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 campaign. 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?

Like in many situations, the famous term came about when a young kid — a writer! — working quietly away in a back office, dreamed up the language. In this case the kid was a graduate student working between degrees, for the late Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

Peter Grothe

I learned about the history of the naming of our agency from Peter when we exchanged a series of emails in 2006.


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 just when the West Virginia primary had been won byJohn Kennedy, a victory that showed that a Catholic could win in a traditional protestant state, and, therefore, could win a general election.

“I gave the name “Peace Corps,” [in the 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, toyed round, and gave it the name ‘Works for Peace Corps,’ but that seemed too cumbersome,” Peter remembered, “so I shortened it to “Peace Corps” and Senator Humphrey approved. Some said that it sounded ‘communistic.’ Others said that it sounded militaristic (corps). But it stuck!”

Peter then added this important, but missing, piece of information about his involvement with the “peace corps” idea.

“Later I was leaving Senator Humphrey to go back to do my Ph.D. work, I asked him if I could take the idea of ‘Peace Corps’ to Kennedy, who, by that time, had won the Democratic nomination. Humphrey said, ‘of course!’

“I drafted a speech in which I hoped JFK would use ‘Peace Corps’ 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 supportive mail, many of it from organized letter writing by Protestant groups, saying that 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 for my studies, and was in the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and that night Kennedy chose to give the ‘Peace Corps’ speech I had written. There were changes, of course, but about 75% of his speech was what I had written.

“The major change was that the Humphrey version of the bill had the Peace Corps being an alternative to the draft, and Kennedy removed that provision (good politics!).

“I sat there in disbelief as Kennedy delivered MY speech and I said to myself, ‘if the Lord wants to take me right now, I am ready to go.’”

The Lord didn’t take Peter Grothe that night, but he would pass away on June 16, 2012, from brain injury caused by a fall, leaving behind a significant footnote in the long history of the Peace Corps.



Leave a comment
  • John,

    Our Peace Corps community is indebted to you for your documentation of its founding. Your outcome reprises that of the original ‘A Towering Task’..

    With appreciation,

  • What a great story! I am so happy that Peter worked for Senator Hubert Humphrey and shared the origin of the name “Peace Corps.” I first heard Sen. Humphrey speak about the Peace Corps and felt it was a shame he didn’t get more credit for his suggestion that Peter first proposed. It was a great idea, no matter who made it a reality. Give JFK the credit he is due. It was one of many things I loved about Kennedy.

    Even though I was raised in California, I was born in Minnesota. I felt very disappointed that Humphrey was not credited for his many ideas and was simply blamed for being loyal and supportive of the President he worked for. It was a short-sighted point of view if you really knew Humphrey. I often wonder what kind of President Humphrey would have been if he had been elected President. I think liberals would have been thrilled to pieces. Conservatives, not so much.

  • Hi

    I recall in 1963 that the Peace Corps launched the African Regional Lawyers Program. Not certain but there may have been similar programs targeting doctors and other professional categories.

    Jim Paul, professor from Penn Law, developed the idea and program. From that effort, he was made Dean of the Faculty of Law in Ethiopia. Larry Church and I were selected for the program and were assigned to the Faculty of Law in Ethiopia.

    In fact, the program was short lived. Believe Peace Corps decided professional categorization worked against the broader and more democratic idea of volunteers from every category of the American experience. No special role, pay or recognition for this or that professional category. Good decision.

    Owen Cylke (Ethiopia 1963-65)
    Fort Lauderdale, F

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