Launching the Peace Corps

Peacecorps_logoTo close out “Peace Corps Week” here’s a little history lesson on the beginnings of the agency for all the X,Y,Z Generations who ask, “how in the world did all of this happen?”

Encouraged by over 25,000 letters responding to his call to serve abroad, Kennedy took immediate action to make the campaign promise a reality. He asked Shriver to direct a Peace Corps Task Force–the famous Mayflower Hotel gang–and within two months the task force had outlined “seven steps” to form the Peace Corps in a February 22, 1961 memorandum to Kennedy.

This memo is interesting for several reasons. The first point Shriver made was that the Peace Corps should be established by an Executive Order within the Mutual Security Program. William Josephson, then the only lawyer in the ‘new’ Peace Corps was the principal author of the President’s Executive Order. [This is not entirely true for Shriver was a lawyer, as was Wofford, among others, but Josephson had come in with Wiggins with their Towering Task Memo, and was a government employee, as was Warren Wiggins who was made Director ad interim. And, therefore, the FIRST DIRECTOR of the agency.] Shriver was appointed by Kennedy on March 4, but subject to Senate confirmation. It was May 21 before Shriver made his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his appointment was confirmed. In fact, he became the director only one day before the first Peace Corps Volunteers received letters from President Kennedy himself, on May 22, 1961, asking them to join the new agency.

Here is Shriver in one of those famous early photos of him walking PCVs across the White House lawn to meet Kennedy. The Shriver_0829_lg_3date was August 28, 1961, and Shriver was with the first Ghana (and then) Tanganyika PCVs.

This photograph was taken by a terrific guy, Rowland Scherman, an early photographer for the Peace Corps who traveled with a Peace Corps writer, Jim Wall, out to Africa to do stories on the Volunteers. We met them in 1962 in Addis Ababa and they spent that first Christmas with the Volunteers in Ethiopia. The majority of those early photos of Volunteers in the field were taken by Rowland.

By January 1, 1962, the Peace Corps had trained and placed 580 Volunteers in 10 countries. By the end of 1963, 7,000 Volunteers were in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and what they then called Oceania.

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  • Welcome back, John. It’s such a joy to escape into your stories about the early Peace Corps days, especially right now with the world in such turmoil.

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