What Shriver Wanted
The famous “Mayflower Gang” created the Peace Corps in 30 days in two rooms of the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue several blocks from the White House in February 1961. The ‘Gang’ was led by Shriver, Harris Wofford, Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson and a half dozen others giving suggestions and making their points.
These were ‘advisors’ like the Secretary of State Dean Rush; Father Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame; Gordon Boyce, President of the Experiment in International Living; Albert Sims of the Institute of International Education; George Carter, a campaign worker on civil rights issues; Franklin Williams, an organizer of the campaign for black voter registration and a student of African affairs; Adam Yarmolinsky, a foundation executive.
These advisers came from all corners (if not both rooms in the suite) and most of them wanted one clear statement of what the Peace Corps would be, but Sarge Shriver held the position that Peace — not Development it might be noted–was the overriding purpose, and the process of promoting it was necessarily complex. So the Peace Corps should learn to live with complexity that could not be summed up in a single proposition. The ‘Gang’ settled on three goals:
Goal One: It can contribute to the development of critical countries and regions.
Goal Two: It can promote international cooperation and goodwill toward this country.
Goal Three: It can also contribute to the education of America and to more intelligent American participation in the world.
And today, fifty years later, we are still debating what the Peace Corps is all about. As Sarge Shriver thought all those years ago, “the tension between competing purposes is creative, and it should continue.”
Well, Sarge, it has!
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Building people and communities (and us) not roads or other monuments…this is what Peace Corps is all about, even after 50 years! Sarge was and is correct, Peace!
“Sargent Shriver — The Peace Corps in 21 Days”
The Chronicle of 1961: In this year the Americans inaugurated a daring young president named John Kennedy, son of Joseph Kennedy, who promised to bring new opportunities to the citizens through brave acts of the government. And in his foreign policy, the adventuresome promise was delivered upon in just twenty-one days. This is precisely what happened and how it was all done. . . .
First we find candidate Kennedy standing on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Student Union at 2 AM, October 14, 1960, asking, “How many of you are willing to spend…?” But nothing took place.
Then we come upon Sargent Shriver, this president’s brother-in-law, in a weary February 6, 1961 two AM Washington D.C. hotel room reading the arrogant strategic plan eventually responsible for the Peace Corps’ startling thirty-year success. Shriver, then desperately looking for some Perestroika (New Thinking) to deliver to Kennedy’s major new foreign aid program, instantly adopted its bold premises and reached for the phone. Warren Wiggins, the “faceless bureaucrat” who authored it, was summoned by a three AM telegram to be on deck, front and center at the Mayflower Hotel by ten that morning. The Peace Corps had taken wings.
Wiggins’ impertinent formula should not be forgotten — it must be told and remembered. Here are the Peace Corps’ original conditions of success in his soon-famous 30-page concept paper, “The Towering Task.” If any large government program is to succeed, it could do no better than to follow its simple rules which both anchored and buoyed the early Peace Corps:
1. Start immediately. Forget pilot studies and demonstrations
2. Start big, pick a large number
3. Keep it independent, autonomous of existing programs
4. With a leader of national consequence, close to the White House
5. Proclaim it from the White House, then from the rooftops
6. Invest it with recognition, romance, and honor
Another lesson to learn
This Warren Wiggins, this warrior companion of Shriver’s and a co-founder of the Peace Corps who soon became Deputy Director for Peace Corps Operations, was quoted in a 1984 book:
“When you staff up that fast, you are going to get people who by their nature are gamblers—very ambitious people, people who are willing to drop everything to try something new. Shriver couldn’t wait three months for a guy; he had to try something new. If he found somebody he thought had unusual talent, he’d think of a job for him to do, or let the person create one if there wasn’t something on the organization chart that suggested itself. Shriver knew that he had to have the most dazzling staff in Washington and he used the bait of excitement and job flexibility to assemble it.”
On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy issued the Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver had needed only a record-fast 21 days to organize the agency; volunteers were in the field by the fall. In the last 30 years over 130,000 volunteers have served America in almost 100 host countries worldwide, promoting peace and friendship through cultural exchange and assistance to others.
In this year, 1961, Sargent Shriver’s act of audacity, like a blast from a horn, like a ball of ice, like a meteor, like a great express train, like a clenched fist, like Longstreet at Chickamauga, is soon like a thing at rest.
This Chronicle of 1961 is now told.
— Tom Hebert, Nigeria 1962-64, is a writer and consultant living on the Umatilla Indian Reservation outside Pendleton, Oregon. He can be reached at email@example.com