I have written before about Peter Grothe, who is now an adjunct professor at Monterey Institute of International Studies, on how Peter coined the term ‘peace corps’ while a young staffer working for Senator Humphrey, and recently Peter sent me a detailed email that focuses on how the ‘idea’ of a Peace Corps first saw the light of day in the senator’s office a few years before Kennedy ran for the presidency and gave his famous early morning address to the students at the University of Michigan.

Here’s Peter’s recollection of how the seeds of the Peace Corps were planted in the mind of a future president, some 50 plus years ago.

As Peter remembers: 

It was often said about Senator Humphrey that “he had more solutions than there were problems” and he originally came up with the Peace Corps idea in a living room conversation in Minneapolis in 1948, TWENTY-THREE YEARS BEFORE President John F Kennedy promulgated the Peace Corps with an executive order! I was at a conference in Minnesota three years ago and spoke on the phone with Jane Freeman, the widow of Governor Orville Freeman, and she was one of six people in that living room conversation in Minneapolis. Mrs Freeman was the one who told me about that important event!

He first introduced a bill in the Senate roughly approximating his eventual Peace Corps legislation in 1957(although, as you know, it didn’t have the name, “Peace Corps” at that time.), again, FOUR YEARS BEFORE the Peace Corps became a reality.

In his autobiography, “The Education of a Public Man,” Humphrey wrote, ” I introduced the first Peace Corps bill in 1957. It did not meet with much enthusiasm. Some traditional diplomats quaked at the thought of thousands of young Americans scattered across the world. Many senators, including liberal ones, thought the idea was silly and unworkable.”

Yet, despite the collective yawn at the notion of something like the Peace Corps, Humphrey did not give up easily. In the late 50’s Humphrey was inspired by the example of the American Friends Service Committee (the Quakers) doing successful literacy training in some developing countries. When I went to work as the very young Foreign Relations Advisor for the Senator in 1960, I came across his idea in the files and asked if I could work on it. The Senator, never known for a lack of passion, enthusiastically supported the idea.

I spent the next six weeks interviewing anyone I could find who had some sort of relevant experience, which mainly meant Christian missionaries doing community development work in the developing world. I put together a rough draft of a bill and showed it to Humphrey. He said, “Good, now show it to the foreign aid administration (then called ICA) and see what the officials there say.”

I then spent a whole day talking individually with six top ICA officials and five of the six had the same reaction: Their consensus was, “It sounds lovely, but it will never work! You’ll have these young people in countries where age is respected and venerated trying to initiate projects. Many of them will screw up.” I went back to the Senator with a report of a highly negative consensus of the ICA officials and I remember his reaction as if I had a tape recorder in my head. Humphrey raised his voice said with determination:

“That is the trouble with the people in this administration! All they see are the problems, the difficulties! They mount the problems so high (as he put his folded arms above his head) that they don’t see the challenges! They don’t see the opportunities!  I want to grab the opportunities, the challenges! (clasping his hands!) Draft me a bill!!”

I drafted the bill (which, as of that time, had no name) and, as Humphrey had a “peace” theme in some of his legislation, I wrote down, “Works for Peace Corps” bill. But that sounded too long and cumbersome and so I just shorted it to “The Peace Corps.” I showed the name to some colleagues in government and some said, “That sounds really communistic!” Others said, “That sounds really militaristic–Corps!” But Humphrey liked the name and somehow it stuck.

The Senator introduced the bill in June of 1960 and he received more mail on the Peace Corps bill than anything other issue that was before the country at the time.  What was especially interesting was that many of the letters came from students from some of the top universities–Harvard, Yale, Stanford–who expressed idealism and the desire “to make a difference” in the world. A great deal of credit also has to go to Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin who introduced a similar piece of legislation in the House of Representatives called “A Point Four Youth Corps.” Humphrey and Reuss worked closely together on the legislation.

Senator John F. Kennedy, in response to a question, gave his now-famous  remarks on the Peace Corps to wildly cheering students at the University of Michigan.  A month before the 1960 November election,  Kennedy gave his  major speech on the Peace Corps to approximately 18,000 enormously enthusiastic spectators at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Kennedy (probably with considerable help from Theodore Sorenson) made two major very helpful changes to the Humphrey bill. Humphrey had proposed the Peace Corps as “an alternative to the draft” and had limited the Peace Corps to young men. Under Kennedy, the Peace Corps was no longer “an alternative to the draft” and the Peace Corps was now to be open to women as well as men and there was no age limit.

Senator Humphrey also played the most important role of getting the Peace Corps bill passed in Congress. Although the agency was started by a Kennedy executive order, it still had to pass the congress and the President asked Humphrey to introduce the legislation in the Senate. Unlike today, the Peace Corps bill was controversial. Some critics called it “a kiddies’ corps.” Others called it “a children’s crusade.” The Daughters of the American Revolution passed a resolution against it and suggested that it was “a communist plot.” Many members of Congress were displaying a minimum of enthusiasm for the Peace Corps legislation.

Here is one telling example of how Senator Humphrey played crucial behind-the scenes roles (which has never been published.)

I was asked to join the PC staff about two months after it started and I thought that perhaps I might be able to play a useful role by bringing together my former boss, Senator Humphrey, with my current boss, Sarge Shriver. Shriver, as everyone knows, was a phenomenal leader but had not had much experience with getting a bill through Congress. I was sure that HHH could give some useful advice. They both liked the idea and at the meeting were Humphrey, Shriver, Bill Moyers, then the brilliant young deputy director of the PC, responsible for lobbying members of Congress, Win Griffith, the Senator’s press secretary and me. I remember precisely what happened at the meeting:

Humphrey began by saying, “Sarge, forget about giving speeches to women’s clubs in Detroit! They don’t get the Peace Corps bill passed! It is we in the Congress who get the bill passed! And we (with a big smile on his face) hate you guys in the executive branch because you are running the government, and we would like to be doing that! Now, don’t you and Bill (Moyers) sit down to a single meal between now and the time the bill comes up for a vote unless there are one or two member of Congress sitting at your elbow!”

Then the Senator went through every member of the crucial Senate Foreign Relations Committee and told Shriver and Moyers just how to approach that senator. When he got to Senator Albert Gore (father of former Vice President Al Gore), he said, “Now, Albert is a fine, hard-working senator. But Albert is a maverick, he is a loner. He needs loving. I want all of you at the Peace Corps to love Albert. So you sit down with Albert, Sarge, and you listen carefully to what his suggestions are about the formation of the Peace Corps. Then, the minute you get back to your office, you phone Albert and you say, “Senator Gore, it was a real honor speaking with you and as we move ahead with the Peace Corps, we are going to carefully consider points one, two and three that you made!”

What one was hearing was a political animal speaking, in the best sense of the word!

To make a long story short, Shriver and Moyers carried out the greatest romance act since Romeo and Juliet with members of the Congress, and the Peace Corps bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and the House of Representatives!