Created by executive order in March 1961, the Peace Corps was a popular symbol of Pres. John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier." Its purpose was to send Americans abroad for two years to cement friendships with third world nations, contribute to economic development, and promote peace. The Peace Corps provided an opportunity for citizens to respond to the spirit of civic activism stimulated by the president when he exhorted Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country." In the 1960s, many young people eagerly took up the call, joining new political movements to promote civil rights, peace, and economic equity. Arguably, the Peace Corps was the first of these mass movements. In 1961 and 1962, more than thirty-two thousand young Americans applied to go abroad (of these, fewer than 10 percent were selected).
To many, the Peace Corps seemed quintessentially (and perhaps naively) American in its confidence about changing the world. But the organization paralleled similar efforts in other English-speaking nations. The Peace Corps, Australian Volunteers Abroad (1951), British Voluntary Service Overseas (1958), and Canadian University Service Overseas (1961) all shared a vision of using young volunteers to promote good-will, diminish racial prejudices, and alleviate global poverty. One stimulus was the rapid decolonization of Asia and Africa after 1945. Another was the Cold War. Although none of these organizations wished to be a tool in the East-West conflict, participants nonetheless articulated the belief that a contest for the allegiance of third world peoples was under way.
Sargent Shriver, the first director of the organization (and Kennedy's brother-in-law), obtained formal authorization for the Peace Corps from Congress in September 1961. The Peace Corps Act set three goals: (1) to help people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower; (2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and (3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Although some argued that the Peace Corps should be a division of the new Agency for International Development, Shriver persuaded the president to give it an independent status that would allow it to follow its own vision and gain worldwide attention as a fresh approach to foreign relations.
The Peace Corps enjoyed bipartisan support from the outset. In the words of Bill Moyers, the first deputy director and an aide to Lyndon Johnson, "I was present at the creation, when the bright flame of conviction took hold in the imagination of the country and the Peace Corps became a promise fulfilled." (Quoted in Cobbs Hoffman 1) The conservative senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), announced, "I'll back it all the way." To many Americans, it symbolized what was best about their country in the 1960s: the promise and idealism of youth, the resurgence of selflessness from under the weight of material abundance, the pioneering spirit reborn in the progeny of what sociologist David Riesman called "other-directed" organization men (in The Lonely Crowd, 1950), and the persistence of America's democratizing "mission." Indeed, the Peace Corps helped reassure a broad cross section during a turbulent decade that there was at least one aspect of the nation's policy that was fundamentally generous and good. The Peace Corps, in other words, was a powerful symbol of what America wanted to be, even when it was not.
The first volunteers went to Ghana in August 1961. They were immediately followed by volunteers to other countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America. There were 2,940 participants in the first year and a half (1961-1962); the number increased to 15,556 men and women by 1965. These individuals brought with them a wide range of professional skills, but the majority were college graduates with liberal arts degrees. They staffed the largest program of the Peace Corps, which was elementary and secondary education. This program was strongest in Africa, where the corps responded to urgent requests for teachers. The Peace Corps also focused on community development, primarily in Latin America. This activity, Kennedy believed, would supplement the efforts of the Alliance for Progress to direct regional revolutionary change into channels consistent with American strategic interests.
President John F. Kennedy greets Peace Corps trainees on the White House lawn as they prepare to travel to their destination countries on August 9, 1962. By 1965, more than fifteen thousand volunteers had participated in the organization, and it would become Kennedy's most enduring political and organizational legacy. (Bettmann/Corbis)
The Peace Corps declined significantly in the late 1960s when U.S. policies in Latin America and Southeast Asia disaffected many potential volunteers. By the end of the Vietnam War, the agency had shrunk more than 50 percent. The ratio of male to female volunteers, roughly equal in the mid-1960s, also became skewed (7 to 3), as males sought to avoid the draft by joining the Peace Corps. Enveloped in controversy about its mission and efficacy, the corps was merged with domestic volunteer programs in 1971 under a new agency called ACTION. Sargent Shriver complained that it no longer even had a listing in the phone book.
The Peace Corps retained its humanitarian mission, however, and continued sending an average of 6,000 volunteers abroad annually. Its autonomy was finally restored in 1981. Ironically, the end of the Cold War further rejuvenated the organization because of the demand for volunteers in former Communist bloc nations. By 2006, more than 180,000 Americans had served in 138 countries at their request. It remains John F. Kennedy's most enduring political and organizational legacy.
- All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. .
- Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. .
- The Bold Experiment: JFK's Peace Corps. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
- What You Can Do for Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps. New York: William Morrow, 1991. .
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