A Towering Task
The day after his inauguration, President Kennedy telephoned Shriver and asked him to form a presidential Task Force “to report how the Peace Corps should be organized and then to organize it.” When he heard from Kennedy, Shriver immediately called Harris Wofford.
At the time, Shriver was 44; Wofford was 34. They had become good friends during the campaign. Wofford had worked as Kennedy’s adviser on civil rights, and together they had worked on the talent hunt for staffing for the new administration.
Initially, the Task Force consisted solely of Shriver and Wofford, sitting in a suite of two rooms that they had rented at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Most of their time was spent making calls to personal friends they thought might be helpful. One name led to another: Gordon Boyce, president of the Experiment in International Living; Albert Sims of the Institute of International Education; Adam Yarmolinsky, a foundation executive; Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame; George Carter, a campaign worker on civil rights issues and former member of the American Society for African Culture; Louis Martin, a newspaper editor; Franklin Williams, an organizer of the campaign for black voter registration, and a student of Africa; and Maury Albertson, out at Colorado State University, who was doing the study for Congress on the “Point-4 Youth Corps for Young Americans to Serve in Technical Assistance Missions.” The story goes that Shriver called Maury late at night out in Colorado and woke him from his sleep to talk about the new “Peace Corps idea.”
Shriver had scheduled the first official meeting of his Task Force for February 6. Despite the recommendations, opinions, and reports they had received, Shriver and Wofford had made relatively little headway in defining the new program in terms of specific size, costs, organization, and objectives. Shriver and Wofford, in fact, hadn’t yet even come up with a name. Kennedy called the Mayflower again to ask about the young corps idea only two weeks after first giving Shriver his assignment. He wanted a report by the end of February. Shriver had to concede that, as of yet, he had not even settled on an official name for the new agency. “Kennedy wanted to know what was taking us so long,” Shriver told Wofford.
Kennedy had given Shriver a report written by Max Millikan, the director of the Center for International Studies at MIT. The report stated that the development of such an agency should be slow, placing several hundred people in the first year or two. This opposed everything Shriver believed in. Shriver later wrote, “We knew the Peace Corps would have only one chance to work. As with the parachute jumper, the chute had to open the first time.” It had to be new, in both size and thrust.
Unbeknownst to Shriver and Wofford, while they were making phone calls in the Mayflower, two officials in the Far Eastern division of the international Cooperation Administration (ICA) were working on their own Peace Corps plan.
Warren Wiggins, who was the deputy director of Far Eastern operations in ICA, was still in his 30s but had already helped administer the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. He was totally dissatisfied with the manner in which American overseas programs were run; he called them “golden ghettos.”
With Wiggins was Bill Josephson, just 26, and a lawyer at ICA.
They started developing an idea that would be limited to sending young Americans overseas to teach English. But as they worked on it, their vision broadened. The paper they developed, detailed their recommendations. Wiggins titled it, “A Towering Task,” taking the title from the phrase Kennedy had used in his State of the Union address: “The problems . . . are towering and unprecedented – and the response must be towering and unprecedented as well.”
They sent copies to Wofford, another to Richard Goodwin at the White House, and to Shriver. As Wiggins said, “we wanted to make sure Shriver would get it.”
Shriver read the paper late on Sunday, February 5th. He thought it was brilliant and immediately sent a telegram to Wiggins inviting him to attend the Task Force meeting the next morning. With that, the so-called “midnight ride of Warren Wiggins” became an early legend in the Peace Corps.
Meanwhile, Wofford had read the Wiggins proposal and he called Shriver at 7 a.m. to talk to him about it. Shriver told Wofford that Wiggins had already been invited to the first Task Force meeting.
Wiggins had written the proposal in the hope that it might, as he said, “stimulate thought.” In fact, it provided a philosophy for the Peace Corps throughout the Kennedy era.
Wiggins fundamentally disagreed with most of the academic and other institutional approaches which counseled caution and a slow beginning. Instead, he advocated initiating the Peace Corps with “several thousand Americans participating in the first 12 to 18 months.”[End of Part Seven]