My Favorite Mad Man: Harris Wofford

One of the Peace Corps’ Mad Men who did not have a ‘real’ job at 806 Connecticut Avenue was Harris Wofford. Wofford, who was at the birth of the agency in the two-room suite in the Mayflower Hotel, was in 1961 32 or 34, and was one of the Best and the Brightest who had come to Washington with the Kennedy Administration.

Wofford had been a white-shoe firm lawyer in D.C., an early civil rights advocate, and had become friends with Sarge Shriver early in Kennedy’s run for the White House when Shriver sought out Harris at Notre Dame, where Wofford was teaching law. Their first meeting was at a Notre Dame football game, where they talked civil right and politics while watching ND play. During the presidential campaign it was Wofford’s idea to suggest to Kennedy that he make the famous phone call to Martin Luther King’s wife after King’s arrest, which many say brought out the African-American vote for JFK.

After the 1960 election, Shriver and Harris, working out of the Democratic National Headquarters three and a half blocks from the White House with a handful of others, conducted the Talent Search for the New Frontiers.  

And it was during these early days of the new administration when Shriver telephoned Harris and said Kennedy wanted Sarge to set up a task force to see if the Peace Corps idea had legs.

According to Coates Redmon’s book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story,and from endless conversations I have had with Harris over the years, the first ‘ideas’ of how to create a ‘peace corps’ and launch the agency where expressed in three similar reports: the Reuss-Neuberge and Humphrey legislation, the report from Max Millikan of MIT, a report from Professor Samuel Hayes of the University Michigan that Kennedy had requested, added to that was a summary of Reuss’s meeting on Capital Hill in December 1960, to which he had invited a variety of opinion. And from Colorado State University, a preliminary report of their studies of Reuss’s proposal.

None of these proposals and studies, however, suggested a big, open-ended Peace Corps. None suggested an independent government agency, and all but one favored a cautious start, low-profiled pilot projects. Only Humphrey’s proposal called for five thousand young men. (Get that, ‘young men.’)

Harris said that when Sarge met anyone who was interested in joining the new, unformed  ‘peace corps’ who agreed that this ‘cautious’ approach was the way to go, Shriver dismissed the candidate in his Talent Search for the new agency. He was looking for–they were looking for–a zinger.

The zinger came from out of nowhere, from the far left field, in a thirty-page paper “The Towering Task” written by Warren Wiggins, a faceless bureaucrat in the International Cooperation Administration (ICA), and his friend, a twenty-five-year-old lawyer at ICA, Bill Josephson. The rest, as they say, is history.

End of Part One

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  • I am writing from Addis Ababa where Harris was the Country Director of one of the largest and earlist PC contingents with a legacy..As the Dean of the University Business School commented to me in an interview last week” ” Did you know this school was founded by PC volunteer teachers in 1964.???..”

    Ah, Hubert Humphrey ..a corps of 5,000 men, but Hubert is from Lake Wobegone territory where Garrison Keilor says” men are men, etc!!!! As you know some of the original groups were “all men contigents,” like Colombia I and II and other LA groups. The tall tale is there were security concerns for woman in Latin America until 1963..being that Latin men might take up with the “young gringas.” Let the record show, the oppisite is true , resulting in many ” young gringo” marriages to beautiful Latinas!!!

  • I guess my lasting image of Harris Wofford was when three of we Ethiopia I volunteers went in for breakfast at a plush resort in Malindi on Kenya’s coast to find Harris already there. He asked us, “What are you doing here?” I replied, “I guess like you we are on vacation.” By the time we got back to Ethiopia the staff had cut our living allowance. I fear seeing us at the resort led them to “squeezing blood out of a rock.”

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