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The Peace Corps’ not-so-peaceful roots

Peace Corps volunteer Arthur Young near Mikumi, Tanganyika (Tanzania). Near Mikumi, Tanganyika, Great Ruaha Road Project (PX 65-2:77)

Peace Corps volunteer Arthur Young near Mikumi, Tanganyika (Tanzania). Great Ruaha Road Project. (John F Kennedy Presidential Library, PX 65-2:77)

It was 49 years ago today that President John F. Kennedy put pen to paper and established the Peace Corps. It was authorized by Public Law 87-293, an “Act to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps.” But despite its name, peace may not have been the Peace Corps’ original purpose.

The program has its origins in a late-late night campaign speech given at the University of Michigan by then-Senator Kennedy. It was two in the morning on October 14, 1960. Despite the early morning hours, 10,000 students turned out. He challenged each of them—and the country—to serve abroad to help the free world (listen to the speech).

But peace was not on Kennedy’s mind when giving that speech.  The early morning speech doesn’t mention the word “peace” once. Instead he describes Americans serving abroad as a tool with which to defend a free society.  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,” Kennedy exclaimed at a stump speech in California. America did not. The Peace Corps was the answer. A corollary may have been peace, but the intent was to counter communist campaigning at a grassroots level.

By the time Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps on a pilot basis, the emphasis had changed. Peace was the intent; propaganda was not. At a news conference after signing the order, he stated, “Our Peace Corps is not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict. It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.”

Public Law blah, establishing the Peace Corps

Public Law 87-293, establishing the Peace Corps

Since then, nearly 200,000 volunteers have served in the Corps in 139 countries. More than 7,000 serve today. Paul Theroux (author), Reed Hastings (CEO and founder of Netflix), and Chris Matthews (host of NBC’s Hardball) are just a few of the volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps. Whatever its original purpose, the Peace Corps has helped thousands around the world and helped improve mutual understanding in a complex world.

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Comments

Comment from Meredith
Time September 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

Thanks for this post, it provides some very interesting history about the Peace Corps. I served in the Peace Corps from 2004-4005 in Samoa, a small independent nation in the South Pacific.