Peace Corps At Day One: #15 LBJ Saves The Peace Corps!

The signs that the special role for the Peace Corps in foreign aid was in trouble were all over Washington in March and April of ’61. Wofford ran into Ralph Dungan in the White House mess (Wofford was then a Special Assistant to the President on Civil Rights) and Dungan told him the Peace Corps would be a subdivision of the new AID. “Not if Sarge has anything to say about it,” Wofford tossed off, half joking, but also firmly believing Shriver walked on water.

The truth was that all these “new guys” Shriver brought in to work for the Peace Corps believed Sarge could get anything he wanted from the White House. But Shriver was scheduled to leave D.C. and the U.S. Who would carry the fight that was developing in D.C.?

Before leaving for his ’round the world trip to secure placements for PCVs, Shriver lobbied Sorensen, Dungan, and Labouisse, trying to persuade them of the absolute necessity of having an “independent” Peace Corps. Shriver also wrote Vice-President Johnson and sent a memo to JFK saying that it would be a “political mistake” for the Peace Corps to be “one of the categories of assistance in the new foreign aid bill.”

Kennedy was also “out of the loop” and did not chair the April 26th meeting. (At the time he was dealing with the repercussions of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.) Ralph Dungan step in to chair the AID meeting and Dungan, Labouisse, and David  Bell, director of then Bureau of the Budget, all recommended that the Peace Corps should be a subdivision of AID.

Representing the Peace Corps at this White House meeting were Wiggins and Josephson. They argued against this “bureaucratic tidiness” favored by Kennedy’s aides. Josephson took extensive notes, and immediately afterward, Wiggins cabled Shriver who by then had reached India. Wiggins’ message read: “Peace Corps not, repeat not, to have autonomy. Dungan describes  himself as acting on behalf of the President.”

Like Labouisse, Dungan believed that the Peace Corps should be part of AID and that the President need not be troubled by the “arguments of amateurs,” as Rice puts it in his book.

Also, according to Rice in  The Bold Experiment, Wiggins and Josephson suspected that Dungan had not been objective. “There was some evidence that he had intercepted Shriver’s memorandum to the President and had prevented it from reaching him.”

But Dungan didn’t know who he was dealing with in Shriver and these ‘new guys’ in town. Wofford was right. Shriver wasn’t giving up in this fight with the presidential assistants over ‘turf.’

From India, Shriver cabled Wiggins and told him to ask Vice-President Johnson if he would interced on behalf of the Peace Corps. He told Wiggins to get in touch with Bill Moyers, then Johnson’s aide. “Moyers took on the crucial role here,” writes Rice. At the time, Bill Moyers was only twenty-four, but Johnson’s key aide, and Moyers loved the Peace Corps, in fact, he would soon leave Johnson’s VP Office to work at the Peace Corps, taking a low-ranking job as Associate Director For Public Affairs.

Johnson called Kennedy and asked for a private meeting. This was on May 1, 1961. As Bill Josephson later described it, and as reported by Gerard Rice in his book, “Johnson, on his way to the Oval Office, picked up Henry Labouise and Dave Bell by their respective ears and began telling them what the foreign aid program really should do.”

No formal record was kept of the conversation between Kennedy and Johnson. Warren Wiggins told me in my 1997 interview, “by force of personality (not logic) Johnson cajoled the President into overturning a unanimous decision of his newly appointed staff, including the heads of the Bureau of Budget, the Department of State, the Foreign Aid Administration and the Civil Service Commission.”

Thanks to Johnson, Kennedy reversed this decision and gave the Peace Corps independence. Shriver would declared Lyndon Johnson “a founding father of the Peace Corps.”

Later Moyers ran into Dungan in the White House. Dungan greeted him with a wry smile and said, “Well, you sons of bitches won.” Dungan did not like the front-page headline in the New York Times: “Peace Corps Wins Fight for Autonomy.”

Somehow, the whole story of the Peace Corps’ battle for independence had been leaked to the press, much to the embarrassment of Labouisse, Dungan, and other Kennedy aides. This story, written by Peter Braestrup, summed up, “For Peace Corps officials, it was an important victory.” Wofford called it the “the biggest early decision” in Peace Corps history. According to Wiggins, “It is very doubtful if anything like the Peace Corps as we know it would have emerged if it wasn’t for Kennedy’s decision.”

Scott Stossel in his book Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver writes how Dungan was furious at the “hotshots in the Peace Corps” who had outfoxed him.

Bill Josephon later recalled, “Ralph Dungan called me up and said we were on our own [as an agency]. I said, ‘Would you like to come over and talk about this? We’re going to be working together for a long time.’ And Ralph said, ‘Absolutely not. You are on your own. Don’t ever come here asking for help.’

So, when someone asks if the Peace Corps is independent of the State Department, tell them this tale.

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  • Keep up the wtiting on this issue,,,future Volunteers will thank you! I thank you John! Our “independence” as an agency is extremly important…we would be different had it not been for Shiver, Wollford, and Johnson! Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama 2009-2010

  • Today, the Nartional Archives are featuring the founding documents of the Peace Corps. Go to nara.gov and in the search book, key Peace Corps. The legislation establishing the Peace Corps is PL 87-293. I was not able to copy it. This is the description of the Executive Order signed March 1, 1961:

    Executive Order 10924, Establishment and Administration of the Peace Corps in the Department of State, March 1, 1961; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.

    Can anyone cite the legislation establishing the independence of the Peace Corps during the Kennedy Era? Thank you.

  • Here are excerpts from the Public Law which establised the Peace Corps. It does apparently define the relationship between the Peace Corps and The State Department.

    Public Law 87-293, September 22, 1961

    AN ACT to provide for a Peace Corps to help the peoples of interested countries and areas in meeting thei needs for skilled manpower.

    AUTHORIZATION

    Sec. 3. (a) The President is authorized to carry out programs in furtherance of the purposes of this Act, on such terms and conditions as he may determine.

    DIRECTOR OF THE PEACE CORPS AND DELEGATIONS OF FUNCTIONS

    Sec.4. (a) The President may appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a Director of the Peace Corps…
    (b) The President may exercise any functions vested in him by this ACT through such agency or officer of the United States Government as he shall direct. The head of any such agency or any such officer may promulgate such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or appropriate to carry out such functions, and may delegate to any of his subordinates authority to perform any of such functions.
    (c) (1) Nothing contained in this Act shall be construed to infringe upon the powers of functions of the Secretary of State.
    (2) The President shall prescribe appropriate procedures to assure coordination of Peace Corps activities with other activities of the United States Government in each country, under the leadership of the chief of the United States diplomatic mission.
    (3) Under the direction of the President, the Secretary of State shall be responsible for the continuous supervision and general direction of the programs authorized by this Act, to the end that such programs are effectively integrated both at home and abroad and the foreign policy of the United States is best served thereby.
    (d) Except with the approval of the Secretary of State, the Peace Corps shall not be assigned to perform services which could more usefully be performed by other available agencies of the United States Government in the country concerned.

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