On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by Executive Order 10924. Coming out of WWII and the Korean War, the idea of peaceful initiatives across the world was intriguing to many. Senator Brien McMahon of Connecticut proposed “full-time missionaries of democracy” that would be sent to third world nations struggling and in need of aid and assistance. Aid missionaries were common, but nonreligious, somewhat militaristic aid groups run by the government was not. Many countries were leaving the clutches of colonialism at this time, and were in need of development on many fronts.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, while he was running for president, Kennedy said,
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? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”
When Kennedy initially proposed the idea, he was strongly opposed by Richard Nixon, who echoed the thoughts of many who were concerned that it would wind up being a haven for those who wanted to dodge the draft. According to a study cited by Time Magazine, during the Vietnam War “one in five [Peace Corp alumni who joined during draft years] claimed avoiding the war influenced their decision to sign up.” However, many of them were likely not aware that joining the Peace Corps does not grant you exclusion from the draft, and would wind up serving in Vietnam anyway. Nixon also called the Peace Corps a “cult of escapism.”
Since then, many have served in the Peace Corps. It currently boasts a budget of $398 million a year, and currently has 7,376 volunteers in its ranks. Throughout its history, over 230,000 Americans have served in 141 countries. Most are African countries, followed by countries in Latin America. Their primary focus is currently on education, followed by health and then their Youth in Development program. For example, they are currently working to eradicate malaria in Africa, and have volunteers across 24 different African countries.
An interesting tidbit: if you serve in the Peace Corps, you are not allowed to serve within military intelligence until four years have passed since the end of your service — and you can still never serve in an intelligence capacity in the country you served as a member of the Peace Corps. No doubt this is to mitigate people joining the Peace Corps for alternative, non-humanitarian reasons, thereby acting against what the organization is essentially there to do in the first place.
There has also been significant controversy recently, surrounding the sexual assault of volunteers in the places where they serve.
The section of the Executive Order describing the Corps’ function reads as follows:
The Peace Corps shall be responsible for the training and service abroad of men and women of the United States in new programs of assistance to nations and areas of the world, and in conjunction with or in support of existing economic assistance programs of the United States and of the United Nations and other international organizations.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.