Peace Corps At Day One: #17 If It's Thursday…It Must Be Malaysia

On April 22, 1961, Shriver and his band of brothers began their twenty-six-day venture in personal diplomacy that took them to Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Burma, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. It was not easy going. 

 When Shriver and the Senior Staff reached Accra, Ghana, their first stop in their round-the-world trip, he was sick. He had never been sick in his adult life, and now he had laryngitis and could bearly speak. That turned out to be a blessing. As everyone liked to say, the purpose of the Peace Corps was to listen and learn. Wofford  would write in his book  Of Kennedy & Kings,  Shriver’s laryngitis was providential. Ghana’s president, Nkrumah, was also known as Osagyefo, meaning “Savior.”  He could only be effectively addressed by the respectful attitude of listening.

In Ghana, Kwama Nkrumah, then the leading spokesman for African nationalism, was concerned  about the Peace Corps being guises for CIA infiltration of his country. The Peace Corps had, in a sense, an ace in the hole. Franklin Williams, who was with Shriver on this trip, had been Kwama’s fraternity brother at Lincoln University, the black university in rural Pennsylvania where they had both been students.

Nkrumah agreed to take English teachers as long as they did not “propagandize or spy or try to subvert the Ghanaian system.” And he wanted only ‘highly qualified Americans, not ‘ordinary” graduates from American colleges and universities. And he wanted the  PCVs in-country by August. The first Peace Corps–50 Peace Corps teachers–(and none of them ‘ordinary’)– arrived singing the Ghanian national anthen in Twi.

On to Nigeria!

In Nigeria, which was in its first year of independence, Shriver and the Boys met President Nnamdi Azikiwe, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, and leaders of the main regional governments. According to Wofford, President Azikiwe (“Zik”), was the first Ibo to go to school in the United States. He had been impressed by Jefferson’s view of education and by America’s success–through land grant colleges and universities–in shaping a curriculum appropriate to a new land. He wanted Peace Corps teachers to help Nigeria achieve a similar democratic system of education. At the time there was only places in Nigeria’s elementary schools for 14,000 students out of more than two million eligible children. The government could build schools, but there were no teachers. PCVs teachers were part of the answer.

When they reached India, there were, however, other problems. India was the hardest and most critical test of the trip. But Shriver had Wofford who had been to India with his wife when they was just out of college. The couple had written a book about their ‘Peace Corps experience.’  With Wofford as his guide, Shriver made his way. The key was Prime Minister Nehru. Wofford warned Shriver to expect a lecture from Nehru to the effect that India was the mother source of all inspiration, that Nehru would not at first evince much interest in the Peace Corps, but that in the end, Nehru would somewhat begrudgingly invite a handful of Volunteers–entirely as a favor to the United State. Nothing more.

India did agree at first to take 25 PCVs. This  was a ‘green light’ which helped open the door in a number of other Third World countries. Shriver then managed to up the number of those first PCVs to 75. By the end of Charlie Houston’s tour as the Peace Corps CD, in December 1964, there were approximately four hundred Volunteers working in the Punjab and several other sites in India.

In Pakistan, President Ayub Khan wondered whether Volunteers would be able to implement rural public works and irrigation projects. In Burma, U NU asked Shriver if he really believed young Americans could compete with Chinese Communists who had already offered “revolutionary” assistance.

Shriver’s journey abroad to “invite invitations” was a crucial step in ensuring that the Peace Corps would be successfully established, according to Gerald T. Rice in his book, The Bold Experiment.

The team arrived back in D.C. in May, 1961. Shriver returned to Washington with invitations from all eight countries he had visited to send a total of 3,000 Volunteers to begin Peace Corps programs.

Rice went onto say of the trip: “It not only destroyed the skeptical view that foreign governments would not want young American meddling in their internal affairs, but also gave the Peace Corps organizers an insight into what Third World leaders felt was needed and what they would accept. In the six short months since Kennedy’s first announcement of the idea at the Cow Palace, the Peace Corps had found a mission and established an identity.”


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  • Michael: Shriver’s trip opened the floodgates. Less than one week after his return, Kennedy announced that he had received over two dozen formal requests for Volunteers from various countries. By July, six projects were announced: Ghana,Tanzania, Colombia, the Philippines, Chile, and St. Lucia; and over 5,000 applicatns had taken the first Peace Corps tests.

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