War­ren W. Wig­gins; Bold Trea­tise Shaped Peace Corps’ Mis­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro Week - By Pa­tri­cia Sul­li­van

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, “The 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 (DPa.), 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.

Mr. Wig­gins never went back to the ICA. Three weeks later, the Peace Corps was born, by ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

Mr. Wig­gins, a na­tive of Phoenix, left the Univer­sity of Colorado to serve in the Army Air Forces dur­ing World War II. He flew trans­port planes “over the Hump” in the China-In­dia-Burma theater and re­ceived a Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross.

Af­ter the war, he fin­ished col­lege in Colorado, then re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in eco­nomics from Har­vard Univer­sity in 1949. He served two years on the staff of the Mar­shall Plan in Nor­way, then worked for the Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, co­or­di­nat­ing eco­nomic pro­grams in West­ern Europe. He then worked for the ICA in the Philip­pines and Bo­livia.

As as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of pro­gram de­vel­op­ment for the Peace Corps, Mr. Wig­gins was at a White House meet­ing when Kennedy’s aides de­cided that the fledg­ling agency should re­port through the es­tab­lished for­eign pol­icy bu­reau­cracy. Mr. Wig­gins, alarmed, fired off a cable to Shriver, who was over­seas. Mr. Wig­gins then asked Bill Moy­ers, deputy di­rec­tor of the Peace Corps, to take a copy of the cable to Vice Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son and ar­gue the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits of an in­de­pen­dent Peace Corps. John­son agreed, ad­dressed the mat­ter with Kennedy, and the de­ci­sion was re­versed.

Mr. Wig­gins said the State De­part­ment’s sys­tem of over­seas as­sign­ments had “tended to squeeze the juices out of a man so he could be packed, pre­served and shipped about like a dried apri­cot.” His agency, in con­trast, wanted vol­un­teers who would live with res­i­dents, fre­quent lo­cal stores and learn the lan­guage. “This goes for Thai and Bengali as much as for French and Span­ish. The idea that a staff mem­ber should pol­ish French, the lan­guage of diplo­macy, rather than tackle a dif­fi­cult Asian tonal tongue is an idea we do not buy,” he said in 1963.

Mr. Wig­gins later served as deputy di­rec­tor of the Peace Corps. He left in 1967 to form Tran­sCen­tury, a private firm that ran a job cen­ter in Ana­cos­tia and a re­me­dial ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram in New York. Dur­ing the Dis­trict’s 1968 ri­ots, the Tran­sCen­tury build­ing at 1520 Sev­enth St. NW was the only one on the block spared from ar­son and van­dal­ism.

“It’s hard to say ex­actly why we weren’t touched,” he said at the time. “It’s partly luck, partly be­cause we don’t have any en­e­mies and partly be­cause we think we do have some friends on the block. . . . The peo­ple in the area know the kind of work we do.”

The com­pany closed in 1995, and Mr. Wig­gins de­voted him­self to po­etry, sketch­ing and tend­ing his gar­den, grow­ing per­sim­mons and many veg­eta­bles.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife of 63 years, Edna Abell Wig­gins of Hay­mar­ket; six chil­dren, Bill Wig­gins of Liver­more, Colo., Karen Wig­gins Dowler of Paci­fica, Calif., Lisa Ann Wig­gins of Port An­ge­les, Wash., John Reed Wig­gins and David Wig­gins, both of Hay­mar­ket, and Mark Wig­gins of Pa­cific Grove, Calif.; five grand­chil­dren; and six great-grand­chil­dren.

“I think he em­bod­ied the watch­words that were once given to me: We must be more in­ven­tive if we’re go­ing to do our duty,” Wof­ford said. “He was ever in­ven­tive. He was putting his mind to prob­lems. . . . War­ren was not some­body to rest con­tent with fall­ing short. He was ever ready for the quan­tum leap.”


Later in life, War­ren W. Wig­gins formed a job cen­ter in Ana­cos­tia.

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