7 Ways To A Successful Peace Corps — Part 4

 

What strikes anyone reading about the creating of the Peace Corps was 1) how creatively it was organized; and 2) how fast it was put into operation. The reason was that the ‘founding fathers’ (and they were only fathers) took chances. Wofford remarks in Of Kennedys & Kings how a management consultant said to him one evening, “You guys had a good day today. You broke fourteen laws.” Then the consultant promised to straighten out the paper work and urged then all on, saying, “Keep it up, we’re making progress.”

Warren Wiggins

Wiggins in his interview with me listed 7 reasons why the Peace Corps was so successful in those early days of the Kennedy administration.

  1. Bill Josephson and Warren Wiggins kept the idea of a “Peace Corps” simple. At first, the PCVs were only to teach English. As Wiggins told me, “Our cardinal rule in crafting ‘A Towering Task’ was to make the agency simple, workable, understandable, and within the competence of young Americans.” When it got started the Peace Corps Volunteers did a lot more, but in the beginning that was an explicit, verbalized statement of what the Peace Corps would be.
  2. The staff was anti-professional and anti-bureaucratic. “I don’t know from whence some of that came,” Warren recalled, “other than that I always prided myself on being a maverick, outspoken, audacious, irreverent.”
  3. They were all amateurs. “We were,” said Wiggins, “a whole group of people who were amateurs in the business of being a government agency that ran volunteers.” The staff also was made up a wide assortment of people who, with a few exceptions, had no professional skills in volunteering and no international experience.
  4. The Peace Corps staff paid no attention to the hierarchies of professionalism. Wiggins recalled how the staff approached the teaching of English as a second language. “We called in the national association of teaching English as a secondary language,” he said, “and asked for help in developing a training program. They were all excited by this and said we needed to train for two years. I told them we didn’t have two years. They cut the training back to 18 months and said they couldn’t be responsible unless the Volunteers had 18 months of training. So, we said four months is the max, and we’re going to teach a lot besides teaching English as a second language. They left and we never paid attention to them again.”
    What the Peace Corps did was write their own books; teach their own courses. “We were ahead of the game, and we did not rely on the professionals,” Wiggins summed up. “For example, we had two former heads of the American Psychological Association heading up selection, but the selection process was anti-establishment. It didn’t run like normal selection processes.”
  5. The Peace Corps from the first considered the Department of State the enemy, and plotted to see that State never got its grips on the agency. The anti-establishment staff didn’t want the Peace Corps as an establishment. “I was so proud,” Wiggins recalled, “that for a couple of years we never had policy directives. We only had interim policy directives. And that was lovely.”
  6. The staff also didn’t want a personnel office in the agency and were able to get away with it for a few years. “Then we finally appointed someone,” Wiggins said, “but she had no power.”
  7. The Peace Corps staff took the long-term view about their work. Warren recalls an early public service ad. It was two photos of Chimbote, Peru. In the same ad there is a photo of Chimbote before the Peace Corps, and a photo of Chimbote after the Peace Corps. Both photos are the same. “You can’t tell the difference,” Wiggins says. “What a marvelous ad!”

Looking back, one sees that being anti-establishment, amateurish, anti-professional was what made the Peace Corps work.

Shriver knew he had to start big to make the Peace Corps work and here was Wiggins, the Deputy Director of the Far Eastern Division of the International Cooperation Administration — an expert! —  telling him that bigger was better and that the Peace Corps need not be a small experimental project. Wiggins and Josephson had given Shriver with their memo “A Towering Task,” a song Shriver wanted to sing. And Shriver, and all those anti-establishment amateurs he had brought into the Peace Corps, started to sing, and they have been singing the same chorus ever since.

PART FOUR

5 Comments

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  • My first PC/Wahington connection was on the Ethiopian New Year (Sept. 11) 1962. Franklin Williams was an especially close friend (we were both ex-State of CA bureaucrats). By the time I arrived, the story of the hard sell of the organization was never mentioned. Your story of the earliest days of the PC is fascinating and unknown, and I’m glad you have written it. Thanks for being a reliable historian of those opening chapters. What else is being overlooked in the Shriver saga?!

    • Ted:

      Weren’t you in the PDO/C in Peace Corps Washington in 1962 with me, Phil DuSault and John Alexander, or later in 1963 in the Africa Region when Franklin Williams ran the office? I thought your name was familiar.

  • I’m enjoying this series of articles about the origins of the Peace Corps, However, I’ve always thought that one of the creation story myths is that the Peace Corps was creative because there were no bureaucrats. In this Part Four, Warren Wiggins is quoted as saying that the staff was anti-professional and anti-bureaucratic. “We were all amateurs.” That’s not true. I think Shriver’s genius was that he backed up every free-wheeling, creative type he hired — people like Frank Mankiewicz, Harris Wofford and Bill Josephson — with professional managers. After all, for all of his creativity, Warren Wiggins came from USAID, and he brought with him people like my boss, John Alexander, who may not have been the most imaginative, but could manage people and run a bureaucracy. The creatives might have been out front, but the pros were in the back office. David Raphael

  • I experienced the “non-bureaucratic” Peace Corps first hand. When I landed in Cusco, Peru in October 1964, I understood that our regional director hadn’t known my group was arriving, so I, and another volunteer I barely knew, had to find our own place to live and work. Another Peace Corps Volunteer helped with that. Still, the experience was worthwhile (as detailed in my book, Between Inca Walls).This series of origin stories reads like a novel. Has someone written it as such?

  • I contend that the origin of Shriver’s desire to enact a 5 year in-up-out bureaucracy resulted from his years of working with and in bureaucracies. Most notably, his post-WWII working for Joe Kennedy Sr. in managing his Chicago-based Merchandising Mart, at the time the largest building in the Western world. Simultaneously Shriver was president of Chicago’s School District.

    Anyone who has worked in attempting to reform the turgidity of bureaucracies knew the brilliance behind the 5 year limit that Shriver advocated. Most bureaucratic jobs are usually conquerable after a year in the job. If an employee knew he was moving on in a few years, he/she might do their best to make reforms, improving the overall operation, instead of taking the don’t-rock-the-boat approach in order to ride out a 20-30 year retirement plan that results in ridiculous keep-the-bureaucracy alive measures.

    A big irony is that although the Peace Corps became formalized in Sept. 1966, LBJ and his Asst. Sec. of State for Latin America Thomas Mann nixed creating a separate Civil Service category, thus failing to insert the 5 year in- up-out restriction into the law. Nevertheless, many employees of PCW treated the 5 year rule as law, and after five years of employment most of them moved on.

    Cool gig, we all know that. But spreading the wealth of PC executive experience is far more valuable than any one single person can bring to the job. Even Sargent Shriver left the Peace Corps after 5 years, so did Frank Mankiewicz, so did Trip Reid all mentioned in — TRIGGER shameless publicizing — my book JFK & RFK Made Me Do It: 1960-1968, recently published by Peace Corps Writers (Sept. 2021 with a Marnie Mueller Review) about the Kennedy brothers push for peace in the Sixties…

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