What Program Was The First Peace Corps Project?

If you ever run into any RPCV from Colombia One, the first thing he’ll say (they were all guys) before giving you their name is: “We were first.” Colombia One PCVs are obsessed with this fact and that they are not given their proper pecking order. Recently my friend Ron Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63), wrote this piece on why THEY were the first PCVs, not Ghana. I asked the Director of the Peace Corps to check on this obscure (but important) fact. She was nice enough to come back with this information and statement from the agency’s General Counsel Office and the  Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning.

Start dates for the early programs of the Peace Corps were corroborated and/or updated based on detailed research and analysis conducted by our Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

Ghana 1 was the first Peace Corps post with Volunteers on the ground (they began duty on August 30, 1961). The Colombia 1 and Tanganyika 1 programs were the first to start preparing Trainees for their assignments…both groups started training in the United States on June 25, 1961.  The Colombia 1 group began duty on September 8, 1961 and Tanganyika 1 began duty on September 30, 1961.

Based on the standard definition utilized by Peace Corps for these early programs, the first Peace Corps program to open was Ghana.

What follows below is Ron Schwarz’s detailed argument why the Peace Corps agency is wrong (aren’t they always?) and why he and all of Colombia One is right: They were the real first Peace Corps project. Thank you, Ron.

The Peace Corps at 50: Who are the First Volunteers?

Ronald A. Schwarz (Colombia 1961-63)

Ronald Schwarz's profile photo

As the Peace Corps prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the agency’s account of its early history is flawed. Its website proclaims that the first group of Peace Corps volunteers is Ghana I. In fact, the first Peace Corps volunteers were, and are, the members of a group known as Colombia I. This essay presents the evidence and asks the agency to modify its misleading statements, correct the historical record, and publically recognize Colombia I as the first group of volunteers.

The Report to the President on the Peace Corps

The day after his inauguration on January 20th, 1961, President Kennedy asked his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver to head a task force to assess the feasibility of a Peace Corps. One month later, Shriver delivered “The Report to the President on the Peace Corps,” and on March 1st, JFK signed Executive Order 10924 which established the Agency “on a temporary pilot basis.”

Shriver’s Report describes what the Peace Corps would do and how it would operate.  It states that a “volunteer” is a person who passed an initial selection process and entered into a training program. The section on “. . . the Terms of Service” notes that “From the training period throughout his term of service, the Peace Corps volunteer would be subject to immediate separation from the service and return home.”

The terms frequently used in connection with the separation process while the agency operated under Executive Order 10924 are “selected out” and “deselected.” They underscore the policy that trainees are “volunteers” who are tested and evaluated, and can be separated from service at any time.

Recruitment and Initial Selection

In the spring of 1961, thousands of men and women completed questionnaires and mailed them to Washington. The applicants were then invited to take entrance exams at centers across America. In April and May the President announced the first two Peace Corps projects – Road Surveying in Tanganyika and Community Development in Colombia.

In mid-June, Peace Corps staff telephoned the men who qualified for the Colombia project to determine their availability. On June 15th the first wave of candidates – those who had verbally agreed to report for training – received a telegram: “Congratulations on successfully completing the initial requirements for the Peace Corps.” The telegram was followed by a letter signed by Sargent Shriver dated June 16, 1961. It begins: “Dear Peace Corps Volunteer.”

The volunteers selected for Colombia arrived at Rutgers on June 25th. Training officially began the following day, June 26th , at 8:00 AM EDT. The group destined for Tanganyika started in El Paso two hours later. In the afternoon of the first day Sargent Shriver addressed the Colombia volunteers in New Brunswick, N.J. Dozens of reporters, photographers and TV crews were present.

The next morning (June 27th) The New York Times, the Washington Post and countless local papers published articles and photographs of Sarge and the volunteers. The headline on the front page of The New York Times reads: “Peace Corpsmen Introduced to Tasks and Taskmaster.” It features a photograph of Shriver addressing a group of young men in New Brunswick, N.J. The article begins: “The first two contingents of Peace Corps volunteers assigned to overseas projects began intensive two month training courses today at Rutgers University here and at Texas Western College in El Paso.”

The Washington Post story about the first day at Rutgers event includes Shriver’s announcement of a new project for Ghana.  It notes that the “Ghana group will be the third Peace Corps unit.

President Kennedy Signs the Peace Corps Act

The legislation that established the Peace Corps on a permanent basis – the Peace Corps Act – was signed by President Kennedy on September 22, 1961. On the day JFK signed the Act, three groups of volunteers were in their country of service – Colombia, Ghana and St. Lucia.

The original Peace Corps Act includes a section on “Volunteer Training” – SEC. 8. (a). It states that all provisions of the Act apply to applicants during training prior to enrollment and that “the respective terms ‘volunteers’ and ‘volunteer leaders’ shall include such applicant during any such period of training.”

The Rest of the Story

On June 25, 1963 Colombia I volunteers completed two years of service. Months later they received certificates signed by Sargent Shriver. The certificate includes the name of the volunteer and commends him “for dedication to his country and service to the people of Colombia as a Peace Corps Volunteer from June 25, 1961 to June 26, 1963.”

In connection with the 25th Anniversary Celebration (September 18 – 21, 1986), Peace Corps headquarters published a booklet that lists, in chronological order, the early Volunteer Groups. Colombia I is the first, Tanganyika I is second and Ghana I is third. A footnote explains that Colombia is first because of the time zone difference between the East Coast and Texas (where the Tanganyika group trained).

In November 2010, Rutgers University hosted a two day ceremony and unveiled a bronze plaque that begins “Rutgers . . . was selected for the training of America’s first Peace Corps Volunteers, a group that served in the Republic of Colombia.” The University’s decision about the wording was made after a careful examination of the documentary evidence by the Rutgers administration and months of discussion with returned volunteers from Colombia I. The Deputy Director of the Peace Corps spoke at the opening ceremony and at the unveiling of the bronze plaque on November 5, 2010.

Reference to Ghana I as the “first group of Peace Corps volunteers” should have stopped in 2010 with the publication of Robert Klein’s book, “Being First: An Informal History of the Early Peace Corps.” In Lowther’s review of the book, he notes that “Klein and his Ghana I comrades make no claim to being anything other than the first PCVs on foreign soil.” And, arrival on “foreign soil” never was, and is not, the criterion that establishes “volunteer” status.

The First Volunteers: the Peace Corps 2011 Version

In spite of the evidence to the contrary, the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary website is filled with misleading references to Ghana I. One section displays a decade by decade summary of historical milestones. The one for August 1961 notes that, “The first group of 51 Peace Corps Volunteers, Ghana I, arrives in Accra to serve as teachers.” While one milestone notes that in June 1961 “Tanganyika I and Colombia I begin training for service,” it does not refer to them as “volunteers.”

Another feature of the 50th anniversary website is an Interactive Timeline that features Ghana under the heading “First Peace Corps Volunteers.” It makes no mention of Colombia or Colombia I.

It would be easy to ignore or dismiss an isolated error or a misleading statement about “first volunteers.” However, the frequent references to Ghana I as “the first volunteers,” make it difficult to view the statements as casual errors or mistakes.

After a review of the website, the Friends of Colombia sent the Peace Corps a letter and timeline of events with references. It asked the agency to update its website and recognize Colombia I as the first Peace Corps volunteers in its public statements.” The letter has not been answered nor acknowledged.

Honoring the Legacy

The Peace Corps should delete or modify misleading statements on the 50th Anniversary website. And, it should affirm the status of Colombia I as “the first Peace Corps volunteers” in its publications and presentations for the 50th celebrations. While the Peace Corps can select historical highlights to support recruitment and information campaigns, it has a more important obligation to present an accurate account of its past. Failure to so would discredit the agency and be out of line with the spirit of the Peace Corps.

Ronald A. Schwarz was Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia I and later became an anthropologist. He was a faculty member at Williams College, Colgate, Tulane and the Johns Hopkins University, and the Director of Development Solutions for Africa (Kenya). He is co-editor of three books and is currently writing a book about Colombia I, “Kennedy’s Orphans.”



ENDNOTES

[1] http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/media/PCTimes_50th_Edition_milestones.pdf

Stossel, Scott. Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver. Smithsonian Books, Washington, 2004, p. 193.

Sargent Shriver, “Report to the President on the Peace Corps.” In, POF, Box 85, JFKML.

http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/peace-corps/images/executive-order-01.jpg

Sargent Shriver, Summary of report to the President on the Peace Corps, February 28, 1961 for release to A.M. Papers Sunday, March 5, 1961. CARE Record, MSS & Archives Section, N.Y.P.L.

Rice, Gerard T. The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1985, pgs. 160 – 163.

Peace Corps News, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1961.

Obtained by the author from members of Colombia I during research conducted between 2003 and 2005.

Kennett Love, New Brunswick, N.J. June 26 -Special to The New York Times, published June 27, 1961.

The Washington Post, Times Herald, Peace Corps Going to Ghana. New Brunswick, N.J. June 26, (AP). Published June 27, 1961.

Booklet published by the Peace Corps for the tree-planting ceremony held as part of the Peace Corps’ 25th Anniversary celebrations in Washington, D.C. in September, 1986. Original copy obtained by Ronald A. Schwarz who participated in the event.

The National Archives.  http://www.digitalvaults.org/#/detail/1922/?record=1922

Obtained by the author from members of Colombia I during research conducted between 2003 and 2005.  It is also worth noting that the dates next to “from” and “to” are reversed. The certificate should read “from June 26, 1961 to June 25, 1963.” That would be exactly two years.

Booklet published by the Peace Corps for the tree-planting ceremony held as part of the Peace Corps’ 25th Anniversary celebrations in Washington, D.C. in September, 1986. Original copy obtained by Ronald A. Schwarz who participated in the event.

http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/2010/11/rutgers-university-dedicates-plaque-honoring-first-peace-corps-volunteers/

http://www.peacecorpsconnect.org/2010/11/rutgers-university-dedicates-plaque-honoring-first-peace-corps-volunteers/

http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/review-of-robert-kleins/. .

http://multimedia.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/media/PCTimes_50th_Edition_milestones.pdf

Ibid.

http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=about.fiftieth

The “Friends of Colombia,” a group that includes Returned Volunteers that served in Colombia in the 1960s and 1970s, sent a letter to the Peace Corps (August 2, 1961) that included key references cited in this essay. Copy of letter email sent to the author.

4 Comments

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  • Not so important to most of the rest of us, I think. It’s also Talmudic hairsplitting? And an accident of timing, with no other significance. But Perhaps Columbia 1 should be issued Peace Corps authorized Foam Number 1 Hands it can brandish whenever RPCVs gather.
    Officially, Ghana 1 is listed as the first Peace Corps post with Volunteers on the ground (August 30, 1961). The Colombia I and Tanganyika I programs were the first to start preparing Trainees for their assignments starting on June 25, 1961. The Colombia 1 group began duty on September 8, 1961 and Tanganyika 1 began duty on September 30, 1961.
    But not so fast.
    “In connection with the 25th Anniversary Celebration (September 18 – 21, 1986), Peace Corps headquarters published a booklet that lists, in chronological order, the early Volunteer Groups. Colombia I is the first, Tanganyika I is second and Ghana I is third. A footnote explains that Colombia is first because of the time zone difference between the East Coast and Texas (where the Tanganyika group trained).”
    Different time zones? That’s it?
    “The volunteers selected for Colombia arrived at Rutgers on June 25th. Training officially began the following day, June 26th , at 8:00 AM EDT. The group destined for Tanganyika started in El Paso two hours later.”
    That’s the thread upon which Colombia I is hanging its claim? A two hour time difference?
    And what of Ghana I being the first group actually on the ground on August 30. Doesn’t matter because “arrival on ‘foreign soil’ never was, and is not, the criterion that establishes ‘volunteer’ status.”
    Sorry, Ghana I. No foam finger for you.

  • The PC’s Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning selected and parsed their words carefully to convey a false conclusion. There is no doubt that “Ghana 1 was the first Peace Corps post (evidently meaning “group”) with Volunteers on the ground” (i.e., in country). This is also true: “The Colombia 1 and Tanganyika 1 programs were the first to start preparing Trainees for their assignments…both groups started training in the United States on June 25, 1961.” This neglects to account for the time change between New Jersey and Texas, the small difference that accounts for Colombia 1 RPCVs’ claim to be “The First Volunteers.” Also without question: “The Colombia 1 group began duty (evidently meaning “in country”) on September 8, 1961 and Tanganyika 1 began duty on September 30, 1961.”
    The posting goes on to say: “Based on the standard definition utilized by Peace Corps for these early programs, the first Peace Corps program to open (now evidently “open” means “exist” ?) was Ghana.” The implication is incorrect.

    Ron Schwarz’s article correctly establishes (based on historical documents) that those gathering at Rutgers University on June 25, 1961 were “PC Volunteers” upon arrival and were therefore “The First Volunteers.”

  • This is so sad. I wish somebody could have persuaded Dr. Schwarz to concentrate his considerable talent and energy on his memoir, “Kennedy’s Orphans.” The book has been years in the making, but I can not find any evidence that it has been completed and published. Colombia I completed service on June 26, 1963. President Kennedy was still very much alive. Why the working title?

    I think the history of Colombia I after service is critically important. Let me explain why. I was a member of the all female Colombia XI. We do can claim a historical “First”. (Although being female, we may not be equipped to engage in the traditional male contest to settle such issues)

    We started training July 7, 1963 and completed training October 11, 1963. We were the last group to complete training at the University of New Mexico that year. We also were the first “daughter” group of Colombia Peace Corps. Why? We were the first group to enter training AFTER Colombia I had completed their service. (Colombia VIII was trained by Colombia I RPCVs, but their training began a few weeks before Colombia I officially completed their service.)

    Our Community Development training was also done by Colombia I RPCVs. We believed that they also sat on our Selection Boards and had veto power over who was selected. I could not find any historical documents to confirm this. Dr. Schwarz’s book could be one source for such verification or to lay that belief to rest.

    I also believed that Returning Volunteers would train and then move into management positions in Peace Corps. I thought that in a few years, all of Peace Corps staff would be RPCVs. What happened? Forty-two days after we completed training, Kennedy was assassinated. What was lost in Dallas?

    I don’t know. I thought that the relationship between Colombia I RPCVs and Peace Corps would be the model for the transition of power from those who had no field experience as Volunteers to those who did. I can find nothing in the historical records that would verify this.

    So, Dr. Schwarz and remaining Colombia I RPCVs, please tell your stories to answer the most important question in history; “What happened next?”

  • We had “high hopes” (hear it now, a song sung later than those early days. which are now slathered on the heap history becomes) —
    –the “high hoping” that emerged after WW Two through the 1950’s that should/ may/ might yet be explored, explicated, diced, cremated.

    What bright faces the now old photos from the early years show.

    When we were young, we were apprentices beginning our lives.

    I began being attracted to the idea of the APPRENTICESHIP as a description of a life journey after reading the Lincoln part of Josephine Miles’ poem “For Magistrates” that was first published in her last book, the COLLECTED POEMS 1930-1983..

    (Connected to this was the Confucius admonition not to conflate error and thus turning it into a crime.)

    “For Magistrates” is BY FAR the longest poem Jo would publish.

    Here are lines about Lincoln (though it is a poem most fully all together to complete the meaning — and perhaps she was still in process of simplifying it when she began to fail and see her end).
    ” – – – – – – – – – – – -………………………………….
    Shaving, an uncle asks,
    What is this face before me in the mirror?
    Look well, children, for you see
    A face that may grow handsomer every day.
    Not Alger, not Narcissus in the stream.

    Gazing at it, would the martyr ghost
    Returned from the grave
    Ask, Is this the face I shaved?

    As we search the photographs, bearded to full-whiskered,
    We watch a man not yet forty
    Who might be years younger
    Develop into an ageless ancient, which indeed his secretaries
    called him
    He would be considered no worldly success till late in his
    career
    But his many failures read
    Less as mischance than as apprenticeship.
    The superiority of Abraham Lincoln over other statesmen
    Lies in the limitless dimension of a conscious self,
    Its capacities and conditions of deployment.
    In 1863 Walt Whitman watched him
    During some of the worst weeks of the war.
    I think well of the President. He has a face
    Like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awfully ugly
    It becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth,
    Its deep-cut crisscross lines,
    And its doughnut complexion.
    Suffering endured stoked his energy
    With penetration and foresight, often hidden from contemporaries,
    Visible
    Through restored photos.” (“The Magistrates”, pages 247-253)

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