Why the Peace Corps? Part Five

Congressman Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, representing the Milwaukee area, went to the Far East in the fall of 1957 on a foreign aid inspection tour. The U.S. government had recently paid thirty million dollar to build a highway through the Cambodian jungle that Reuss realized when he arrived in Cambodia was a road to nowhere.

One day he drove for miles along the new highway without spotting a single motorist. He spotted a solitary farmer trudging down the edge of the deserted road, his water buffalo in tow. The road, and the $30 million spent on it, was all a waste of money.

But then, and by happenstance, in the same jungles of Cambodia, he came upon a village, and a new elementary school being built in the clearing by four young American school teachers. They told Reuss they had built the school with primitive tools and manual labor. They were volunteers going from village to village setting up elementary schools and teaching  reading and writing. Reuss was awed by the respect, by the love, he said, that the host country nationals had for these young kids. The congressman realized how much more benefits the United States was able to gain from the work of American volunteer teachers, than U.S. gained from spending millions to build a highway. He decided to do something about it.

Returning home, he gave a speech at Cornell University in April, 1958, outlining the idea of a “Youth Corps” to the students who, according to Reuss, were swept up with the idea.

Reuss wasn’t the only American to be influenced by what he observed in Asia. Sargent Shriver, then working for his father-in-law in the Chicago Merchant Mart, and also the head of the board of education, was once a leader of the Experiment in International Living, and he had also just returned from a trip through Asia. He presented his own “Point-4 youth corps’ proposal to President Eisenhower as an extension of the Administration’s People-to-People program. Nothing came of it. Again, Eisenhower wasn’t interested.

Another American in Asia was also generated attention back home for his volunteer work. Dr. Tom Dooley was in Laos and he wrote two books about his experiences in Laos: The Edge of Tomorrow and They Burned the Mountains. He set up a non-profit foundation to raise funds for his work and when he died at the very young age in 1961 from malignant melanoma, Kennedy cited Dooley and his work as an example of what Peace Corps Volunteers would do overseas.

Meanwhile, in January of 1960 Congressman Reuss finally introduced legislation for the study of a “Youth Corps,” a bill co-sponsored in the Senate by Richard Neuberger of Oregon. But when the bill came up before the House Appropriations Committee, Chairman Otto Passman of Louisiana, a perennial foreign aid foe, struck out the $10,000 budget for the study. Reuss went to work behind the scenes and got the money restored by June 1960; it was finally approved in November, 1960.

 This bill only called for the study of the “feasibility of the Point Four Youth Corps idea. Passed as a rider to the Mutual Security Act the “Youth Corps” study became law in September, 1960. The International Cooperation Agency (ICA) contracted the research study to the Colorado State University Research Foundation in Fort Collins. That study was done by the Director of the Foundation, Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice and Pauline E. Birky. Their report was published by Public Affairs Press in 1961 and entitled, New Frontiers for American Youth: Perspective on the Peace Corps.

While this report was as comprehensive as any report could be, and served Shriver later in the development of the agency, it did not bring about the creation of a Peace Corps.

The idea for a ‘Peace  Corps’ had yet to see the light of day in the dark hallways of Congress.

Part Five, of Six Parts


Leave a comment
  • John….the $30million road project in Cambodia was not “wasted money”, as you report ; it was later used to transported troops (US & Viet Cong) through the jungle to war!!!!

    Don’t forget the conference of student leaders in the Spring of 1961 at American University , Washington, where the National Student Association voted to support the formation of a Peace Corps. Shriver and Senator Humphrey were the keynote speakers.

    Dennis Grubb
    RPCV 1961-1963

  • Dennis–It was the congressman who thought it was a waste of money, but that was on his visit, not when the Viet Cong used it. As for the NSA…that I didn’t know about, but it does not matter as the Peace Corps was a reality by March, 1961, so their vote of support was long after the Executive Order from the White House creating the agency.

  • John, This is a fascinating series! Thanks for bringing it to us. The 4th paragraph above should probably read April 1958, not 1968..that would make more sense…does this sound right ? Rhoda

  • John
    I always open your emails first because I know I will learn something new…thank you for this series …I am enjoying it.

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