Naming the "Peace Corps"

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 in the Cow Palace in San Francisco  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.

Today, forty-nine plus years after the establishment of the agency in March of 1961, it is generally acknowledged that Peter Grothe, now an Adjunct Professor 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 exchanged a series of emails earlier this spring.

“There would have been no Peace Corps without John F. Kennedy being elected President,” Peter told me first when he wrote me on April 19, 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 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, I asked him if I could take the idea to Kennedy, who, by that time, had won the Democratic nomination. Humphrey said, ‘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.”

Well, the Lord didn’t take Peter Grothe that night. He is still with us, and if nothing else, as he says today, he is forever “a footnote in Peace Corps trivia history.”

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  • All this time I thought it was Hubert Humphery himself who did the naming. Let’s give a cheer for all the folks who toil away in the ‘bullpens’ of the high and mighty making their bosses look good.

  • Great to see Peter recognized. He has told that fine story several times to our local Northern California Peace Corps Association at gatherings marking Peace Corps moments of history and we are love it.
    Pete Johnson

  • Peter recruited my late wife, Sally, and I in late 1961. As I recall, he was then a prof at San Francisco State. At any rate, he made an emphatic impression on both us. It’s good to know of his role in the early Peace Corps.

    P.S. Yes, there was some confusion about the “Corps” in Peace Corps. When Sally and I arrived in the Muslim village of Ganassi on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, the mayor and the school principal thought we were attached to the American Army!

  • Hello to Peter Grothe! I do remember you fondly. I didn’t know this bit of history.Thanks for the speech. Did you add the comment JFK made about our Ann Arbor group ACWR or did Ted Sorenson? We were in touch with Sorenson prior to the speech through Mildred Jeffrey in Michigan. Also were you still working with Humphrey when we had him as keynote speaker at the American University conference in March prior to the exec order? I see you are still in Monterey. I cam headed to California for a couple of months this summer.
    Best regards, Judy

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