Thirty Days That Built The Peace Corps:Part Two

A New Frontier

There was also, as there has always been, a search for a new frontier. That feeling was loose in America. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner has written about how America has continued to grow because of this search for another frontier. The Peace Corps gave young people a New Frontier.

A new generation

The Baby Boom had struck. 50 percent of the population in 1960 was under 25. For the first time a college education was within the grasp of the majority of young people.

Unprecedented material wealth freed this new generation to heed their consciences and pursue their ideals. This spirit of generosity and participation had been sorely missed under Eisenhower. As one Peace Corps administrator puts it in Gerry Rice’s book: “The 1950s made ancient mariners of us all – becalmed, waiting and a little parched in the throat. Then we picked up momentum on the winds of change that Kennedy brought in – the New Frontier, the fresh faces in government, the vigorous, hopeful speeches, the Peace Corps.”

Founding Fathers

Two key people in Congress, Henry Reuss and Hubert Humphrey, both proposed the idea of the Peace Corps in the late 1950s.

Reuss voiced it in 1957 when he was a member of the Joint Economic Committee and traveled to Southeast Asia. He, by chance, came upon a UNESCO team of young teachers from America and other countries who were working at the village level. For three years after that, Congressman Reuss talked to student conferences about establishing a “Point Four Youth Corps” and wrote articles about it in magazines. In January of 1960, Reuss introduced in the House of Representatives the first Peace Corps-type legislation. It sought a study of “the advisability and practicability to the establishment of a Point Four Youth Corps.”

In January 1960 he stood up in the House and said, “Mr. Speaker, on January 14 I introduced H.R.9638, an amendment to the Mutual Security Act, to provide for a study looking toward a Point-4 Youth Corps of young Americans willing to serve their country in public and private technical assistance missions in far-off countries, and at a soldier’s pay.” (For those young in heart as well as years, ‘Point-4’ was the predecessor to USAID.) 

The goverment contract was won by Maurice (Maury) L. Albertson of Colorado State University who with one exterordinary assistant, Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, did the early ground work for Congress on the whole idea of young Americans going overseas, not to win wars, but help build societies. In her 2003 book Peace Corps Pioneer or “The Perils of Pauline“, Birky-Kreutzer writes, “The concept of the Point-4 Youth Corps seemed to represent to Maury (and to me as well, I must admit) a goal, or perhaps even a dream, toward which he had worked for years. It represented an opportunity to see such a dream turned into reality, into something so tangible that you could touch it and see it and yes, perhaps even live it!”

Meanwhile in the Senate, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was also wrestling with a similiar notion of “employing” young Americans to do good out in the world. In the late 1950s he, too, suggested the enlistment of talented young men and women in an overseas operation for education, health care, vocational training, and community development. The idea was liked in the Senate, but the State Department was against it. (What else is new?)

Humphrey began to research the possibilities of such a program with his staff and advocated during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in the spring of 1960.

In June of 1960, Humphrey introduced in the Senate a bill to send “young men to assist the peoples of the underdeveloped areas of the world to combat poverty, disease, illiteracy and hunger.”

What’s important here is this bill – Senate S. 3675 – was the first to use the specific name “Peace Corps.” Peter Grothe, who went onto become the Director of International Student Programs at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, was then an aide to Humphrey, and takes credit for ‘coining’ (no pun intended) the name ‘Peace Corps’ in his drafting of the bill in the spring of 1960.

However, it was too late in the session for Humphrey’s proposal to have any hope of passing into legislation, but he wanted the bill to be printed and appropriately referred so as to focus the Congress and the public on the Peace Corps idea at a critical moment – just before the presidential election of 1960.

Meanwhile, Reuss’s bill was added as a rider to the Mutual Security Act which authorized $10,000 for a study of a Point Four Youth Corps. Maury Alberston and Pauline Birkey went off, with little more than pocket change, to do the early research for Congress on the whole idea of  a ‘young corps’ i.e., ‘the Peace Corps.’

Also in 1960, several other people were expressing support for such a concept: General James Gavin; Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and later ambassador to India; William Douglas, associate justice of the Supreme Count; James Reston of the New York Times; Milton Shapp, from Philadelphia; Walt Rostow of MIT; and Senator Jacob Javits of New York, who urged Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon to adopt the idea. Nixon refused. He saw the Peace Corps as just another form of “draft evasion.”

What Nixon didn’t realize, or was seen by academics like Maury Albertson and Pauline Birky-Kreutzer, that a ‘day of destiny’ waited for the world on October 14, 1960. On the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan, in the darkness of the night, the ‘Peace Corps’ became more than a dream, not by a study done for Congress, or a bill crafted in the U.S. Senate, but because of  an unanticipated groundswell of emotion, and a rally of support by students, that fueled the night sky and spread like wildfires across every college campus in America.   

[End Part Two]

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