Why the Peace Corps? Part Six

Congressman Reuss was not the only U.S. legislator intrigued by the idea of youth service for America. Another Midwesterner, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, had observed the volunteer work being done by the American Friends Service Committee.

He, too, like Congressman Reuss, had given talks on college campuses in the late 1950s and received the same sort of strong, enthusiastic responses that Reuss experienced at Cornell University. Humphrey would say later that no one in ‘official government Washington’ would take him seriously, but he went ahead anyway and assigned a young member of his staff–a Stanford University foreign relations graduate named Peter Grothe–to research the idea for him, and what Grothe uncovered convinced Humphrey that the idea had merit.

Grothe spent six weeks interviewing private agency workers and digging through available material. In his final report, Grothe conservatively estimated that 10,000 volunteers could be sent into the field within four or five years. Humphrey cut that number to 5,000 in his final report. On June 16, 1960, Humphrey introduced legislation-drafted by Grothe-calling for the establishment of a “Peace Corps.”  It was Grothe who first coined the term, Peace Corps. Coming as it was late in the congressional year, and an election year at that, nothing was expected to happen with the bill, though Humphrey was surprised by the lack of opposition in Congress to the legislation, and surprised, too, by, he said, the amount of mail received in favor of the idea. The “Peace Corps” idea dwarfed both the U-2 incident and the rise of Fidel Castro.

Humphrey did take flak from some quarters for introducing his legislation before the Colorado State University research report was completed. Also, some thought his “Peace Corps” would duplicate and/or conflict with the work already being done by the International Cooperation Agency (ICA).

In February, Kennedy faced his first question on the ‘corps’ while appearing on the New York television program, College News Conference. He admitted he didn’t know much about it, but when he returned to Washington, he instructd his staff to work on the idea, according to Charles E. Wingenbach in his book, The Peace Corps: Who, How, and Where.

During the long summer and fall of 1960–that presidential year–other ‘peace- corps-like program ideas’ were being proposed.

  • Heinz Rollman in North Carolina was still busy lobbying for his idea;
  • Bill Moyers, then the very young aide to Vice Presidential candidate Johnson, wrote two campaign speeches suggesting the Peace Corps idea.
  • Chester Bowles, a foreign relations advisor to Kennedy, used the peace corps idea in his talks;
  • Victor Reuther, at the UAW talked about a Peace Corps;
  • General James Gavin also gave speeches in support of the idea.

In September, after Kennedy won the nomination, Peter Grothe took the Humphrey proposal to Archibald Cox, one of Kennedy’s speech writers. Kennedy’s team had already seen the idea’s potential, both as a new foreign policy breakthrough and as an election issue, and the Humphrey “Youth Peace Corps” was incorporated into Kennedy’s Talking Points. The term and new name “Peace Corps” now has visibility.

Then on October 14, 1960, at 2 a.m. in the morning on the campus of the University of Michigan candidate John F. Kennedy, speaking extemporaneous, challenged 10,000 plus students who had gathered in the predawn darkness on the campus lawns outside of the Student Union to make a difference in their own lives, to do something for their country.

He did not use the term ‘Peace Corps’ that morning in Michigan, but two weeks later, in the Cow Palace of San Francisco, Kennedy gave his last major speech before the 1960 election and used the name “Peace Corps for the first time. It would prove to be the first major initiative as the new President of the United States. And it was in a speech to establish a “Peace Corps agency” in the federal government. We had arrived!

The rest, we can say, is history. And we can truthfully say, it is our history.

Part Six, of Six Parts

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