Through the Peace Corps, President John F. Kennedy sought to encourage mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations and cultures.
On October 14, 1960, at 2 a.m., Senator John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 10,000 cheering students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor during a presidential campaign speech. In his improvised speech, Kennedy asked, "How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?" His young audience responded to this speech with a petition signed by 1,000 students willing to serve abroad. Senator Kennedy's challenge to these students—to live and work in developing countries around the world; to dedicate themselves to the cause of peace and development—inspired the beginning of the Peace Corps.
Just two weeks later, in his November 2, 1960, speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Kennedy proposed "a peace corps of talented men and women" who would dedicate themselves to the progress and peace of developing countries. Encouraged by more than 25,000 letters responding to his call, Kennedy took immediate action as president to make the campaign promise a reality.
The Cold War and the Peace Corps
The Peace Corps program was an outgrowth of the Cold War. President Kennedy pointed out that the Soviet Union "had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses . . . prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism." The United States had no such program, and Kennedy wanted to involve Americans more actively in the cause of global democracy, peace, development, and freedom.
A few days after he took office, Kennedy asked his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, to direct a Peace Corps Task Force. Shriver was known for his ability to identify and motivate creative, visionary leaders, and he led the group to quickly shape the organization. After a month of intense dialogue and debate among task force members, Shriver outlined seven steps to forming the Peace Corps in a memorandum to Kennedy in February 1961.
The Peace Corps was established by executive order on March 1, 1961, and a reluctant Shriver accepted the president's request to officially lead the organization. Shriver recruited and energized a talented staff to implement the task force's recommendations. On his first trip abroad as director, he received invitations from leaders in India, Ghana, and Burma to place Peace Corps volunteers in their countries.
Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania) and Ghana were the first countries to participate in the program. President Kennedy welcomed the inaugural group of volunteers at the White House on August 28, 1961, to give them a personal farewell before their departure to Africa.
Congress approved the Peace Corps as a permanent federal agency within the State Department, and Kennedy signed the legislation on September 22, 1961. In 1981, the Peace Corps was made an independent agency.
In the 1960s, the Peace Corps was very popular with recent college graduates. But in the 1970s, the Vietnam War and Watergate eroded many Americans' faith in their government. Interest in the Peace Corps began to decline and government funding was cut. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan tried to broaden the Peace Corps' traditional concern with education and agriculture to include more current fields such as computer literacy and business-related education. For the first time, a rising number of conservative and Republican volunteers joined the largely progressive Peace Corps contingent overseas. Peace Corps membership and funding increased after the opening of Eastern Europe in 1990.
The Peace Corps Program
To participate in the Peace Corps program, countries must meet certain requirements:
- A country must invite the Peace Corps
- Based on its limited budget, the Peace Corps decides which countries it can be active in and prioritizes each country's needs
- Peace Corps volunteers must be safe
Once these requirements are met, the Peace Corps begins working with the foreign government. Countries seeking help from the Peace Corps propose areas that could benefit from the skills of volunteers. The Peace Corps then matches assignments within foreign nations to applicants with the appropriate skills.
Life as a Peace Corps volunteer is not easy and volunteers face many challenges, from language barriers to poor living conditions. There is no salary. Volunteers receive a monthly stipend for room, board, and few essentials—"enough to be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language."
Culturally, volunteers work to build trust within their communities and share their skills to solve challenges that face developing communities. Volunteers work in many different fields, including, education, health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS training, agriculture, business, community development, forestry, and environmental protection. Since the inception of the Peace Corps, some 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. They have learned more than 200 languages and dialects.
The Peace Corps Today
The Peace Corps is always adapting to the times and to an ever-changing world, but has never wavered from its three original goals:
- To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
The program continues to reflect the evolving priorities of the US government and changes in the population of the United States. Today, on average, volunteers are older than their predecessors and more experienced in specialized fields.
After more than five decades of service, the Peace Corps is more vital than ever and still growing. From John F. Kennedy's inspiration came an agency devoted to world peace and friendship and volunteers who continue to help individuals build a better life for themselves, their children, their community, and their country.