IVS and the Foundation of the Peace Corps, Part 1

A new book entitled The Fortunate Few IVS Volunteers From Asia to The Andes, written by Thierry J. fortune-few2Sagnier, novelist and former senior writer with the World Bank, has just been published. In the early chapters the author links the Peace Corps to this international volunteer organization. Created in 1953–eight years before the Peace Corps–International Voluntary Services (IVS) roots go back to the religious pacifism of Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren organizations.

Like the Peace Corps it had a small community of organizers, two in particular, Dr. Dale Clark and Dr. John Noffsinger. Clark was with the State Department and had aided the Arab Development Society setting up a dairy program in Jordan. He then went to the Mennonite and Brethrens with an idea: would they be interested in starting a voluntary organization using Marshall Plan funds to help other Middle-Eastern nations?

After a series of meetings, the IVS was born and named. Clark then met Dr. John S. Noffsinger, a Brethren, who as a young man had been a volunteer “Thomasite” teacher in the Philippines. Noffsinger became the first IVS executive director.

From the start, IVS was non-denominational, completely apolitical, and free of government influence. Unlike other groups, as the introduction to The Fortunate Few states, “It remained adamantly independent throughout its almost fifty years of existence, sending ‘young people without guns,’ in the words of one volunteer, to remote parts of the planet with the sole aim of improving the lot of fellow humans.”

Sounds like the Peace Corps all right.

In a 1961 speech on the House floor, Rep. Henry Reuss of Wisconsin, supporting JFK’s new agency said, “In carrying out the Peace Corps program, we are fortunately able to draw on the experience of….the International Voluntary Services [that] has done a superlative job in its limited but thoroughgoing overseas ventures.”

In fact, IVS executive director Noffsinger was in 1961 an early advisor to Shriver, and involved from 1961-65 with the Peace Corps, given the title of “senior counselor” by Sarge.

The connection with the Peace Corps was not limited to this one person. Recently, Anne Shirk, the last Executive Director of IVS, sent me a list of the IVS volunteers who also were Peace Corps Volunteers, some 30+ served first as PCVs; 4 others joined the agency after IVS. Additionally, there were 15 volunteers and staff who went from IVS to the Peace Corps staff.

By the end of its existence in 2003-after 50 years– approximately 3,000 Americans and international IVS volunteers had served overseas. According to author Thierry J. Sagnier, it was the “effectiveness of IVS volunteers that eventually lead to the creation of a number of other international volunteer agencies including the Peace Corps.”

As John F. Kennedy famously said, “”Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.” We have many individuals and organization who claims ‘founding father’ to the Peace Corps. We also know that the basic idea of such ‘volunteer service’ was expressed by William James at the turn of the century in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Later H.G. Wells, influenced by James’s views, prophetically outlined plans for replacing marching soldiers by dedicated scientists and teachers in his utopian world-state; these plans could have also been blueprints for the Peace Corps.

Clearly, the idea of the Peace Corps also developed from the experience of the many thousands of American religious missionaries. It was further influenced by the examples of the prewar 1933 Civilian Conservation Corps and of private organizations, such as the American Friends Service Committee and Operation Crossroads Africa, as well as, International Voluntary Services (IVS).

We also know that the first IVS person to be involved with the Peace Corps was Dr. John Noffsinger. According to Professor Paul Rodell, a professor of history at Georgia Southern University, who has done details studies of Noffsinger and the IVS, Noffsinger, on Monday, February 13, 1961, wrote Shriver offering his help. Shriver set up a meeting for Thursday of that  week. At the time, Noffsinger was 74 years old and had recently retired from the IVS. This would be the first of 8 early meetings between Shriver and Noffsinger.

A few ‘founding fathers & mothers” of the agency who I have spoken to can recall Noffsinger’s name but not his presence at the first Peace Corps HQ, the Maiatico Building across Lafayette Square from the White House.

The history Noffsinger had with the agency from 1961- until 1965 was, to the best of my knowledge, as “senior counselor” in the Office of Public Affairs which, in the first days of the agency, was run by Associate Director, Bill Moyers.  Noffsinger’s duties were to focus on private agencies of religious nature and the recruitment of older volunteers. He also worked with Gordon Boyce in the Peace Corps’ Division of Private Agency Relations (later renamed Division of Private Organizations) and Alice Gilbert, Director of the Division of United Nations and International Agency Programs. Boyce also met with the executive board of IVS twice, on March 29, 1961 and on May 31, 1961.  Alice Gilbert met with the full board on July 10, 1961.

Professor Rodell also cites a letter written by Noffsinger dated May 10, 1961 and written to Glenn E. Riddell, IVS Program Officer, where Noffsinger states how heavily the new Peace Corps is following the IVS model. Noffsinger writes: “There still seems to be a rather heavy “fog” hanging over their entire program. We are usually invited to sit in some of their conferences or some of their committee come to the IVS office as much as two or three times each week to learn how IVS recruits, screens, etc., gets money out to its people in “the bush,” pay and select leaders or Chiefs-of-Party, etc., etc.”

Given this early, intimate, and sustained contact, it should come as no surprise that Noffsinger and the Thomasite-IVS model had a heavy influence on the new Peace Corps.”

However, there are several major differences. The Peace Corps was a government agency, the first of this kind of “international volunteer” work. Also, as pointed out in Gerard T. Rice’s The Bold Experiment: JFK’s Peace Corps, “International Voluntary Services warned against ‘too large an initial program’ and envisaged only five hundred volunteers in the field by 1963.”

This is far from what Sarge had in mind. By ’63 there were close to 10,000 PCVs in the field.

Back to Shriver and Noffsinger meet on February 13, 1961. By that date the Peace Corps Task Force was already in operation.

Shriver did value the contribution of the IVS and Noffsinger to the agency and on December 22, 1965 he wrote a final time to his friend, mentor, and staff assistant. This time the correspondence was not a business letter, but a touching “get well” note. Shriver expressed regret at the news of Noffsinger’s “sudden and serious illness.” He wished his older friend a speedy recovery, and said that he looked forward to his eventual return to work. Shriver closed with, “You have not only done a wonderful job in recruiting the older volunteers, but you have been an inspiration to the entire staff. We miss you.” On May 4, 1966 John Noffsinger “retired” from the Peace Corps losing his life to stomach cancer.

(You can learn more about the life of Dr. John Noffsinger in a study done by Paul Rodell It can be found in the Peace Corps Digital Library. The link is: http://collection.peacecorps.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p9009coll12/id/410

The Fortunate Few details more on the organization of the IVS and its connection with the Peace Corps, but the majority of the 370 page book is spent telling the stories of individual volunteers and their tours. And they have, not unlike PCVs, stories to tell.

In Part II, we’ll look at one or two of those telling tales from  RPCVs who finished their Peace Corps tours, joined VSI, and went to Vietnam in the middle of that raging war.

Click for Part 2 and Part 3.


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  • John COYNE; If you go back into the history of the BRITISH Volunteers in Service Overseas you will find that they started in 1958.

    I was not able to find out about a similar French organization but I know it existed when I was the Country Director of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan 1966-68.

    • Walter,
      We are trying to locate a nurse, Margaret V. Silberberg , who served in Afghanistan in the 60s. She is one of the nurses who wrote a letter about her experience. That letter and those of 11 other nurses were compiled and published by Peace Corps in the recruiting brochure, “Letters from Nurses in the Peace Corps”

      Peace Corps originally posted this important historical document online on its media library. But it has been taken down and the current guidelines won’t allow it to be reposted(!) Marian Haley Beil did a great job of formatting and posting the documenent, here. The Peace Corps Librarian has also said that she thinks that right now Peace Corps does not have the infrastructure to guarantee its preservation. That is why we, Peace Corps Librarian, myself and Alana deJoseph, are looking for a permanent archive. The Peace Corps Librarian has been very helpful, but so far American Library and the JFK Library have said it doesn’t meet their guidelines (!).

      If we could find out more information about one or all of the nurses, such as the college where they trained or were educated, we could contact that college to see if they would accept the digitalized copy to be archived. It would be great if we could actually talk with one of the nurses. I searched the NPCA data base, but have not been able to locate any of them. It was a long time ago. So many of us served under our maiden names and when we married, our identity was not so obvious.

      Any help you or anyone could give would be really appreciated.

  • When I was a Thailand PCV from 1973 to 1978, I worked with several VSO volunteers, and I also encountered CUSO (Canadian) volunteers and a few German volunteers. I’d heard of Japanese volunteers, but I never met any. However, this
    is a history of the Peace Corps, not any other organization.

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