Peace Corps Is Founded

The Peace Corps was formed as an independent overseas volunteer program of the United States government that translated idealism into practical contributions.

Summary of Event

Even though the Peace Corps became a reality during the early 1960’s, the idea did not originate with the John F. Kennedy administration. Through the centuries, similar concepts have been considered by those who wanted to end the atrocities of war by converting a country’s military might into a force for peace. More than two thousand years ago, Alexander the Great sent peace missions to Asia. A little more than a century before Kennedy’s Peace Corps, the British writers Thomas Carlyle Carlyle, Thomas and John Ruskin Ruskin, John proposed the formation of “industrial regiments” to make England more habitable for its citizens. Their attempt to implement the idea by using Oxford professors and students to build a road, however, was doomed to failure. Peace Corps
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[kw]Peace Corps Is Founded (Mar. 1, 1961)
Peace Corps
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[g]United States;Mar. 1, 1961: Peace Corps Is Founded[06870]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 1, 1961: Peace Corps Is Founded[06870]
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Rollman, Heinz W.
Shriver, Sargent
Kennedy, John F.
[p]Kennedy, John F.;Peace Corps
Humphrey, Hubert H.
[p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;Peace Corps
James, William

The source of the first truly successful peace corps can be traced to the writings of the American philosopher William James. His essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910) “Moral Equivalent of War, The” (James)[Moral Equivalent of War] , was inspired by the example set by the Spanish-American War veterans who had stayed behind in the Philippines to teach and work. In this essay, which grew out of a speech that he had given to the 1906 Universal Peace Conference in Boston, James suggested that young men be drafted not to destroy but to build underdeveloped nations. H. G. Wells Wells, H. G. , influenced by James’s views, outlined a plan for replacing soldiers with an army of scientists and teachers whose prime directive would be to heal the wounds of the world.

James’s proposal was not taken seriously in the United States, though, until the Great Depression. Alarmed that nearly fourteen million workers were unemployed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal started his three-pronged youth resources effort: the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA). Since nearly 30 percent of the unemployed workers were between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four, these programs were an effective means of mobilizing the youth of the United States. Most of the projects that were undertaken by these programs, however, such as planting tree seedlings and constructing dams and bridges, were only temporary measures.

The federal work programs of the 1930’s followed James’s proposal to the extent that they enlisted the services of the country’s youthful citizens; on the other hand, they were much more limited in scope than the programs that James had envisioned, focusing primarily on national, not international, recovery. Actually, various churches and private voluntary agencies had been sending help abroad long before the Great Depression forced the United States to find ways to help the disadvantaged. The American Friends Service Committee American Friends Service Committee , for example, is renowned for its contributions to programs of refugee resettlement and of community development. Financed by both private contributions and by government grants, these programs sent thousands of men and women abroad to teach illiterate peasants to read and write, to impress them with the importance of sanitation, and to show them better ways to farm.

Probably the closest forerunners of the Peace Corps were two of these private organizations. International Voluntary Services International Voluntary Services was founded in 1953 and run by a board of Catholic and Protestant representatives. Like the Peace Corps, this group worked mostly in rural areas, concentrating on crop and horticultural experimentation, animal husbandry, public health, and house building. Beginning in 1958, a private agency called Operation Crossroads Operation Crossroads gave college students the opportunity to spend a summer working on community projects in Africa.

At approximately the same time that these private agencies were capturing the world’s attention with their humanistic enterprises abroad, interest was being generated in the United States for a government-sponsored youth service. In 1954, Heinz W. Rollman, a North Carolina industrialist and candidate for Congress, published World Construction: A Practical Plan Through Which You Can Make the World a Better Place in Which to Live. World Construction (Rollman) In this book, which he mailed to government leaders throughout the world, Rollman proposed sending a “Peace Army” composed of three million draftees to work in underdeveloped nations.

Three years later, Representative Henry S. Reuss Reuss, Henry S. of Wisconsin visited Cambodia to see how the country was using the foreign aid that it had received from the United States. Although Reuss was appalled by a $30-million highway that was practically devoid of motorists, he was impressed by an elementary school that had been founded by four young schoolteachers from the United States. After Reuss returned to Cornell University, he devised a plan for the Point 4 Youth Corps Point 4 Youth Corps[Point Four Youth Corps] , which would provide technical assistance on a lower level than many underdeveloped nations were receiving. In 1960, he submitted a bill to Congress calling for a government study of the Point 4 Youth Corps; the bill passed. Reuss’s proposal was adopted in 1960 by the Organization of Young Democrats and the National Student Association, which promoted it on college campuses throughout the United States.

One of the supporters of the Point 4 Youth Corps, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, tired of reading studies and longed for action instead. In the spring of 1960, Humphrey’s foreign relations adviser, Peter Groethe Groethe, Peter , determined that five thousand youths could be sent into the field within four or five years. Encouraged by Groethe’s report, Humphrey submitted Senate Bill 3675 on June 15, 1960, asking for the development of “a genuine people-to-people program in which talented and dedicated young American men would teach basic agriculture, industrial techniques, literacy, the English language and other school subjects, and sanitation and health procedures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.” The number of letters received concerning the Peace Corps indicated that it dwarfed both the U-2 incident and Fidel Castro in interest. Nevertheless, Humphrey’s bill was virtually ignored, because the Senate was about to adjourn.

Although the Peace Corps died in the Senate, it became a major issue in the presidential campaign of 1960. After John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, Peter Groethe brought the Humphrey proposal to the attention of Archibald Cox, Chester Bowles, and other members of Kennedy’s brain trust. Even though Kennedy knew little about Humphrey’s bill before meeting with his advisers, he readily adopted the idea as part of his platform. Kennedy expanded the Humphrey-Reuss plan to include women and older people and to offer a draft exemption to volunteers.

After Kennedy took office in 1961, he set about creating the Peace Corps. First, Kennedy asked Max Millikan Millikan, Max , director of the Center of International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to prepare a report on such an international youth service. Encouraged by the findings of Millikan’s report and by a January Gallup Poll showing that 71 percent of Americans favored the Peace Corps, Kennedy then asked his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to explore the possibility of setting up the Peace Corps immediately. After meeting with a group of advisers in a Washington, D.C., hotel room for a month, Shriver submitted a plan of action to Kennedy. On March 1, 1961, two days after receiving the news from Shriver that the Peace Corps could be created by executive order, the president issued an order that established the Peace Corps on a trial basis.

On March 4, 1961, Shriver was appointed director of the Peace Corps. Shriver’s first task as director was to persuade Congress that the Peace Corps should be authorized by law. Shriver was assisted by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;Peace Corps , who not only secured congressional approval but also shaped the Peace Corps into a workable organization. On September 22, 1961, Congress established the Peace Corps by law and appropriated money to support it.

Although the plan for the Peace Corps was praised by many as a “happy inspiration,” it did face some opposition both at home and abroad. Some people jokingly referred to it as “Kennedy’s Kiddie Corps” and “A Crewcut Crusade.” The Soviet Union called the Peace Corps “a super-spy organization.” Nevertheless, the first detachment of forty-nine American teachers arrived in Ghana in the summer of 1961, and they were followed later by hundreds of other volunteers to other countries, all determined to make the concept of unselfish service a reality.


From the outset, the Peace Corps established itself as the embodiment of Kennedy’s idealism. Through the years, the Peace Corps has offered Americans the opportunity to realize Kennedy’s dream of collective action. Never before had any nation sent so many of its citizens to work and live among the inhabitants of underdeveloped countries. The impact of the Peace Corps can best be determined by assessing the success with which the Peace Corps has met its goals.

The most tangible effects of the Peace Corps on the world can be attributed to its first goal—providing technical assistance to less-developed countries. Many of the first generation of volunteers were nonspecialists with limited technical knowledge. As the Peace Corps has evolved, along with the world it serves, more of an emphasis came to be placed on the specific skills of volunteers, such as their ability to advance entrepreneurial initiatives, introduce information technology and computer skills, and promote small businesses, health education, and community development.

The effects of the Peace Corps’s second goal—to develop a better understanding among foreign peoples—are not as evident as the technical achievements, but they are just as important. Through the work of the Peace Corps volunteers, people-to-people relationships have been formed that have cemented friendships between nations. Finally, the activities of the volunteers in other countries have met the Peace Corps’ goal of changing the attitudes of Americans back home. Former volunteers reported feeling very different from others their ages. Many have furthered their education after returning home, and many have worked with government organizations both at home and abroad.

On the whole, then, the Peace Corps made a difference, sometimes where massive transfers of foreign aid to developing countries had not. Individual lives and towns and villages around the world have benefited immensely from the knowledge and concern that volunteers have brought to their countries. At the same time, the Peace Corps has provided young Americans with an opportunity to broaden their horizons. Peace Corps
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Further Reading

  • Adams, Velma. Peace Corps in Action. Chicago: Follett, 1964. Written by a Peace Corps volunteer, this book depicts the volunteers as a “special breed.” Because it is based on interviews with people working in the field, this collection of anecdotes provides a fascinating and realistic glimpse into the day-to-day life of a Peace Corps volunteer.
  • Ashabranner, Brent. A Moment in History: The First Ten Years of the Peace Corps. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Written by a former deputy director of the Peace Corps. Traces the development of the Peace Corps, illustrating its achievements with scores of examples.
  • Cobbs Hoffman, Elizabeth. All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960’s. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. Examines the genesis of the Peace Corps out of Kennedy’s idealism in the early 1960’s, namely, the desire to reinvent the “ugly American” into a person who cares about the rest of the world—and acts to prove it.
  • Dallek, Robert, and Terry Golway, eds. Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2006. A biographical history that focuses on Kennedy’s speeches. An accompanying CD-ROM includes Kennedy’s March 1, 1963, announcement of the founding of the Peace Corps.
  • Hapgood, David, and Meridan Bennett. Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. An examination of the Peace Corps based on interviews with workers in the field.
  • Luce, Iris, ed. Letters from the Peace Corps. Washington, D.C.: Robert Luce, 1964. These letters, written by the first wave of volunteers, contain lively descriptions of training procedures and of the problems of eating, staying healthy, and breaking down barriers of language and custom. Although the letters have been selected to present a predominantly favorable attitude toward the Peace Corps, they do show that not all applicants were motivated by idealism.
  • McGuire, Edna. The Peace Corps: Kindlers of the Spark. New York: Macmillan, 1966. Primarily an inspirational account of Peace Corps activities. The interviews with actual volunteers support the author’s view that the goal of the Peace Corps is not just better dams or highways but better people. Includes many photographs.
  • Madow, Pauline, ed. The Peace Corps. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1964. A collection of descriptions of the Peace Corps, its origins, its operations, and its accomplishments, written by government officials and other experts in foreign affairs. The authors represented include those figures who were most instrumental in establishing the Peace Corps, including President Kennedy, Henry S. Reuss, and Sargent Shriver.
  • Searles, P. David. The Peace Corps Experience: Challenge and Change, 1969-1976. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. A firsthand account of life in the Peace Corps, with a detailed history of President Nixon’s attempts to dismantle the organization in the 1970’s.
  • Wigenbach, Charles. The Peace Corps: Who, How, and Where. New York: John Day, 1961. This early book, prepared with the assistance of Hubert Humphrey and Henry Reuss, is essentially an insider’s view of the operation of the Peace Corps. Even though the author overstates opinions in places, this book provides an excellent history of the founding of the Peace Corps.

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