Peace Corps At Day One, # 1

Over the next year, leading up to the 50th Anniversary, I’ll be blogging short pieces of background information on the creation of the agency. I’ve done some of this already, as you know, but what follows is more details and facts on the ‘idea’ of a Peace Corps, and the first group of staff and PCVs.

So, here’s # 1

Beginning in March of 1961, the Peace Corps had no Volunteers, little staff, no application form, no tests or testing centers, no selection process, no training program, no projects, no evaluation system, and no agreements with nations wanting Peace Corps Volunteers.

There was intense interest–30 to 40,000 letters following the JFK’s speeches outlining the idea for a Peace Corps. There was authority, the March 1, 1961 Presidential Executive Order, 10924. And there was some research. Remember the Colorado State study Congress had conducted?

There were also criticism, skepticism, disbelief and fear.

It was between the horizons of hope and fear the Peace Corps took root.

The idea for a Peace Corps was not unique, as we know.

What was unique was that in 1960 and ’61 the idea was joined with the power and the desire to implement it. That was key.

The philosophical underpinnings of the Peace Corps certain go back to William James’ “The Moral Equivalent of War,” with its suggestion for an  “army enlisted against Nature.”

Also, when the Peace Corps was coming into being, other volunteer groups and missions, were carrying on similar programs. For example, Teachers For East Africa out of Columbia University.

It was from these programs that came the proposals of Representative Reuss for a Point Four Youth Corps, and of Senators Humphrey for a Peace Corps. They led to enactment of Section 203 (c) of the Mutual Security Act of 1960 which authorized expenditure of not more than $10,000 to help pay for a study of a Point Four Youth Corps by a non-government organization. That contract, as I mentioned previously, went to the Colorado State University Research Foundation.

In late January, 1961, JFK set up a Task Force under Sargent Shriver, his brother-in-law and the President of the Chicago Board of Education, to study the feasibility of a Peace Corps.

[More later]

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  • I wrote one of those 30,000-40,000 inquiries.. I remember I got a form note back ..more information to follow ..next was a ticket to take the Peace Corps Admission Test at the State College (Pa) Post office one Saturday morning. It was contracted out to the College Board folks at Princeton ..( a modified SAT, if I remember correctly )

    Next was an invitation 9 by phone confirmed by Western Union telegram) to Colombia I training at Rutgers in New Jersey begining June 25,1961.

    Dennis Grubb
    1961-1963

  • My husband Earle Brooks, and I, Rhoda Brooks, were among those to first respond and were assigned to Ecuador in March of 1962. We feel that this experience has profoundly changed our lives. Today I am 74 years old and will feel eternally grateful that Earle and I were able to serve, not only once but twice; the second time going back in 1980 to Chile with our four children to serve as country co-directors for two more years. Earle has passed away, but I am still eager to serve in some capacity. I now have 7 grandchildren, some of whom may become the next generation of volunteers.Two of our children also served in the Peace Corps.

  • Hi John:
    Well, when I heard that Kennedy Inaugural speech, at the “Ask not..” phrase, I knew I had to do something. I was one of the uncounted thousands (millions?) of young people who felt their love of country suddenly emerge. We had to respond in some way. My response was to volunteer myself as the Peace Corps’ photographer. I borrowed a few dollars and took a bus from New York to DC with two cameras and a toothbrush. And I had a name: Tom Matthews, Department of Public information, Peace Corps.

    I like to think it was Day One, but it was probably Day Three. I showed up and said: “Here I am, I want to volunteer as the Peace Corps photographer.” Big smile.

    “We don’t need photographers, kid,” he said. “We need doctors, teachers, nurses, farmers, technicians..
    And besides, look at all the press we got here now!” Sure enough the place was crawling with still and TV lensmen and reporters. Anything done by the Kennedys in the first 100 days was scrutinized by the media. My hopes sank, but I was still asking what I could do for my country. “Please let me stick around a while,” I said. “Don’t get your hopes up too high,” they said. I met aide name Mitzi Molina, energetic, preppy, efficient. She said the everyone got there at 8:30 in the morning. She seemed to know what needed to be done when nobody else did. She said something might be found for me to do. Probably not as a photographer, but something.

    So I showed up the next day and hung around. The press and the photographers had all disappeared, of course, as there was nothing to photograph or write about as the Peace Corps didn’t really yet exist: there was Shriver and some tables and chairs, and that was it.

    As luck would have it, the next day her Royal Highness, Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands showed up unexpectedly and requested to have her photograph made with Sarge. The Office of Public Information was frantic. There were no photographers anywhere! “Where’s that kid with the camera?” demanded Matthews. I was right there. “I’m right here,” I said and was summarily rushed into Sarge’s office where he was shaking hands with HRH. Anyone could have made a fine picture of this best-looking pair. Beatrix wanted to be a hippy but she was every inch a princess as well, and Sarge as everyone knows is one great looking man. I took a few snaps and that was it. I vaguely remember getting the film processed at a local lab, and bringing them back to the office. They turned out swell.

    I wasn’t hired yet, but over the next week or so I did several more photographic “favors” for whoever wanted a snap.
    When it seemed after all that I was going to hang around purposefully, they signed me up. I was a GS-7, which was the standard rate for a staff photographer of an agency. A couple of weeks later I was a GS-5. The Corps needed to hire more writers and they wouldn’t work for the kind of money that was left, so I agreed to take less of a salary so the agency could stay within budget. I didn’t care. I wasn’t in it for the money–I was a starry-eyed idealist, and so it seemed was everybody else around there.

    As well as portraits of the staff for PR purposes (we called it Public Information),
    there were dozens of pamphlets to illustrate. On training, on Shriver, on our history.

    This picture I submit here is Sarge at a Congressional Hearing on the Peace Corps budget. The young aide to Sarge’s right is Bill Moyers.

    I didn’t get overseas for at least a year later. Everyone who did go abroad said they would “take some pictures” which I could develop in the tiny but effective photo lab I had built on the 5th floor. There were never any pictures made in that slapdash attitude that were usable, and I wrote memo after memo pleading to be allowed to go.

    Finally I got a trip to St Lucia and not only was it great fun, but we got pictures that were used everywhere and hit bigger magazines. Around October 1962, writer Jim Walls (an amazing raconteur) and I were assigned to cover the Far East and Africa. The kind of assignment every young photographer dreams about. I had a diplomatic passport that said I was on “Official Assignment for the United States Government”. I was 25 years old and doing what JFK had challenged me to do.

    The pictures were used in thousands of publications and many of them are still in use. Or were last time I looked.

    The moment I wish I had over: President Olympio of Togo was assassinated when we were there. (January?) His body was lying a few blocks away from our hotel. The US Ambassador told us there was a coup and a curfew was in effect. Outside, we could see drunken troops with automatic weapons walking about menacingly. If I had known then what I know now, I am sure I could have bullshitted my way past them–probably with their help–and made pictures of the dead Togolese leader that would have been world news. I was I suppose the only photographer in the country. Alas, I didn’t know anything except that I might be shot to pieces if I went outside and so stayed in the hotel and swam in the pool with a beautiful PCer until the troubles blew over after a couple of days. One of my life’s greatest regrets was missing that shot.

    But on balance it was the best of times. By following JFK’s advice I actually segued myself into a professional photojournalist and a career which, like the Peace Corps, has lasted fifty years…

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