Peace Corps Writers
   To preserve and to learn
Being First
A Memoir of Ghana I

by Robert Klein (Ghana 1961–63)

For another article on the Establishment of the Peace Corps  

For other articles on Peace Corps history 

Recently Robert Klein has worked with the Kennedy Library to create the RPCV Archival Project to tape the oral histories of RPCVs. The project will work with RPCV groups — both country of service and geographic groups.
     If you can’t write about your experience, you can talk about it, and what you have to say is important to the history of the United States and the world. Do history a favor and tell your story. Contact Robert Klein at:

for further information.

THE PEACE CORPS BEGAN to be organized soon after John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. the President assigned his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, to head a task force toPrinter friendly version develop proposals for the new agency. Shriver met with academics, heads of voluntary agencies and old mentors such as Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame, but it wasn’t until he encountered Warren Wiggins that the roller coaster began its ride. Wiggins came from the International Cooperation Agency (ICA) [which later became the new Agency for International Development (AID)], and brought with him like-minded colleagues who wanted to get new development programs into the field quickly under what they perceived were the innovative approaches implied in the name, Peace Corps.
     It was a conceptual paper that Wiggins had written, “The Towering Task,” that, in late February, jump-started the Peace Corps study group. [This phrase “The Towering Task” was borrowed from Kennedy’s 1961 State of the Union message in which he had said that the response to the towering challenges of the noncommunist world “must be towering and unprecedented as well.”] The paper recommended massive (1000+) programs such as teachers’ aides for the Philippines, and proposed that the new agency directly operate overseas programs. Co-author William Josephson suggested that the new agency start work immediately under presidential executive order and not wait for specific enabling legislation. Shriver reacted enthusiastically to their ideas and Wiggins and Josephson’s “Towering Task” became the engine that drove the creation of the new agency, and they were among the first handful of men to shape the Peace Corps.
     Bill Josephson, who became Deputy General Counsel and later the General Counsel for the Peace Corps, would recall those long days and nights spent in a suite of rooms in the Mayflower Hotel drafting the “Report for the President,” and detailed the process for Coates Redmon in her book, Come As You Are: The Peace Corps Story. “The final draft of the Report was done with Charles Nelson sitting in one room writing basic copy, me sitting in another room rewriting it, [Harris] Wofford sitting in yet another room doing the final rewrite, and Wiggins running back and forth between the three rooms delivering pieces of paper along the chain.”
     The Report was given to Kennedy on Friday morning, February 24, 1961. Five days later, on March 1, President Kennedy signed the Executive Order creating the Peace Corps and appointed Shriver as its first Director. [Executive Order 10924 gave the Peace Corps $1.5 million from the president’s discretionary funds, along with the sixth-floor space in the Maiatico Office Building at 806 Connecticut Avenue across Lafayette Park from the White House.]

Maiatico Mafia
On March 2, 1961, the Peace Corps staff, like determined squatters, took over the offices formerly occupied by the International Cooperative Agency. Shriver took more than desks and offices from ICA. Led by Warren Wiggins, a group of ICA officers had joined Peace Corps staff. Some of the early participants gave descriptions of the chaotic character of the beginning and Shriver’s role as ringmaster.
Harris Wofford, Kennedy’s special assistant on civil rights, as well as advisor to Shriver on the establishment of the Peace Corps, recalled early discussions on the establishment of the agency, that the Peace Corps not do any projects directly but that they be contracted out to universities and other agencies. “There was not much chance of that with Shriver running an agency. Sargent Shriver clearly tended toward a fast moving, hard hitting, core, central organization. He put enormous weight on speed and the more he saw of the complaints about the State Department and AID particularly . . . how long it takes in their pipeline to get anything done; how, in many projects, the time for them has passed by the time the experts and the money arrive — he was determined that in four months we’d be able to produce volunteers to fill jobs that took fourteen months in the old agencies. He just felt that with Kennedy’s backing he could build a corps that would do it.”
     Four months was just about right. It was April 24 when Ghana requested Peace Corps teachers. On August 30 Ghana I arrived in Accra.
     Ed Bayley, the first Director of Public Information, remembers those days right after Kennedy’s Executive Order: “All hell broke loose, of course. And we really didn’t know what the Peace Corps was at that point . . . . There was a sort of division there between the bureaucrats and the people coming in from outside. And Wiggins and Josephson and Charlie Nelson, a couple more of that bunch, they came over from ICA. And they really thought they knew all about this, and we were a bunch of amateurs.”

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     To staff the new agency, Sargent Shriver had attracted and recruited two dissimilar groups. One was the “hard-headed,” practical ICA types; the other “soft-headed” visionary politicos, attracted to the Kennedy presidency. They all shared Shriver’s enthusiasm for the Peace Corps but had divergent views of the yet-to-be defined role of the volunteers. One side felt that the Peace Corps should serve as a catalyst for change in the developing world according to the model described in the book, The Ugly American. The volunteer was to be an exemplar of American entrepreneurial values, live and work in the villages, not the capital, sleeves rolled up, boots muddy, cheek-by-jowl with host country counterparts, agents of change. The other view was less dramatic. It looked to modest, concrete successes in programs which would draw on foreign aid experience but with the enthusiasm and idealism generated by the Peace Corps dynamic.
     In these early days of the Peace Corps, both groups were ultimately hostage to the reality that it was the early volunteer recruits, like Ghana I, who would decide what a Peace Corps Volunteer was by actually being one.
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