John F. Kennedy is given credit for the remark, “success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan,” and that phrase can easily be applied to the creation of the Peace Corps. A half dozen names come up when the conversation turns to: who thought of the Peace Corps idea in the first place?

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman in her excellent book All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s, published by Harvard Press, points out that between 1958 and 1965, “nearly every industrialized nation started volunteer programs to spread the message of economic development and international goodwill.”

Before that we had Herbert Hoover’s Commission for the Relief of Belgium and the Marshall Plan of the Truman administration. Theodore Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy on a grand tour of the world following his negotiation of the Treaty of Portsmouth, and Woodrow Wilson brought arms to bear to “teach Latin Americans to elect good men.”

Even private citizens were moved to international action. At the height of WWI, Henry Ford chartered a Peace Ship to Europe in order to stop the war. It didn’t work.  Today we have David Lynch and his Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. This Movie Mogul believes Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Transcendental Meditation will make the world safe for democracy. We’ll see.

Closer to the actual date of the Peace Corps legislation– March 1, 1961–Henry Reuss of Wisconsin and Senator Richard Neuberger of Oregon cosponsored a “Point Four Youth Corps.”

There were other drafts for this notion of a ’young corp,’ and other congressional bills, and speeches given in town halls as well as Congress, all of them played a part.

However, I’d like to focus on an obscure Republican from North Carolina, a wealthy German Jew industrialist, Heinz Rollman, who had fled Europe in 1939 and settled in Waynesville, North Carolina. In 1954, he wrote a book titled World Construction, which he mailed to government officials and opinion makers throughout the free world. His principal proposals were a 3-million-man “Peace Army” of draftees to work in underdeveloped nations and an increase to five million of foreign exchange students to the United States.

Twice Rollman ran for Congress from North Carolina and twice he lost. Twice he mailed his peace corps-type proposal to President Eisenhower and twice Eisenhower discarded the idea. Eisenhower would even go so far as to use Rollman’s idea when he derided Kennedy’s ‘Peace Corps’ during the ’60s presidential campaign, saying JFK’s program was just a warmed-over version of  Heinz Rollman’s book, “My Plan For World Construction.

Rollman never was able to gain any popular support for his idea, no Congressional leaders sponsored him. He was unable to establish anything of concrete value beyond his book about what a “Peace army” might do in the developing world. In the winter of 1954, he took a 68,000-mile world tour, traveling to six continents to ‘explain’ his plan. In a Manila newspaper published on February 24, 1954, he is quoted as saying, “Not only must we send overseas experts in banking to teach people how to bank, grocery clerks who know how to run super-markets, engineers who know how to build steel mills, but it is equality important to send people overseas who know how to milk cows, how to put on diapers, and how to run a democratic government.”

Heinz & Tania Rollman
Heinz & Tania Rollman

Rollman’s plan had three main objectives.

1) Stopping the spread of communism;

2) Insure the US prosperity by creating purchasing power aboard;

3) Do our duty to the Creator by actually living according to the golden rules.  

He sums up by saying (and writing) “Fundamentally this legislation is designed to establish a ‘peace army’ of three million able-minded, well-indoctrinated ‘peace soldiers,’ who should go from the United States to far corners of the world to teach the rest of humanity how to use their own skills to take advantage of the abundance with which our Creator has endowed the earth.”  At the same time he was calling for millions of people to come to the United States and stay a year to see democracy in action, to see what was being done in the United Sttes to give everybody security, a higher standard of living and freedom.

While much of what he believed and hoped might achieve seems now odd and simplistic and foolish, it was from such lofty day-dreams that the Peace Corps would come into being. In her history of the agency, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman writes, “The Peace Corps was an institution rife with the contradictions, creativity, hubris, self-delusions, and hopes of the 1960s, some of which were unique to the United States, and some of which were not.”   She would also write, “The Peace Corps illuminates the Kennedy propularity that continues to mystify historians who know the shortcomings of the man in office so briefly. At the same time we should remember when evaluting the Peace Corps that Kennedy did not create it alone. It grew out of popular demand.”  

The ‘popular demand’ was crystallized one cold early morning in October of 1960 on the steps of the University of Michigan Student Union at Ann Arbor. It was shaped into a national movement by two married-graduate-students, Judy and Al Guskin, and a handful of other ‘kids’ like them.  

Within six months there was someting new in the world, a Peace Corps, that owes its birth not only to visionary citizens like Heinz Rollman, senators and congressmen, and JFK, Shriver, and all those Mad Men of the Mayflower, but also–and mostly!– it owes its birth to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks, people like you, who raised your hands over the last five decades and said “I’ll go. I’ll join the Peace Corps.”  

So, on March 1, 2013, the birthday of the Peace Corps, stand up PCVs &  RPCVs and take a bow. You deserve it. You created the Peace Corps; you keep it going.