In these first few days of the New Year, I thought I might try and chart the impulses in America that brought about the creation of the Peace Corps. These ‘impulses’ we might say are close to being lost in the fog of history. There were, however, several generally accepted desires that coalesced in the last days of the Fifties, framed by a number of people in speeches and in prose, and with the election of John F. Kennedy, became a reality as a federal agency.

Most of the early history of the Peace Corps, as we know, lives only as oral history. Still there are a few key books that spell out in some detail the foundations of the agency. Two important books are The Story of the Peace Corps by George Sullivan, and that has an introduction by Sargent Shriver. It was published by Fleet Publishing in 1964. A second one is Peace Corps: Who, How and Where by Charles E. Wingenbach, with a foreword by Hubert H. Humphrey, and published by John Day Company in 1963. A revised edition by Wingenback was later published by McGraw-Hill in 1965. Both books, from different perspectives, cast light on the nascent idea of the peace corps concept. A third book,  written by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman entitled All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s, published by Harvard University Press in 1998, relates the creating of the Peace Corps in broader terms, showing how the ‘idea of a peace corps’ was alive elsewhere in the western world.

But back to America! And back to Wednesday, November 2, 1960 with the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election just two weeks away. Let’s begin at the end and work backwards to the beginning.

Richard Nixon was campaigning in New York, trying to capture that state’s 45 electoral votes. He had, for the first time, President Eisenhower by his side as they campaigned together through New York City that fatefully day.

Kennedy was across the country in California working long days and nights and appearing in front of huge and frenzied crowds.

On the morning of November 2, 1960 JFK had a breakfast rally at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, speaking to 1,200 women. Next he flew to San Diego for another appearance, then headed north to the Bay area of San Francisco. He spoke at a rally in San Jose, and to thousands more at the Oakland’s deFremery Park.

At every stop, the newspapers wrote, he was hailed by throngs of “screamers, runners, exhorters and jumpers.”  In San Jose, for example, three police officers were injured trying to control the crush of the crowd.

Early on the evening of the 2nd, at the San Francisco’s Sheraton Palace Hotel, 1,500 Democrats paid $100-a-plate for dinner so they could hear Kennedy tell them how Nixon had begged Eisenhower to campaign with him at least once before the election. The candidate main speech of the day, and perhaps the main speech of the campaign, was that evening at the Cow Palace, San Francisco’s anomalously-named cattle exhibition auditorium.

Two hours before Kennedy was to arrive at the Cow Palace, 25,000 people had jammed into the hall, filling it to capacity. Another 5,000 surged through the corridors outside the auditorium chanting, “We want in! We want in!” Inside the auditorium, the 25,000 in their seats responded with, “We want Kennedy! We want Kennedy!”

Then just before JFK arrived, the outsiders broke through a door from the corridors and spilled into the arena. There were no seats; there was no room. They stood in the aisles and when Kennedy arrived there was a near riot. It took fifteen minutes to silence the tumultuous cheering.

In the sudden silence, Kennedy stepped to the podium and gathered their attention for his lasted major speech before the election. It was the speech where Kennedy would outline his ‘peace corps,’ using that term for the first time.

The idea of a peace corps-type program had been, as George Sullivan writes in his book, “adrift in political circles for almost a decade” but when Kennedy stepped to the microphones and announced that with his new administration there would be a ‘Peace Corps,’ a pool of “talented young men willing to serve….in the under-developed world” it was as if the idea was being expressed for the first time, and in full maturation. 

Kennedy called for “Ambassadors of Peace,” for skilled Americans who “could work, building goodwill, building the peace.” That night, in the raging melee of the Cow Palace of San Francisco, the Peace Corps was born.

Part One, of Six Parts