Naming the Peace Corps

Naming the Peace Corps

by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

THOSE OF US WHO follow the history of the Peace Corps agency know the term “peace corps” came to public attention during the 1960 presidential election. In one of JFK’s last major speeches before the November election he called for the creation of a “Peace Corps” to send volunteers to work at the grass roots level in the developing world.

However, the question remains: who said (or wrote) “peace corps” for the very first time? Was it Kennedy? Was it his famous speech writer Ted Sorensen? Or Sarge himself? But — as in most situations — the famous term came about because of some young kid, usually a writer, working quietly away in some back office that dreams up the language. In this case the kid was a graduate student between degrees who was working for the late senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

Peter Grothe

Today, sixty-one years after the establishment of the agency in March of 1961, it is generally acknowledged that Peter Grothe, the former Director of International Student Programs at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, authored the term in the spring of 1960. I learned about the history of the naming from Peter when we talked back in the spring of 1994.

“There would have been no Peace Corps without John F. Kennedy being elected President,” Peter told me. The term “peace corps” came about when Peter, then Senator Humphrey’s Foreign Relations Advisor, drafted a bill in May of 1960 and used the words “peace corps.” This was on the eve of the U-2 incident and the West Virginia primary which Kennedy won, a victory that showed a Catholic could win in a traditional protestant state, and, therefore, could win a general election.

“I gave the name “Peace Corps,” [in this draft of a Humphrey sponsored foreign assistance bill] in order to be consistent with the Senator’s Peace theme,” Peter explained. [Humphrey was also proposing an “education for peace” bill]. “I first, toying round, gave it the name “Works for Peace Corps,” but that seemed too cumbersome,” Peter remembers, “so I just shortened it to “Peace Corps” and Senator Humphrey approved. Some said that it sounded ‘communistic.’ Other said that it sounded too militaristic (corps). But somehow it stuck!”

Peter also added this important — and missing — piece of information about his involvement with the “peace corps” idea. “When I left Humphrey to go back to do my Ph.D. work,” Peter said. “I asked him if I could take the idea to Kennedy, who, by that time, had won the Democratic nomination. Humphrey answered, ‘of course!’ I drafted a speech I hoped JFK would use in the campaign and took it to the head of Kennedy’s speech writers in the campaign, Archibald Cox.

“I told Cox we had received an enormous amount of mail, many of it from organized letter writing by Protestant groups, because the Peace Corps reminded them of action-oriented, Protestant missionary work. Cox listened to this because, as you know, no Catholic had ever been elected to the presidency.

“I returned to Stanford and was in the Cow Palace in San Francisco the night Kennedy chose to give the Peace Corps speech I had written. There were some changes, but about 75% of his speech was what I had written. The major change was that the Humphrey bill had the Peace Corps as an alternative to the draft, and Kennedy removed that provision (good politics!). I sat there in disbelief of Kennedy’s giving MY speech and I said to myself, “if the Lord wants to take me right now, Lord, I am ready to go.”

After the Peace Corps, Peter had a long and distinguished career as an academic. For 31 years he was an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). He taught Cross-cultural Communications and American Politics and was the Director of International Student Programs. Prior to coming to MIIS he was at San Jose State University, Odense University in Denmark, and State University of New York, Stony Brook. He was a Visiting Research Scholar in Sweden and Norway and he lectured in over 51 countries, 26 of those for the U.S. Information Agency.

Grothe is the author of To Win the Minds of Men — a Study of the Propaganda War in East Germany and he wrote numerous scholarly articles in the American Political Science Review, Western Political Quarterly,  New York Times,  Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and San Francisco Chronicle. He served with the American Field Service as an adviser, leader and volunteer.

Neil Boyer (Ethiopia 1962-64; Peter Grothe and Jack Hood Vaughn, Second Peace Corps Director, at the Staff Reunion September 2011

Also, over the years he made a financial commitment to enable 145 highly qualified international and minority students to pursue their education.

One small personal story about Peter. When we met at the Peace Corps HQ in 1996, he asked me where I had been a PCV and we talked about the early staff members he knew from those years, Harris Wofford, of course, and the famous Jane Campbell in the Division of Volunteer support, and Ed Corboy, Admen Officer in Addis Ababa, 1962-64. Then he mentioned that on the drive in from the airport he had had an Ethiopian taxi driver.

I remarked, as we walked to the elevators in the Washington Peace Corps Office building, that there were quite a few Ethiopian taxi drivers in D.C.

Peter said that he had a habit of asking taxi drivers where they were from, and then asking them how to say goodbye and thank you in their language and when he would get out of their cab he would thank them in their language. It was his small gesture, he said, of cross culture understanding.

When the Peace Corps elevator came and we shook hands and said goodbye and got on and smiling nicely he waved and just before the door closed, said to me in Amharic.

Dehna hunu. Ameseghinallehu.

John Peter Grothe died on Saturday, June 16, 2012 in Los Altos, California from brain injury caused by a fall. He was 81.


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  • Peter and i were fellow grad students in political science at Stanford in the late 1950s. Several in that cohort served the country well, although I think he and I were the only ones fortunate enough to be connected to the Peace Corps. Steve Horn, a Democrat, was a distinguished CA Congressman and college president. Sven Groennings, a Republican, held several important staff positions in the Congress and in various administrations. I said goodbye to Peter at a PC alumni gathering in DC shortly before his death. Thanks, John, for setting the PC naming record straight.

  • Appreciate this informative and in the end beautifully written article. Thanks, John!!! As for taxi drivers in Libreville, Gabon, I always made a guessing game of where they were from and that was all over West Africa with nary a Gabonese driver.

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