The Peace Corps wasn’t Kennedy’s idea. It wasn’t a Democrat’s idea. It wasn’t even Shriver’s idea.
Writing In Foreign Affairs magazine about the creation of the Peace Corps, Shriver would quote Oscar Wilde comment that America really was discovered by a dozen people before Columbus, “but it was always successfully hushed up.” Shriver added, “I am tempted to feel that way about the Peace Corps; the idea of a national effort of this type had been proposed many times in past years.”
Beginning in 1809, churches in the United States started to send missionaries abroad. Besides preaching the gospel, missionaries also built hospitals and educated doctors and nurses. They helped farmers and they developed health and social welfare programs. They did much of what Peace Corps Volunteers would also do later in the history of America.
The missionaries weren’t the only ones going overseas to help others.
In 1850, British writers Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin advocated “industrial regiment….to fight the bogs and wildernesses at home and abroad…” Ruskin even attempted to implement the idea by having Oxford dons and students build a road nearby, but it was a dismal flop.
In 1904 philosopher William James proposed to the Universal Peace Congress in Boston that draft-age young men be put to working building, not destroying. James called his project “the moral equivalent of war.” He had seen the veterans of the Spanish-American War who stayed behind in the Philippines to teach and work in the barrios.
The men who ‘stayed behind’ were called the “Thomasites” and named after the converted battle cruiser, “Thomas” that took these volunteers to the island.
A thousand teachers began their work in 1901. It lasted until 1933. Lacking government sanction or support, during the first 20 months, 27 of the volunteers died. But as George Sullivan writes, “in size and type, in philosophy and in motivation, it was in many ways similar to our present day Peace Corps teaching contingent in the archipelago.”
By 1919, the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, were sailing to the Balkans to work for two years to repair some of the chaos of World War I. They rebuilt farms, houses, schools, and established hospitals.
The truth is that after every major war, America has responded to help others. After the Spanish American War it was the “Thomasites.” After the World War I it was the work of the American Friends. After World War II private organizations like CARE were established; The Marshall Plan was activated, as well as, the government agency, UNRRA.
FDR inaugurated a three-pronged youth program during the Depression. The efforts were Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Work Projects Administration (WPA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA). These programs, however, were temporary and limited in scope.
In 1948, in his inaugural address, President Truman announced the Point Four Program that was instituted to provide assistance for so-called “under-developed peoples.” That program became ICA (the International Cooperation Agency) and today is AID (Agency for International Development).
Also beginning in the early 1950s was the International Voluntary Services, the IVS, a coordinating agency for a group of 15 church denominations interested in private technical assistance programs. The IVS sent teams of young Americans to Laos, Viet Nam, and to Egypt, to train HCNs in agriculture, farm mechanics, animals husbandry, home economics, etc.
In early 1961, ICA had 9,000 technicians working 70 countries overseas. And when Kennedy announced the idea of the Peace Corps, he said the new agency would be “directed and paid by ICA-Point Four agencies.”
In the end, however, the Peace Corps was established within the State Department and given a separate status.
Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman in the prologue of her book, All You Need Is Love points out that between 1958 and 1965 “nearly every industrialized nation started volunteer programs to spread the message of economic development and international goodwill.” While the U.S. wasn’t the first nation, they were the only nation to “incorporate volunteering into its foreign policy in an attempt to demonstrate one alternative to power politics.”
So by the year 1961–the year of the Peace Corps–there were already 26 private organizations carrying out volunteer service programs overseas. Still, against American policy and tradition of country-to-country relief and support, the Peace Corps was developing in another way.
And this is how it happened.
Part Three, of Six Parts