Some Peace Corps historians, including early Peace Corps staff, trace the idea for such an organization as ‘the Peace Corps’ back to the nineteenth-century American philosopher and psychologist William James, and his “moral equivalent of war” statement.
Bill Moyers, who was around the agency at the very beginning, was still saying in 2011 in an interview in Vanity Fair that he considered the Peace Corps his greatest professional achievement, adding, “We were making a statement to the world about America that is still valid half a century later. Remember, there is a moral alternative to war.”
William James wanted a “conscription of our youthful population” to form “an army against Nature.” Once conscripted, the young people would be assigned “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing , etc.”
James’ idea wasn’t entirely altruistic. He felt that assigning young people into disciplined service would endow them with “healthier sympathies” and “soberer ideas.” He expressed, however, no desire for his ‘army’ to help indigent people of developing countries. Citing Williams James as the ‘true’ source of the agency is, in my opinion, a stretch.
The more likely source for the ‘idea’ of a peace corps might be with an obscure Republican from North Carolina, a wealthy German Jew industrialist, Heinz Rollman, who had fled Europe in 1939 and settled in Waynesville, North Carolina. In 1954, he wrote a book titled World Construction, which he mailed to government officials and opinion makers throughout the free world. His principal proposals were a 3-million-man “Peace Army” of draftees to work in underdeveloped nations and an increase to five million of foreign exchange students to the United States.
Twice Rollman ran for Congress from North Carolina and twice he lost. Twice he mailed his peace corps-type proposal to President Eisenhower and twice Eisenhower discarded the idea. Yet Eisenhower would use Rollman’s idea when he derided Kennedy’s ‘Peace Corps’ during the ’60s presidential campaign, saying that JFK’s program was just a warmed-over version of Heinz Rollman’s book, World Construction.
Rollman was never able to gain an popular support for his idea, no Congressional leaders supported him. He was unable to establish anything of concrete value beyond his book about what a “Peace army” might do in the developing world.
It was finally left up to a small town Congressman from the Midwest to make all the difference when it came to the launching the peace corps idea.
Part Four, of Six Parts