A look at the year in which the Peace Corps was founded with great aspirations — and the troubled world into which it emerged.
Research and editing by Jake Arce, Orrin Luc, and Steven Boyd Saum
Map images throughout from 1966 map of Peace Corps in the World. Courtesy Library of Congress.
For the Peace Corps community, 1961 is a year that holds singular significance. It is the year in which the agency was created by executive order; legislation was signed creating congressional authorization and funding for the Peace Corps; and, most important, that the first Volunteers trained and began to serve in communities around the world.
But the Peace Corps did not emerge in a vacuum. The year before, 1960, became known as the Year of Africa — with 17 nations on that continent alone achieving independence. Winds of change and freedom were blowing.
So were ominous gales of the Cold War — roaring loud with nuclear tests performed by the United States and Soviet Union. Or howling through a divided Europe, when in the middle of one August night East German soldiers began to deploy concrete barriers and miles of razor wire to make the Berlin Wall.
In May 1961, as the first Peace Corps Volunteers were preparing to begin training, across the southern United States the Freedom Riders embarked on a series of courageous efforts to end segregation on interstate transport. This effort in the epic struggle for a more just and equitable society was often met with cruelty and violence.
Outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower announces that the United States has severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.
France holds referendum on independence of Algeria: 70% vote in favor.
Charlayne Hunter, left, and Hamilton Holmes become the first Black students to enroll at University of Georgia. Hunter aspires to be a journalist, Holmes a doctor. White students riot, trying to drive out Hunter and Holmes. A decade before, Horace Ward, who is also Black, unsuccessfully sought admission to the law school.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault indeed goes on to become a journalist and foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, CNN, and the Public Broadcasting Service.
Hamilton Holmes goes on to become the first African-American student to attend the Emory University School of Medicine, where he earns an M.D. in 1967, and later serves as a professor of orthopedics and associate dean.
President Eisenhower’s farewell address. Warns of the increasing power of a “military-industrial complex.”
REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Patrice Lumumba, who had led his nationalist party to victory in 1960 and was assessed by the CIA to be “another Castro,” is assassinated — though this won’t be known for weeks.
JFK’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you ...”
Read annotations on the address 60 years later in our winter 2021 edition.
JFK asks Sargent Shriver to form a presidential task force “to report how the Peace Corps should be organized and then to organize it.”
Shriver taps Harris Wofford to coordinate plans.
ANGOLA: Start of fighting to gain independence from Portuguese colonial rule. February 4 will come to be marked as liberation day.
State Department colleagues Bill Josephson and Warren Wiggins deliver a paper to Shriver they call “The Towering Task.”
It lays out ideas for establishing a Peace Corps on a big, bold scale. Within three weeks, Shriver lands a report on JFK’s desk, saying with go-ahead, “We can be in business Monday morning.”
Debut appearance by the Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool
USSR launches Venera 1 — first craft to fly past Venus.
Aretha Franklin releases first studio album: “Aretha with the Ray Bryant Combo.”
Executive Order 10924: JFK establishes the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis.
He says, “It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.”
JFK announces Sargent Shriver will serve as first Director of the Peace Corps.
Executive order 10925: creates President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. Government contractors must “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” First use of phrase “affirmative action” in executive order.
Bill Moyers, a 26-year-old legislative assistant to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, takes on responsibilities as special consultant to the Peace Corps. The project, Moyers believes, shows “America as a social enterprise ... of caring and cooperative people.”
ALGERIA: Cease-fire takes effect in War of Independence from France.
23rd Amendment ratified. Allows residents of Washington, D.C. to vote in presidential elections for the first time.
Trial of the century — of Nazi Adolf Eichmann, architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish question” — begins in Jerusalem.
Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes first human being to travel into space. In Vostok I, he completes an orbit of the Earth.
CUBA: U.S.-backed invasion at Bay of Pigs attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro. Invading troops surrender in less than 24 hours after being pinned down and outnumbered.
Sargent Shriver embarks on a “Round the World” trip to pitch the Peace Corps to global leaders. With him: Harris Wofford, Franklin Williams, and Ed Bayley.
They visit Ghana, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
SIERRA LEONE gains independence following over 150 years’ British colonial rule. Milton Margai serves as prime minister until his death in 1964.
World Wildlife Fund for Nature established in Europe. Focuses on environmental preservation and protection of endangered species worldwide.
Freedom Riders: Civil rights activist James Farmer organizes series of protests against segregation policies on interstate transportation in southern U.S. Buses carrying the Freedom Riders are firebombed, riders attacked by KKK and police, and riders arrested.
Four hundred federal marshals are then sent out to enforce desegregation.
First U.S. astronaut flies into space: Alan Shepard Jr. on Freedom 7.
VIETNAM: JFK approves orders to send 400 special forces and 100 other military advisers to train groups to fight Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.
First Peace Corps placement test administered
Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirms Shriver as Director of the Peace Corps.
Dear Peace Corps Volunteer: First Volunteers receive letters from President Kennedy inviting them to join the new Peace Corps.
Space race: Addressing joint session of Congress, JFK says: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: Dictator Rafael Trujillo, who has ruled since 1930, is assassinated following internal armed resistance against his oppressive regime.
SOUTH AFRICA: Following a white-only referendum, the government of the Union of South Africa leaves the British Commonwealth and becomes an independent republic.
JFK meets Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev over two days in Vienna. “Worst thing in my life,” JFK tells a New York Times reporter. “He savaged me.”
ETHIOPIA: In the Karakore region, a magnitude 6.5 earth-quake strikes. Thirty people die.
Peace Corps has received “11,000 completed applications” in the first few months, Shriver tells Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Training begins for Peace Corps Volunteers for Tanganyika I and Colombia I at universities and private agencies in New Jersey, Texas, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere.
Amnesty International founded in the United Kingdom to support human rights and promote global justice and freedom.
Arkansas Democrat Sen. William Fulbright, skeptical of Peace Corps’ effectiveness, is cited in The New York Times as calling for a budget one-fourth the amount requested.
Sargent Shriver testifies in the House of Representatives and faces hostile GOP questioning. Meanwhile, in the Senate, the Fulbright-led Foreign Relations Committee votes 14–0 to authorize the Peace Corps with the full $40 million in funding requested.
Barack Obama born in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 2008 he becomes first African American president and 44th president of the United States.
Vostok 2: Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov becomes second human to orbit the Earth — and first in space for more than one day.
JFK press conference: “We have an opportunity if the amount requested by the Peace Corps is approved by Congress, of having 2,700 Volunteers serving the cause of peace in fiscal year 1962.” By the end of 1962, there will be 2,940 Volunteers serving.
Berlin Wall: In the middle of the night, East German soldiers begin stringing up some 30 miles ofbarbed wire and start enforcing the separation between East and West Berlin.
Charter for the Alliance for Progress signed in Uruguay, to bolster U.S. ties with Latin America. JFK compares it to the Marshall Plan, but the funding is nowhere near that scale.
KENYA: Anti-colonial activist Jomo Kenyatta released from prison after serving nearly nine years. In 1964 he becomes president of Kenya.
Senate passes the Peace Corps Act.
Rose Garden send-off: President Kennedy hosts a ceremony for the first groups of Volunteers departing for service in Ghana and Tanganyika.
After a 23-hour charter Pan Am flight from Washington, 51 Volunteers land in Accra, Ghana, to begin their service as teachers.
In Atlanta, Georgia, nine Black children begin classes at four previously all-white high schools. The city’s public schools had been segregated for more than a century.
ERITREA: War of Independence begins with Battle of Adal, when Hamid Idris Awate and companions fire shots against the occupying Ethiopian army and police.
Foreign Assistance Act enacted, reorganizing U.S. programs to create the new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which officially comes into being in November.
Drawing a bright line, official policy declares Peace Corps will not be affiliated in any way with intelligence or espionage.
First group of 62 Volunteers arrive in Bogotá, Colombia, aboard a chartered Avianca flight. They are referred to as “los hijos de Kennedy”—Kennedy’s children.
House passes the Peace Corps Act 288–97.
United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld dies in a plane crash en route to a peacekeeping mission in the Congo. He is posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
House and Senate bills reconciled: JFK signs the Peace Corps Act into law. The mandate: “promote world peace and friendship.”
First group of 44 Volunteers arrive in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. They include surveyors, geologists, and civil engineers to work with local technicians to build roads.
Postcard from Nigeria: Volunteer Margery Michelmore sends a postcard to her boyfriend describing her first impressions of the city of Ibadan, calling conditions “primitive.” The card doesn’t make it stateside. Nigerian students mimeograph and distribute it widely on campus; it is front-page news in Nigeria and beyond. Michelmore cables Shriver that it would be best if she were removed from Nigeria. She is.
Jets vs. Sharks: Premiere of film adaptation of musical “West Side Story.” A hit at the box office, it will win 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Doomsday Device: Soviet Union tests the Tsar Bomba, largest explosion ever created by humankind. Its destructive capabilities make it too catastrophic for wartime use. International condemnation ensues. U.S. has begun its own underground testing.
GHANA: U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth visits to meet with President Kwame Nkrumah.
World Food Programme is established as a temporary United Nations effort. The first major crisis it meets: Iran’s 1962 earthquake. In 2020 its work is recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Postcard postscript: Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa gives a warm welcome to the second group of Peace Corps Volunteers.
Ernie Davis of Syracuse University becomes the first Black player to win college football’s Heisman Trophy. Leukemia will tragically cut his life short 18 months later.
TANGANYIKA declares independence from the British Commonwealth. In 1964 country name becomes Tanzania.
Executive Order 10980: JFK establishes Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, to examine discrimination against women and how to eliminate it. Issues addressed include equal pay, jury service, business ownership, and access to education.
500+ Peace Corps Volunteers are serving in nine host countries: Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanganyika, and Pakistan. An additional 200+ Americans are in training in the United States.