Obituary for Warren Wiggins, Architect of the Peace Corps
Warren W. Wiggins, 84, the major architect and organizer of the Peace Corps who wrote the basic philosophical document that shaped its mission, died of atypical Parkinson's syndrome April 13 at his home in Haymarket.
In 1961, Mr. Wiggins, who became one of the top leaders of the high-profile agency in its earliest years, was an unknown foreign policy adviser whose brief paper, "A Towering Task," landed in the lap of the Peace Corps' first director, R. Sargent Shriver, just as he was trying to figure out how to turn President John F. Kennedy's campaign promise into a working federal department.
The response to it became legendary in the agency as "the midnight ride of Warren Wiggins." Shriver, burrowing through correspondence shortly after midnight on Feb. 6, 1961, was electrified by the treatise, which urged the agency to act boldly. A small agency was more likely to fail because its projects would not be consequential enough, Mr. Wiggins wrote. Using specific examples, with a proposed staff size and budget, Mr. Wiggins suggested that Kennedy act through an executive order for the quickest start.
Shriver fired off a telegram at 3 a.m., directing Mr. Wiggins to appear later that morning at the Mayflower Hotel, where he had his office. When Mr. Wiggins appeared, he was astonished to find that his exposition had been mimeographed and distributed to Shriver's task force. According to the 1994 work "A History of National Service in America," Shriver ordered everyone to read the paper, then said it came closer to expressing his views than anything he had seen.
"Shriver from the beginning saw him as someone who had the spirit of moving big and fast," former senator Harris Wofford (D-Pa.), who was there, said in an interview. "The Peace Corps, small and symbolic, might be good public relations, but a Peace Corps that was large and had a major impact on problems in other countries could transform the economic development of the world."
At the time, Mr. Wiggins was a 38-year-old deputy director of Far East operations in the International Cooperation Administration, just the sort of bureaucrat the new administration disdained. But he was no stereotype; he was "totally dissatisfied with the manner in which American overseas programs were run," wrote John Coyne, a historian of the Peace Corps. Read more.
Excerpts from "A Towering Task"
"Many Americans feel that there is a necessity to add another "tool" or "resource" to those presently available for accomplishing needed changes abroad. Not only do we need to bring another kind of asset to bear on our foreign problems, there is an urgency in these problems that demands we move more quickly. The National Peace Corps is a program that will allow the United States to move faster in many situations. This progress often requires the availability of large numbers of personnel, which would be provided under this program. The National Peace Corps would provide another way to expand education, to build a road, to promote 4-H Clubs, or to eradicate malaria. As such it holds forth the promise of potential accomplishment abroad of great importance to America."
"Less discussed but perhaps of great significance is the possibility that as Americans serve abroad over a period of time they become more oriented to the world scene and are better prepared to participate in world affairs. Many draw a parallel to the impact of American attitudes of having 14 million Americans under arms in World War II, a considerable portion of whom served abroad."
"Most of the academic and other institutional approaches to the opportunity of the National Peace Corps suggest tentative pilot projects, involving small numbers of people and consequently a limited political, economic and psychological impact. This cautious approach is proposed by many because of the clear possibility of a fiasco. The organization and administration of a large number of Americans working on a variety of programs and projects in many countries with varying cultures and needs undeniably is an extremely complex and difficult undertaking. It is the prevailing view that if a great many Americans are scattered abroad and if significant numbers of them fail either in their own eyes or in the eyes of the recipient peoples, or if large numbers of the Americans have severe health, emotional or other problems, the resulting criticism will extend far beyond the project per se."
"In other words, it is here postulated that a "small," "cautious" National Peace Corps may be worse that no Peace Corps at all. It may not receive the attention and talent it will require even for preventing trouble. A. slow, cautious start may maximize the chance of failure. A small, cautious National Peace Corps may be a diversionary path of inconsequential accomplishment and major administrative and diplomatic trouble."
"The purpose of this paper is to advocate consideration of a "quantum jump" in the thinking and programming concerning the National Peace Corps. Its postulate is that America ought to consider initiating the program with several thousand Americans participating in the first 12 to 18 months - say, 5,000 to 10,000. The ultimate level of manpower to be utilized in this program will of course depend upon its initial success and difficulties. However, the potential of this program is great and it may prove to be the case that it should be at the 30,000, the 50,000 or possibly even at the 100,000 level. Even this latter higher level Corps over the past 35 would mean that only one out of every 30 years. (?) youths would serve in the Peace Corps."
"Such a national effort on the part of the United States can not be undertaken easily or without a great deal of thought and preparation. This paper does not advocate that there is a clear conclusion that we ought to have a large National Peace Corps. What it does advocate is that a National Peace Corps starting on a small scale and growing, say, to the 5,000 level on a worldwide basis, is a marginal undertaking and may, on balance, cause more trouble than it is worth. Because this paper postulates that there is a large and fundamental motivation behind the Peace Corps idea of national and international importance, it advocates making a real assessment of the relative value and cost of starting large and accelerating to the extent that the program's contribution is commensurate with its cost."
"The Executive Branch should decide that the Peace Corps will be launched in calendar year 1961 and at a level sufficiently large to: 1) Assure maximum chance of success; 2) demonstrate that major activities can be undertaken in particular countries; and 3) test the wisdom of a variety of types of approaches and activities. Thus, it is believed that in February President Kennedy should decide that, even in advance of legislation and formal administrative structure, the Peace Corps will be launched with a major Presidential statement or speech, that a call for volunteers will be thus issued, that preparatory work for a series of specific pilot projects will begin, that screening of applicants will be under way, that to the extent necessary appropriate contracts will be negotiated and that selected foreign governments will be contacted."
"The Administrator of the National Peace Corps would be charged with the development of an immediate program which would look toward the utilization of, say, 5,000 to 10,000 youths in the next 12 to 18 months. Certain major projects should be undertaken, such as the Philippines proposal contained in this paper, which would utilize 1,000 youths the first year. Probably a parallel English teaching program for Nigeria ought to be instituted immediately, involving another thousand teachers. The National Peace Corps could also be effectively used in health programs such as malaria eradication and smallpox vaccination, particularly in Africa. The existing voluntary agency programs for youths abroad should be expanded as rapidly as possible to absorb up to an additional thousand youths in the next 18 months. Maximum utilization should be made of National Peace Corps personnel in the regular "Point IV" activities of ICA abroad in some 60 countries, which could probably make use of 1,000 youths in the next 18 months. Likewise, Peace Corps personnel could be attached to the 40 university contracts abroad, adding, for example, another 300 to 400 to the total."
"These and the host of other activities that have been suggested should be carefully screened and selected projects initiated. The actual final number to be enrolled in the Peace Corps in the first 12 to 18 months should of course depend upon the volume of good programs that can be developed and successfully administered."
Read John Coyne's special issue of "Peace Corps Writers" commemorating "A Towering Task."