles

In the summer of 2005, President George W. Bush appointed Michael Retzer as the new US ambassador to Tanzania. Unfortunately, not everyone would agree with the new ambassador's decision making process. Describe the conflicting relationship between Mr. Rezter and Christine A. Djondo, the Peace Corps Country Director. What were some of Mr. Retzer's controversial decisions and how did it affect the Peace Corps? Did his actions also affect how others viewed him? Consider the statement written in the letter of instructions found on page 205.

Chapter Nineteen: Obama and the Future

In July 2009, President Barak Obama appointed Aaron Williams, a former Volunteer, as the Peace Corps Director. However, despite Williams' impressive credentials and accolades, some former Volunteers and current staff members were wary about Obama's appointment. Based on the reading, what were the reasons that provoked this attitude towards Williams? (Read pages 215–217.)

Afterward: Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?

While serving in other countries, Peace Corps Volunteers have sometimes found themselves involved in politics, especially when it concerns the issue of war. Drawing from the example of Bruce Murray (Chapter 8, pages 98–106), who protested against the Vietnam War, and Aaron Kauffman (chapter 17, pages 192–193), who protested against the war in Iraq, would you conclude that politics will always be an integral part of the Peace Corps?

Since it inception in 1961, the Peace Corps has undergone many changes, especially with its directors. While some of the directors have led the Corps successfully, others have failed, scarring the image and reputation of the Peace Corps. Based on the history of each director, what lessons can be learned? What should future American presidents consider when appointing directors to lead the Peace Corps? Consider comparing and contrasting the legacy that each director has left at the end of their term or resignation.

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When the World Calls

ISBN: 978-080705051-4
Publication Date: 2/7/2012
Pages: 288
Size:6 x 9 Inches (US)
Price:  $19.00
Format: Paperback
Availability: In stock.