The day after his inauguration in January 1961, John F. Kennedy telephoned Sargent Shriver and asked him to form a presidential Task Force “to report how the Peace Corps should be organized and then to organize it.” When he heard from Kennedy, Shriver immediately called Harris Wofford who had worked with Shriver during Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The two men rented a suite of rooms in the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. Here, they began with a new phrase–the Peace Corps–a few lines from Kennedy’s speeches, and a laundry list of names of people involved in international affairs. They  began to craft what would become, according to a 1962 article in TIME Magazine, “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration had produced.” 

Over the next few blogs, I’ll tell the story of those 30 days in Washington, D.C. when the Peace Corps became a reality, a government agency that touched all our lives.

Let me start with a quote from Gerard T. Rice’s wonderful book, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps:

“In 1961 John F. Kennedy took two risky and conflicting initiatives in the Third World. One was to send five hundred additional military advisers into South Vietnam; by 1963 there would be seventeen thousand such advisers. The other was to send five hundred young Americans to teach in the schools and work in the fields of eight developing countries. These were Peace Corps Volunteers. By 1963 there would be seven thousand of them in forty-four countries.”

Vietnam scarred the American psyche, leaving memories of pain and defeat. But Kennedy’s other initiative inspired, and continued to inspire, hope and understanding among Americans and the rest of the world. In a very real sense, the Peace Corps is Kennedy’s most affirmative and enduring legacy. But ‘the Peace Corps’ was not something that Kennedy created out of whole cloth.

Historical Framework

Gerry Rice, also in his book, points out that the United States as a nation was founded by missionaries, beginning in the sixteenth-century. By 1809, Christian evangelists from the United States traveled overseas not only to preach the gospel, but to build schools, teach trades, and educate. One of the Peace Corps’ first overseas directors suggested that Volunteers only carried out “in greater numbers and without religious connotations much of the same work which church and church-inspired groups have done for many years.” Kennedy himself, when he proposed the Peace Corps, expressed his admiration for the Mormon Church’s requirement of full-time voluntary service (often overseas) by its young members.

Private models

The Peace Corps had other historical connections. The New York Times in 1961 wrote that the Peace Corps could be traced back to the days when “the great procession of covered wagons rolled across our continent.” Kennedy remarked to the first group of Volunteers - road surveyors going to Tanzania -”I’m particularly glad that you are going there to help open up the backland.” And Sargent Shriver wrote in a letter to Congressman John Ashbrook that the Peace Corps was “a milestone on the way to a new era of American pioneering.”

In the nineteenth century a Dr. Samuel Howe of Massachusetts went overseas to teach medicine. Harris Wofford, in the early 1950s, helped set up the International Development Placement Association, which sent a small number of college graduates to teach and do community development work in the Third World. Earlier, there was the International Rescue Committee and, of course, the Experiment in International Living which started in 1932. And Crossroads Africa, established by a Harlem minister, James H. Robinson, in 1957. There was the famous Tom Dooley, a doctor who went to Southeast Asia. But the private group most like the Peace Corps was the non-denominational International Voluntary Service (IVS), founded by Christian leaders from various countries in 1953.

International precursors included Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) established in 1958, Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Association, and West Germany’s Council for Development Aid.

The government predecessors

The first “government” volunteer group like the Peace Corps was a program of President McKinley’s. Several hundred volunteers called “Thomasites” after the ship in which they sailed to their post - the U.S.S. Thomas, went to live and work in the barrios of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

In 1904, William James proposed at the Universal Peace Conference in Boston that the government should conscript young men to work among those living in poverty in America. In his 1911 essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James said that, for the greater good of society, “our gilded youths” should be packed off to do service.

This was followed in the Depression years by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and FDR’s National Youth Administration. Over two million students and three million jobless youths took part in this domestic program.

By the 1950s, a group of World Federalists wanted a voluntary “peace force” to work in developing countries. Also in the 1950s, Sargent Shriver suggested an adventurous people-to-people scheme to President Eisenhower - a plan for sending three-man political action teams to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Shriver said that “they would offer their services at a grassroots level and work directly with the people, contributing to the growth of the economies, to the democratic organization of the societies and the peaceful outcome of the social revolutions underway.” The Eisenhower administration ignored Shriver’s suggestion.

[End of Part One]