Let me start with a quote from Gerard T. Rice’s book, The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps:
In 1961 John F. Kennedy took two risky and conflicting initiatives in the Third World. One was to send five hundred additional military advisers into South Vietnam; by 1963 there would be seventeen thousand such advisers. The other was to send five hundred young Americans to teach in the schools and work in the fields of eight developing countries. These were Peace Corps Volunteers. By 1963 there would be seven thousand of them in forty-four countries.
Vietnam scarred the American psyche, leaving memories of pain and defeat. But Kennedy’s other initiative inspired and continued to inspire, hope and understanding among Americans and the rest of the world. In that sense, the Peace Corps was his most affirmative and enduring legacy.
Gerry Rice, in The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps, points out that the United States, as a nation, was founded by missionaries, beginning in the sixteenth century. By 1809, Christian evangelists from the United States traveled overseas not only to preach the gospel, but to build schools, teach trades, and educate. One of the Peace Corps’ first overseas directors suggested that Volunteers only carried out “in greater numbers and without religious connotations much of the same work which church and church-inspired groups have done for many years.” Kennedy himself, when he proposed the Peace Corps, expressed his admiration for the Mormon Church’s requirement of full-time voluntary service (often overseas) by its young members.
The Peace Corps had other historical connections. The New York Times in 1961 wrote that the Peace Corps could be traced back to the days when “the great procession of covered wagons rolled across our continent.” Kennedy remarked to the first group of Volunteers — road surveyors going to Tanzania —“I’m particularly glad that you are going there to help open up the backland.” And Sargent Shriver wrote in a letter to Congressman John Ashbrook that the Peace Corps was “a milestone on the way to a new era of American pioneering.”
In the nineteenth century, a Dr. Samuel Howe of Massachusetts went overseas to teach medicine. Harris Wofford, in the early 1950s, helped set up the International Development Placement Association, which sent a small number of college graduates to teach and do community development work in the Third World. Earlier, there was the International Rescue Committee and, of course, the Experiment in International Living which started in 1932. And Crossroads Africa, established by a Harlem minister, James H. Robinson, in 1957. There was the famous Tom Dooley, a doctor who went to Southeast Asia. But the private group most like the Peace Corps was the non-denominational International Voluntary Service (IVS), founded by Christian leaders from various countries in 1953.
International precursors included Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) established in 1958, Australia’s Volunteer Graduate Association, and West Germany’s Council for Development Aid. Canada, as well, had an annual conference as well of ‘Peace Corps organizations.
The government predecessors
The first “government” volunteer group like the Peace Corps was a program of President McKinley’s. Several hundred volunteers called “Thomasites” after the ship in which they sailed to their post — the U.S.S. Thomas, went to live and work in the barrios of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In 1904, William James proposed at the Universal Peace Conference in Boston that the government should conscript young men to work among those living in poverty in America. In his 1911 essay entitled “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James said that, for the greater good of society, “our gilded youths” should be packed off to do service.
This was followed in the Depression years by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and FDR’s National Youth Administration. Over two million students and three million jobless youths took part in this domestic program.
By the 1950s, a group of World Federalists wanted a voluntary “peace force” to work in developing countries. Also in the 1950s, Sargent Shriver suggested an adventurous people-to-people scheme to President Eisenhower — a plan for sending three-man political action teams to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Shriver said that “they would offer their services at a grassroots level and work directly with the people, contributing to the growth of the economies, to the democratic organization of the societies and the peaceful outcome of the social revolutions underway.” The Eisenhower administration ignored Shriver’s suggestion.
A New Frontier
There was also, as there has always been, a search for a new frontier. That feeling was loose in America. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner has written about how America has continued to grow because of this search for another frontier. The Peace Corps gave all these young people a New Frontier.
A new generation
The Baby Boom had struck. 50 percent of the population was under 25 in 1960. For the first time, a college education was within the grasp of the majority of young people. Unprecedented material wealth freed this new generation to heed their consciences and pursue their ideals. This spirit of generosity and participation had been sorely missed under Eisenhower. As one Peace Corps administrator puts it in Gerry Rice’s book: “The 1950s made ancient mariners of us all — becalmed, waiting and a little parched in the throat. Then we picked up momentum on the winds of change that Kennedy brought in — the New Frontier, the fresh faces in government, the vigorous, hopeful speeches, the Peace Corps.”
Two key people in Congress, Henry Reuss and Hubert Humphrey, both proposed the idea of the Peace Corps in the late 1950s.
Reuss voiced it in 1957 when he was a member of the Joint Economic Committee and traveled to Southeast Asia. He, by chance, came upon a UNESCO team of young teachers from America and other countries who were working at the village level. For three years after that, Congressman Reuss talked to student conferences about establishing a “Point Four Youth Corps” and wrote articles about it in magazines. In January of 1960, Reuss introduced in the House of Representatives the first Peace Corps-type legislation. It sought a study of “the advisability and practicability to the establishment of a Point Four Youth Corps.”
In the Senate, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota was a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the late 1950s, he, too, suggested the enlistment of talented young men and women in an overseas operation for education, health care, vocational training, and community development. The idea was liked in the Senate, but the State Department was against it. Humphrey began to research the possibilities of such a program with his staff and realized there was a groundswell of popular support for the idea which he advocated during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the spring of 1960.
In June of 1960, Humphrey introduced in the Senate a bill to send “young men to assist the peoples of the underdeveloped areas of the world to combat poverty, disease, illiteracy, and hunger.”
What’s important here is this bill — Senate S. 3675 — was the first to use the specific name “Peace Corps.”
Now it was too late in the session for his proposal to have any hope of passing into legislation, but he wanted the bill to be printed and appropriately referred so as to focus the Congress and the public on the Peace Corps idea at a critical moment — just before the presidential election of 1960.
Meanwhile, Reuss’s bill was added as a rider to the Mutual Security Act which authorized $10,000 for a study of a Point Four Youth Corps.
Point IV Youth Corps was the technical assistance of President Truman’s Greece and Turkish aid bill and of the subsequent Marshall Plan. Point IV was swallowed in the Eisenhower/John Foster Dulles Mutual Security Era in the 1950s. Warran Wiggins and Bill Josephson regarded the Peace Corps as the lineal successor to Point IV.
Also in 1960, several other people were expressing support: General James Gavin; Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and ambassador to India; William Douglas, associate justice of the Supreme Court; James Reston of the New York Times; Milton Shapp, from Philadelphia; Walt Rostow of MIT; and Senator Jacob Javits of New York, who urged Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon to adopt the idea. Nixon refused.
The Ugly American
One of the most important books of the late 1950s was The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick. The book’s hero was Homer Atkins, a skilled technician committed to helping at a grassroots level by building water pumps, digging roads, and building bridges. He was called the “ugly American” only because of his grotesque physical appearance. He lived and worked with the local people and, by the end of the novel, was beloved and admired by them.
The bitter message of the novel, however, was that American diplomats were, by and large, neither competent nor effective; and the implication was that the more the United States relied on them, the more its influence would wane. The book was published in July 1958. It was Book-of-the-Month Club selection in October; by November it had gone through twenty printings. It was so influential that in later paperback editions its cover proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”
The authors summed up in a factual epilogue what should be done to improve the U.S. foreign service:
Whatever the reasons, our overseas services attract far too few of our brightest and best-qualified college graduates . . . . What we need is a small force of well-trained, well-chosen, hard-working and dedicated professionals. They must be willing to risk their comforts and — in some lands — their health. They must go equipped to apply a positive policy promulgated by a clear-thinking government. They must speak the language of the land of their assignment and they must be more expert in its problems than are the natives.
The Cow Palace Speech
Six days before the 1960 election on November 2nd, Kennedy gave a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco — a speech written by Ted Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, and Archibald Cox. Referring to the charges in The Ugly American, Kennedy pointed out that 70 percent of all new Foreign Service officers had no foreign language skills whatsoever; only three of the forty-four Americans in the embassy in Belgrade spoke Yugoslavian; not a single American in New Delhi could speak Indian dialects, and only two of the nine ambassadors in the Middle East spoke Arabic. Kennedy also pointed out that there were only twenty-six black officers in the entire Foreign Service corps, less than 1 percent.
JFK’s first direct association with the Peace Corps came on February 21, 1960. He was on a college television show called “College News Conference” and someone asked about the “Point Four Youth Corps.” Kennedy said he didn’t know what the legislative proposal was. Afterward, he told aide Richard Goodwin to research the idea. Goodwin, who was the Kennedy link with the “brain trust” at Harvard, wrote to Archibald Cox at the university’s law school about the idea.
Then in April and May of 1960, when Kennedy was running against Humphrey for the nomination, the idea was discussed further. Humphrey introduced his bill for a “Peace Corps” in the Senate in June, but after Kennedy won the nomination in July, Humphrey transferred all his research files to Kennedy’s office. The Cow Palace speech made by Kennedy right before the election, which revealed his growing commitment to the “Peace Corps” concept, owed a great deal to Humphrey’s ideas.
In early September, Kennedy asked both Congressman Reuss and Professor Sam Hayes at the University of Michigan to prepare position papers on a national youth service program.
On September 22nd, at the University of Nebraska, Lyndon Johnson, the Vice Presidential candidate, called for a “Volunteers for Peace and Humanity” program and got a great campus response. He called Kennedy that night and told him that such a volunteer program would be a “great political asset.”
In October, during the debates with Nixon, Kennedy discussed the Third World, the Communist threat, and the need for new foreign policy initiatives, but never mentioned a “Youth Peace Corps.”
Then came Ann Arbor, Michigan
On October 14, Kennedy flew into Michigan from New York, where he had just completed his third debate with Nixon. He had agreed to say a few words to the students at the university. Ten thousand students waited for him until 2 am, and they chanted his name as he climbed the steps of the student union building.
Kennedy launched into an extemporaneous address. He challenged them, asking how many would be prepared to give years of their lives working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America?
The audience went wild. (I know because at the time I was a new graduate student over in Kalamazoo. I was also working part-time as a news reporter for WKLZ and had gone to cover the event.)
According to Sargent Shriver, “No one is sure why Kennedy raised the question in the middle of the night at the university.” Possibly Kennedy thought of the Peace Corps at Michigan because someone reminded him that Professor Sam Hayes taught at the university’s International Studies Department. Samuel Hayes was an early advocate of the “Peace Corps idea,” and had earlier been asked by Kennedy to prepare position papers on the idea of a national volunteer organization.
Harris Wofford thinks that Kennedy’s remarks were a counterattack to a criticism that Nixon had made during the debate earlier in the evening. Nixon had said that the Democrats were the “war party.” In his book, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, Wofford writes: “Stung by Nixon’s words, Kennedy may have remembered the idea of a Peace Corps and spoken as he did in order to counteract the image of a Democratic war party.”
After that speech — the next day, in fact — Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and an advisor to Kennedy who would later become Kennedy’s first Undersecretary of State and Ambassador to India, gave a long talk on the same theme. (A day later in Kalamazoo I was part of the press that interviewed Bowles, who was following after Kennedy on this tour through the Midwest. What I remember most about this event was that in responding to my question of what area of the world would be most interesting in the next decade, Bowles said Africa, where vast changes would occur because of the end of colonial rule.)
Meanwhile, back in Ann Arbor
On the Michigan campus, after hearing Bowles, two graduate students — Alan and Judy Guskin — wrote a letter to the editor of The Michigan Daily, the university newspaper, asking readers to join in working for a Peace Corps. (The editor of the Daily was Tom Hayden who also heard Kennedy that night. He wrote a story about the speech for the University of Michigan newspapers. The paper later won a journalism award for its coverage and support of the Peace Corps movement.) Students began to circulate a petition urging the founding of a Peace Corps.
Kennedy was so struck by the student reaction that night he asked Ted Sorenson to work the Peace Corps into the foreign policy speech he was considering.
Then a Democratic National Committeewoman and UAW official, Mildred Jeffrey, learned about the students’ response from her daughter Sharon, who was studying at the university. She put the students in touch with the Kennedy camp. They couldn’t reach anyone until they got Ted Sorensen, who liked the idea of a major speech on the subject and promised to tell Kennedy about the Ann Arbor petitions. By then the petition was also being circulated at other Big Ten universities and at colleges throughout Michigan — I signed at Western Michigan University where I was in graduate school.
In the Republican camp, Nixon was still being urged to embrace the Peace Corps idea. Two Michigan faculty members — Elise and Kenneth Boulding — who were critical of Kennedy’s cold war stances, pushed for the students to be nonpartisan with the idea. But when Nixon wouldn’t take up the plan, the Guskins turned to Kennedy in late October.
Because Kennedy’s people didn’t know this and they had heard that Nixon was on the verge of proposing an overseas volunteer program for college graduates, they urged Kennedy to move out front with the idea before Nixon.
On November 2, the Guskins were notified that at the Cow Palace that evening Kennedy was going to make a major address on the Peace Corps idea. And he wanted to meet with them and the other students taking the lead in the petition drive. This was six days before the election.
The Michigan students were told to drive to Toledo and meet Kennedy when he stopped on his way back to Washington and deliver their petition — this was the same petition that we had signed at other Michigan schools.
About this meeting, Wofford writes in his book: “Kennedy grinned at the long scroll of names, and sensed the students’ discomfort when he started to put the petition in his car. ‘You need them back, don’t you?’ he asked. He had guessed right; it was before the era of Xerox and they had not copied the names and addresses.”
How important was this petition? How important were those students in the creation of the Peace Corps?
In his book, Point of the Lance, Sargent Shriver concluded that the Peace Corps would probably “still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty. Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response, he would have concluded that the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”
A Towering Task
The day after the inauguration, Kennedy telephoned Shriver and asked him to form a presidential Task Force “to report how the Peace Corps should be organized and then to organize it.” When he heard from Kennedy, Shriver immediately called Harris Wofford.
At the time, Shriver was 44; Wofford was 34. They had become good friends during the campaign. Wofford had worked as Kennedy’s adviser on civil rights, and together they had worked on the talent hunt for staffing for the new administration.
Initially, the Task Force consisted solely of Shriver and Wofford, sitting in a suite they had rented at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Most of their time was spent making calls to personal friends they thought might be helpful. One name led to another: Gordon Boyce, president of the Experiment in International Living; Albert Sims of the Institute of International Education; Adam Yarmolinsky, a foundation executive; Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame; George Carter, a campaign worker on civil rights issues and former member of the American Society for African Culture; Louis Martin, a newspaper editor; and Franklin Williams, an organizer of the campaign for black voter registration, and a student of Africa.
Shriver had scheduled the first official meeting of his Task Force for February 6. Despite the recommendations, opinions, and reports they had received, Shriver and Wofford had made relatively little headway in defining the new program in terms of specific size, costs, organization, and objectives. Kennedy had called requesting a report by the end of February, and Shriver had to concede that, as of yet, he had not even settled on an official name for the new agency. While it was less than two weeks since the President had given him the assignment, “Kennedy wanted to know what was taking us so long,” says Shriver.
Kennedy had given Shriver a report written by Max Millikan, the director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. The report stated that the development of such an agency should be slow, placing several hundred people in the first year or two. This opposed everything Shriver believed in. Shriver later wrote, “We knew the Peace Corps would have only one chance to work. As with the parachute jumper, the chute had to open the first time.” It had to be new, in both size and thrust.
Unbeknownst to Shriver and Wofford, while they were busily managing the Task Force, two officials in the Far Eastern division of the International Cooperation Administration (ICA) were working on a Peace Corps plan. Warren Wiggins, who was the deputy director of Far Eastern operations in ICA, was still in his 30s but had already helped administer the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. He was totally dissatisfied with the manner in which American overseas programs were run; he called them “golden ghettos.”
With Wiggins was Bill Josephson, just 26, and a lawyer at ICA.
They started with a program that would be limited to sending young Americans overseas to teach English. But as they worked on it, their vision broadened.
The paper they prepared detailing their recommendations they called “A Towering Task,” taking the title from the phrase Kennedy had used in his State of the Union address: “The problems . . . are towering and unprecedented — and the response must be towering and unprecedented as well.”
They sent copies to Wofford, another to Richard Goodwin at the White House, and to Shriver. As Wiggins said, “we wanted to make sure Shriver would get it.”
Shriver read the paper late on Sunday, February 5th. He thought it was brilliant and immediately sent a telegram to Wiggins inviting him to attend the Task Force meeting the next morning. With that, the so-called “midnight ride of Warren Wiggins” became an early legend in the Peace Corps.
Meanwhile, Wofford had read the Wiggins proposal and he called Shriver at 7 a.m. to talk to him about it. Shriver told Wofford that Wiggins had already been invited to the first Task Force meeting.
Wiggins had written the proposal in the hope that it might, as he said, “stimulate thought.” In fact, it provided a philosophy for the Peace Corps throughout the Kennedy era.
Wiggins fundamentally disagreed with most of the academic and other institutional approaches which counseled caution and a slow beginning. Instead, he advocated initiating the Peace Corps with “several thousand Americans participating in the first 12 to 18 months.”
A proposal for the President
Shriver introduced Wiggins and Josephson at the February 6th meeting and distributed copies of “A Towering Task.” From this point on, Wiggins and Josephson became the engine room of the Peace Corps. Shriver describes Wiggins as “the figure most responsible” for the planning and organization that brought the Peace Corps into being.
Twice more in February Kennedy telephoned Shriver to ask about progress on the Peace Corps. The final draft of the report was done with Charles Nelson sitting in one room writing basic copy, Josephson sitting in another room rewriting it, Wofford sitting in yet another room doing the final rewrite, and Wiggins running back and forth carrying pieces of paper. Shriver then made the final edits. On the morning of Friday, February 24, 1961, Shriver delivered to Kennedy what was, in effect, the Peace Corps Magna Carta. He told Kennedy: “If you decide to go ahead, we can be in business Monday morning.”
It had all taken less than a month. On March 1 President Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps.
— John Coyne Ethiopia 1962–64
The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps by Gerard T. Rice [University of Notre Dame Press, 1985]
Of Kennedys & Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties by Harris Wofford [Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992]
Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story by Coates Redmon [Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1986]
“A Towering Task” by Warren Wiggins & Bill Josephson, proposal for The National Peace Corps