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American Diplomacy

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Fall 2018



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How I Invented the Peace Corps (Sort Of)
by Gerald Kamens

One morning in March 1959, a top secret policy paper appeared on my boss's desk at Dwight Eisenhower's Bureau of the Budget—later reborn as the Office of Management and Budget. Its subject: How to counter the Soviet Union's success in staging massive peace festivals, aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Europe's and Asia's youth.

As a newly minted budget examiner fresh out of grad school, I labored on a never-ending series of weighty foreign policy proposals. These went up, through several layers of review, to the Cabinet members making up the National Security Council—the Secretaries of State, Defense, Treasury, CIA, etc—and ultimately to Ike himself for decision.

Tossing this latest proposal to me, my boss, George, asked if I had any bright ideas on how to beat the Russkies at their game, possibly figuring that at 23, I was close enough in age to those Soviet-seduced youth to have a thought on the matter. I immediately thought back to my Quaker Friends in Philadelphia—who'd sent me to Washington to "advance the cause of peace." They used to talk about the need to understand the Russians better, to seek common ground with them.

My current milieu, under the Eisenhower-Nixon team, had a somewhat different thrust. I realized I was slowly forsaking my original good intentions, for what seemed to be a higher reality.

I mulled it over that night—recalling what I knew of the Quakers' overseas work camps. Next day, I typed a three-page paper proposing a worldwide extension of those camps, with a few revisions. A new Youth Corps, under the U.S. flag.

We'd recruit teams of volunteers, young men and women, train them in the language and customs of the countries to which they'd be assigned for a year or two. Living close to their overseas clients, they'd work on a wide array of educational and developmental projects. This would, I argued, engage the energies of our young people, and win the world's accolades—in a way that our traditional diplomacy and foreign aid never could.

My iconoclastic boss liked the idea. After jazzing up my paper with a stronger anti-Soviet tone, George sent it up the chain of command to the Bureau's Assistant Director for National Security Affairs. The latter tossed it into the hopper of the various Cabinet Under Secretaries who debated such things. Much to my surprise, it survived several levels of review.

The BOB's role in the National Security Council was to keep a skeptical eye out for costly boondoggles. To prevent the President's getting blindsided by cabinet departments who didn't grasp the big policy picture. Or so the senior Budgeteers told themselves, and young wet-behind-the-ears whippersnappers like me.

Nobody ever asked me what my Youth Corps would cost. I suspected George had recognized my relative disinterest in the finer points of budgeting—after all, my organization's bread and butter. I wouldn't be surprised if, unbeknownst to me, he'd costed it out in some highly classified annex.

After a meeting on my proposal which I attended with my boss, State's representative drew me aside to suggest that, while I had a creative idea, it'd be the kiss of death if it were viewed as a Budget Bureau proposal. He reminded me that my agency's reputation was one of coming up with new ideas only as a way to save money. Although I figured my Youth Corps would indeed be cheaper than the armaments the government was funding (my earlier pacifist inclinations still lingered), I opined that other agencies would get beyond that kind of thinking. Nonetheless, the State Department man insisted, it might be better tactics to let his agency present that idea. "More cachet," he sniffed.

"Nothing doing," George snorted that afternoon at State's bald-faced attempt to get the glory. So, my proposal went up to the Under Secretary group for final approval before seeking the NSC's blessing. I had visions, shared with no one, of President Eisenhower loving my idea—albeit with no byline, since his Budget Bureau staff supposedly had a "passion for anonymity." I pictured him endorsing it with a big grin.

My daydreams were shattered a few days later, when George informed me that top levels of the State Department had deemed my Youth Corps idea too risky. State had convinced the other agencies at the table that more of our traditional cultural and educational exchanges were the best way to deal with the Soviet threat.

That was 1959. I didn't fret too long about whether the Youth Corps might have been approved under State Department's umbrella. Instead, I moved on to other things in BOB. Kennedy was elected President two years later. I didn't pay too much attention at first when the new President put out his clarion call for a Peace Corps—created by a JFK executive order in March 1961, with Sargent Shriver as its first director.

One of my colleagues, the new budget examiner for the Peace Corps, sometimes shared with me some of the emerging details of the new organization. It sure sounded familiar!

Did someone steal my idea? Did one of those Under Secretaries, who saw my brainstorm, recycle it a few years later, after JFK came to office? Could be, although I imagine not many Eisenhower appointees hung around long in Kennedy's New Frontier.

Maybe other great minds, with more spin and access than I, came up with a similar idea. They'd be able to promote it and themselves with entrepreneurial spirit and persistence, in an administration more receptive to innovation than its predecessor. The Peace Corps became a resounding worldwide success and broadened the horizons of tens of thousands of its volunteers, as well as the people it helped overseas.

If the Peace Corps had come into being five years earlier, I might've been one of its early volunteers (but could I've survived all that Outward Bound training?). In 1961, however, by the time the Peace Corps took off, I had a wife and two kids, and my thoughts were elsewhere.

But I'm convinced I came up with the idea before Sarge and the others. So if someone wants to give me a Presidential Medal of Freedom, I wouldn't turn it down.bluestar


Author Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children's stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov's The Seagull. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia.


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