JFK Creates The Peace Corps

[Over the next month or so–as we reach the anniversary of the Peace Corps–I thought I might relate some tales of how the Peace Corps was established. Let’s begin with Kennedy and his involvement in the agency that he would create, and what many people think was his greatest achievement, and which all of you were part of making a reality.]

Kennedy Learns about the Peace Corps

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. Afterwards, 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 a 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.kennedy-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 toAnn Arber 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 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 the 60s radical Tom Hayden. 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.

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. Jeffrey put the Guskins 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, as well as other early PCVs, Bill Donohoe (Ethiopia 1962-64) and Dick Joyce (Philippines 1962-64) friends of mine at Western Michigan University where I was studying.

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, who was then teaching law at the University of Notre Dame, 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, 1961. 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 which 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 made the final edits.

What was a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Wofford in his book points out that some members of the task force wanted a ‘single purpose’ or at least a central one. Shriver, however, liked the tension between competing purposes. He found it ‘creative’ and thought it should continue. Peace was the overriding purpose, and therefore, he said, it was “necessarily complex.”

Finally the task force agreed on the famous Three Goals.

They were complex and difficult to fulfill as the Peace Corps soon found out. Almost every Volunteer returned home after two years with some doubts about the ultimate effectiveness of his or her contribution to socio-economic development or cross-cultural understanding. Nonetheless, in a 1979 survey, 65 percent of Volunteers believed that the impact of their work would continue once the Peace Corps was no longer directly involved. Among newly returned Volunteers, a massive 93 percent reported that the Peace Corps was either a ‘positive’ or ‘extremely positive’ influence on their lives.

At the first national Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Conference held at the State Department in 1965, then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, told the RPCVs, “I doubt very much that we (3.75 million people in the Defense Department) have influenced the peace of the world as much as the small handful of you have.”

By 1964, the Peace Corps had established itself as a respected institution in government circles. More importantly, the Volunteers had shown that they could fulfill a need overseas. They had also won a place in the hearts of Americans and Third World peoples. President Kennedy confirmed their unique standing when he told a group of Trainees in 1962. “The White House belongs to all the people, but I think it particularly belongs to you.”

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.jfk-shriver-signing-the-executive-order1


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  • John…how can I not respond, very moving and tells us why Peace Corps has changed so many lives around the world. As RPCV’s, where would any of us be had it not been for the Peace Corps, it made a difference in my life and those of my family and friends. Today I spent the day with children at a rural community school in northern Colombia. These students mostly ten and twelve year old’s were sharing their plans for the future…what they want to be as adults. The excitement got hold of us, and I felt that I would hold their dreams in my heart because they shared these dreams with me…as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer. This is what Shriver wanted, Bob

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