Dr. Brendan Goff of New College of Florida met Harris Wofford for the first time when Harris was a senator in Washington. It was then that Goff learned of the role Wofford played in the creation of the Peace Corps. Speaking recently at a meeting of the Gulf Coast RPCVs group, he gave his perspective on the creation of the agency. He has kindly agreed to let me republish his presentation to the RPVCs about his studies. Footnotes to this academic article were removed. If interested in Dr. Goff’s writings email him at New College of Florida — firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Peace Corps: The New Frontier in Action
In the fall of 1991, I worked as an intern in the office of Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. I chose to do my internship with Senator Wofford because of his strong stance on the need for health care reform. But I was soon co-opted by the legislative aide who worked on foreign affairs, resulting in my sitting in on a meeting with her and representatives from the Peace Corps one day in the Senator’s office. I’d heard that the Senator had some involvement in the creation of the Peace Corps, but little did I know how much that was an understatement. After the meeting, the Senator’s aide filled me in.
Although many of you — as return Volunteers for the Peace Corps —probably know this already, Harris Wofford was present at the creation of the Peace Corps in several key capacities. First, as John F. Kennedy’s coordinator of the Civil Rights Section of his campaign in 1960, Wofford convinced JFK to intervene in the imprisonment of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just been sentenced to six months hard labor in a Georgia prison for a minor traffic violation. Kennedy’s move — at Wofford’s behest — led to King’s release by a judge in Georgia. Kennedy then called Coretta Scott King, alone and very pregnant, to let her know that her husband would soon be free. As a result of Kennedy’s intervention, Martin Luther King, Senior, formally changed his endorsement from Richard Nixon to John F. Kennedy just before the election. King’s father then trumpeted Kennedy’s actions throughout the national network of black churches. Though there were many reasons as to why Kennedy managed to eke out a narrow win over Nixon in that election, one of the most obvious was Kennedy’s stepping in on King’s behalf. Harris Wofford had the personal connections with civil rights leaders, King especially, as well as the political wisdom to make that happen. Second, in continuation of his role as Kennedy’s Special Assistant on Civil Rights, Harris was tasked with helping design and implement the Peace Corps. Working side by side with Sargent Shriver and later Bill Moyers, Jack Vaughn, and many others, Wofford saw the opportunity to put into practice what he calls “an idea that had long been in the air.” In fact, what initially drew Wofford to work with JFK was Kennedy’s call in 1957 for a new U.S. foreign policy that went beyond the blinding cold war mentality of the day and moved instead toward establishing better ties with emerging post-nationalist movements in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Wofford understood that what Kennedy was pointing to in his speech in 1957 about Algeria in particular was really about the impending waves of decolonization that were washing all over the world at that time. Rather than see the collapse of the British, the French, and the Dutch empires in Asia and Africa as a threat to cold war stability, Kennedy chose to see opportunity. And Wofford was right there to join in and help make it happen under Kennedy’s campaign banner: “The New Frontier.”
But after the election, Wofford had no desire to become a pencil-pushing bureaucrat in Washington, DC. Like Sargent Shriver, the tireless founder and first director of the Peace Corps from 1961 to 65, Wofford was anything but a career bureaucrat. Having already traveled around the world as a child and young adult, Wofford and his wife Clare spent time in India in its first years of independence after 1947. Their book, India Afire, pushed strongly for the adoption of non-violent tactics in the emerging civil rights movement in the U.S. In fact, that’s why Wofford knew Martin Luther King, Jr. personally years before the 1960 election and acted on his behalf.In the first year of the Peace Corps, Wofford ended up traveling to India for his fourth time. For this trip, however, Wofford was to accompany Sargent Shriver in their meeting with Prime Minister Nehru, knowing full well that Nehru’s agreement to receive Peace Corps Volunteers would be a crucial stroke in establishing its legitimacy in other newly-formed nations like Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Burma, and many other “Third World” nations. Both Nehru of India and President Nkrumah of Ghana ended up requesting Peace Corps Volunteers, thus unleashing similar requests for Volunteers from dozens of other newborn countries. In particular demand were engineers, medical personnel, and English teachers. For Shriver and Wofford and the tens of thousands of Volunteers who followed them in the decades to come, their “office” would never be a building in Washington, DC. For them, it was the world itself.
As Kennedy’s first successful and very popular expression of The New Frontier, the Peace Corps held special resonance for the youth of America. It was so popular, in fact, thousands of hand-written applications began pouring into Washington even before they had desks and filing cabinets to put them in! Committed to doing their own part and answering the call to service, Harris, Clare, and their three young children soon set off for two years in Addis Ababa, where he served as the director of Ethiopia’s Peace Corps program as well as the Peace Corps’ Special Representative for all of Africa. In fact, Harris and family were in Addis Ababa when he heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination.
I wanted to sketch out the key contributions of Harris Wofford in the creation and implementation of the Peace Corps because he embodied in so many ways the highest ideals of Kennedy’s New Frontier campaign of 1960 — as well as the Peace Corps itself. How so? It was no coincidence that Wofford had already traveled the world long before 1960, seeking to forge an intimate relationship with the peoples and cultures in their midst and on their own terms rather than treat them as so much background scenery to a world tour: like the proverbial “Ugly American” tourist — both then and now. As such, Harris and Clare’s grasp of Gandhi’s political philosophy of non-violence, along with their work in 1957 with the Ghandian organization Shanti Sena, or Peace Army, proved not only personally enlightening for them, but also for the Kings, for Kennedy, for Sargent Shriver, and for so many Peace Corps Volunteers ever since. What I hope to establish with this backstory on the Woffords, in other words, is the deep connections between the civil rights movement, global decolonization, universities, student activism, humanitarianism, and the Peace Corps itself.
True, “The New Frontier” was basically just a campaign slogan for Kennedy’s presidential campaign. But at the same time, the phrase pointed to a much more enduring political, cultural, intellectual, and social moment in American history — and in world history. The early 1960s turned out to be the high water mark not only for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but also, in many ways, for the centrality of the humanitarian impulse in U.S. foreign policy and for the United States being “on the right side of history” when it came to decolonization. As one historian put it, the Peace Corps’s “evil twin” was the war in Vietnam. On a similar note, the commitment to non-violent protests as a means to bringing about greater social, political, and economic equality in the United States was already fading — although behind the scenes — by the start of the famous March on Washington in August 1963. With Kennedy’s assassination later that year, the hopeful pragmatism of the New Frontier and its call to public service had begun its long descent into the fragmentation and political turmoil that became the defining characteristics of “the Sixties.”
But it didn’t have to be that way. And I think the enduring success and legacies of the Peace Corps since 1961 help demonstrate that very fact. The 200,000+ individuals who have answered the call of the Peace Corps are proof that the high-minded idealism of that historical moment does, in fact, live on today and cannot be forgotten.
To that end, I want to lay out what I see as some of the most crucial aspects of the Peace Corps’ past, so that we can build on them rather than forget them.
FIRST, universities are at the center of it all. “It is time for American universities to become truly world universities.” This is obviously a common sentiment today, with colleges and universities often plastering their websites with some variation on “global engagement” and “global citizenship” and emphasizing their commitments to “international understanding” and international programs. But it was in the 1940s and 1950s that this understanding of universities as key contributors to greater international understanding was first fully articulated in such a clear manner. The quotation above comes out of the report drawn up by Kennedy’s task force on the implementation of the Peace Corps in the spring of 1961. As a key member of that task force, Harris Wofford contributed heavily to the report — indeed, only Sargent Shriver had more input on its final content. There was a clear recognition that the Peace Corps had to represent a new kind of international presence for the United States, one distinct from the many missionaries, businessmen, diplomats, scholars, and military personnel that had preceded the Peace Corps. And while private agencies like CARE, the Ford Foundation, Rotary International, and other private institutions already had their own international volunteer and exchange programs, Wofford, Shriver and the task force as a whole saw universities as the natural place to start for both recruiting and training of Volunteers. Contrary to the “multiversity” blindly serving the corporate and governmental interests of the day — according to the Free Speech Movement of 1964, for example — Kennedy’s task force envisioned a university system intimately engaged with educational institutions around the world and serving as a source of technically trained, cosmopolitan recruits: the best America had to offer in the way of pubic-minded, educated youth. In the wake of the triumphalism of globalization in the 1990s and the militarization of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11, our universities would do well to return to this well and drink afresh — bringing new life to old rhetoric.
SECOND, as many of you know, I’m sure, on October 14th, 1960, around 2 am, Kennedy the presidential candidate, surrounded by well over a thousand students, stood on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Student Union and asked: “How many of you [who] are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians and engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service, and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that . . . will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete.” While often written off as mere heated campaign rhetoric, Kennedy’s announcement of what eventually became the Peace Corps injected energy into a campaign otherwise dominated by the saber-rattling, cold-war oneupmanship so typical of Kennedy-Nixon debates and of the cold war in general. Surely there were reasons for winning the cold war beyond simply defeating the Soviet Union? What was the substance beneath the much-used phrase “the free world” after all? The youth of 1960 were asking these kinds of questions and not getting a response until that October night in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And I would submit to you today that the youth of 2017 find themselves drowning in a sea of political cynicism, market-based slogans, and wealth-driven campaigns and are, as a result, asking their own versions of the same questions. Can that original spark that touched so many lives around the world in 1960 continue to shed light on a worthy path to the future? I think so.
THIRD, when President Kennedy issued his executive order on March 1, 1961, thus setting the Peace Corps in motion, he stated: “Although this is an American Peace Corps, the problem of world development is not just an American problem. Let us hope that other nations will mobilize the spirit and energies and skill of their people in some form of Peace Corps — making our own effort only one step in a major international effort to increase the welfare of all men and improve understanding among all nations.” As Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, historian of the Peace Corps, has pointed out, the Peace Corps not only had many predecessors among both public and private institutions but also many comparable programs from nations around the world. Kennedy’s call to public service abroad resonated not only with many Americans — especially young ones—but also with governments and their citizens the world over. Nearly all industrialized nations, she points out, took part in the “multilateral proliferation” of like-minded volunteer service programs. At the same time, the Peace Corps itself became a two-way street, allowing for reciprocity of exchange rather than just a model of “going forth” unto the lost of the world. The structure of the Peace Corps, in short, reflected its basic purpose: the back and forth communications of face-to-face, side-by-side living. Just as the United States had much to teach the world, it had much to learn. And the Peace Corps was built on that premise. Given recent talk of returning to an “America First” approach to U.S. foreign policy, I would also submit that this lesson has new meaning and value.
FOURTH, perhaps Sargent Shriver said it best: “Our purpose is peace — not salesmanship…. Their mission is not to convert, but to communicate.” Although the proliferation of similar volunteer programs around the world reflected some degree of flattery, many of those programs emerged from a shared sense of a common threat as the Soviet Union dropped its hard-line, Stalinist ways in 1956 and committed instead to a policy of “peaceful competition” with the West. Eisenhower summed up well this new strategy under Premier Khrushchev: “. . . the new Communist line of sweetness and light was perhaps more dangerous than their propaganda in Stalin’s time.” Meanwhile, European empires continued their rapid decline, with former colonies searching for new forms of governance and new ways to grow their economies. So where did the future lie? For Khrushchev, the answer was famously clear: “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you.” But part of the genius of the Peace Corps was the realization by Shriver, Wofford, and their compatriots that the Peace Corps could only work if it were not just another arm of U.S. foreign policy, if it were not controlled in any direct manner by the White House, State Department, the CIA, or the Pentagon. Secretary of State Dean Rusk captured the logic best: “The Peace Corps is not an instrument of foreign policy, because to make it so would rob it of its contribution to foreign policy.” While we do not have the time to go into the details of how the Peace Corps managed to assert its own independence from the foreign policy establishment of Washington, DC, suffice to say that Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and his top aide, Bill Moyers, stepped in at just the right time to shepherd the Peace Corps away from the deadening bureaucracy and policy dictates of the U.S. government. As virtually all historians of the Peace Corps have argued, staying independent from U.S. foreign aid and U.S. military initiatives was the most important fight in the program’s young life and its most important key to success ever since. Much like the exuberant young supporters of the Peace Corps, the program needed to maintain a healthy distance from the centers of power if it were to survive and thrive on its own terms. However, the Peace Corps, like many of the basic advances in public service first introduced during the 1960s — for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Endowment for the Humanites, the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, Head Start, and so on — is now under threat. And, adding insult to injury, the State Department continues to dwindle in size while the Defense Department is set to receive yet another $54 billion into its coffers. Truly, Sargent Shriver’s simple emphasis on peace as a goal unto itself, and as a source of strength that speaks for itself, resonates with our time as much as it did in his own time.
FINALLY, the Peace Corps ended up becoming one of the most enduring legacies of the Kennedy years. Simply put, it has come to represent the best and purest injection of humanitarianism into U.S. international relations. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a better example of public service and pragmatic idealism. And it hasn’t been easy to do. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman described the tight-rope act Peace Corps Volunteers had to walk in the following way:
[They] submitted themselves to the discipline of a government institution during a time of cold war. They operated within the limits inevitably imposed by this war. In doing so they stretched the capacity of the nation to accept the view that others’ interests had a place in foreign policy, even if a small one, and enabled the humanitarian ideal to persist in difficult times. This ideal, as it turns out, was as important to America as it was to any other nation that chanced to benefit it.
Another way to think of it came from Secretary of State Rusk, who argued that there was no natural constituency in the United States when it came to foreign affairs and so one of the windfalls from the Peace Corps would be, over time, the creation of a core group of U.S. citizens equipped with a first-hand knowledge of some part of the world, a knowledge made three-dimensional through daily human interaction and shared experience, a knowledge enhanced through empathy and a deeper appreciation of the human condition.
Surely there’s still a place for the hopeful pragmatism of the Peace Corps in today’s world, no? One person we might ask is Bill Moyers, who’s still very much in the public eye. And another person we might ask is Harris Wofford, who is living in Washington, DC and still active in national politics.
So, like the Peace Corps itself, the highest ideals — and idealists — are still very much alive and well.
Thank you for your time and attention.
Brendan Goff received his PhD in history at the University of Michigan in 2008. Before coming to New College of Florida in 2011, Dr. Goff held a post-doctoral fellowship at the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Michigan. Dr. Goff has published through the Social Science Research Council and is currently working on his book with Harvard University Press, which is entitled The Heartland Abroad: Rotary International and the World of Main Street.