A wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery see more
A wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on September 22, 2021
Photography by Eli Wittum
Pictured: Honoring a legacy: Three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Colombia. From left, they are Museum of the Peace Corps Experience co-founder Patricia Wand (1963–65), former Congressman Sam Farr (1964–66), and journalist Maureen Orth (1964–66).
On the afternoon of September 22, Northern Virginia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers hosted a wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. It was an in-person event paying tribute to the idea and ideals of the Peace Corps, and the president who ensured they took flight.
From left: Pat Wand, Clintandra Thompson, and Carol Spahn. Photo by Eli Wittum
Offering remarks were Acting Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn, Rep. John Garamendi, former Congressman Sam Farr, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst, and Adopt a Black Peace Corps Volunteer founder Clintandra Thompson.
They spoke on the legacy of the Peace Corps and honored President Kennedy. Following speeches, attendees walked together to Kennedy’s gravesite to place a wreath and flowers.
Flowers and cake. Photography by Eli Wittum
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
Letters: Readers Respond to the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView and Snapshots of Peace Corps HistoryBudget advocacy. JFK at the Cow Palace. Loan forgiveness fail. Inspirational Sarge. see more
Peace Corps Response at 25. Sarge leads the first Volunteers. Budget advocacy. Remembering 9/11 two decades later. JFK at the Cow Palace in ’60.
Letters, emails, LinkedIn and Instagram comments, Facebook posts, tweets, and other missives: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in the Summer 2021 edition of WorldView, special digital features, and the conversation on social media.
We’re happy to hear from you there and here: firstname.lastname@example.org
An anniversary. A pandemic. Peace Corps Response.
Great magazine — I always read it cover to cover. Congratulations!
Big Picture: Sarge Leads
Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum
As a returned Volunteer who served in Iran, I can’t express how deeply Sargent Shriver’s work continues to affect my life, starting with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer teacher from the first days of Peace Corps in junior high school to numerous friendships with a Peace Corps connection that continue to this day. This sort of service opportunity is the best of what our country has to offer our citizens and the world.
N. Bruce Nelson
In Mashraqi High School in Kandahar, Afghanistan, three Peace Corps teachers taught us English in 1971. I still know one Peace Corps member. My thanks to them.
The House of Representatives has voted to back $430.5 million in funding. They still need to bring the Senate around to backing more than flat funding for the seventh year in a row. — Ed.
Wonderful news. A lot of credit for this passage should go to the dedicated returned Volunteers who spent endless hours advocating on the Hill. After this unfortunate pause in service due to the pandemic, it is the perfect time to have adequate funding to resume Peace Corps service in countries requesting it.
Judy B. Smith
Niger 2010–11, Armenia 2011–13
I contacted Senator Feinstein’s office and Congressman Jared Huffman in regard to enhanced Peace Corps funding. We need Peace Corps more than ever now. Please don’t let JFK’s legacy fade with time. Keep up your good work. Your friend in peace.
El Salvador 1976–80
I hope the Senate, too, approves this increased budget for the Peace Corps — and the Peace Corps finds meaningful ways to provide effective service in this COVID-impacted new world.
Kul Chandra Gautam
Former Deputy Director of UNICEF; recipient of 2018 Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award
I was a month into training in Mali when it happened. The event altered our training but we continued through, and it brought everyone closer together, including our host country nationals.
Peace Corps Connect 2021
The 60th anniversary conference took place September 23–25.
I found the conference so easy to navigate, and the content throughout was excellent! Kudos for a worthwhile and memorable 60th anniversary event.
Thanks to everyone who worked to make this happen. The Asian American Pacific Islander discussion was outstanding. Thanks to the guest speakers for sharing some of their personal journeys and experiences.
Liberia 1982–84; President, San Diego World Affairs Council
Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso changed my life in many great ways. Met my wife! Professional direction toward medicine and public health! My time there taught me so much.
Jonathan Schultz, M.D., MPH
Burkina Faso 2006–09
Having served in Guatemala, and my wife in Thailand, we are proud to be among the 240,000 who have experienced “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” It was my professor of international business at University of Washington — who had been a Volunteer in Chile — who planted the seed. Though I served during politically turbulent times in Guatemala, it was the experience of my lifetime. Plus I met my wife the year I was leading the returned Volunteer group in Seattle.
J. David Snow
JFK at the Cow Palace
On November 2, we marked the anniversary of JFK’s 1960 campaign speech at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, where he used the term “Peace Corps” for the fist time and declared, “I am convinced that the pool of people in this country of ours anxious to respond to the public service is greater than it has ever been in our history.”
Photo courtesy OpenSFHistory.org
Love how he lights up the foreign service language skills (or lack thereof) in his full speech. Definitely resulted in our robust pre-service language training.
A life-changing experience for myself and hopefully for the lives I touched during my service in Malaysia. Hope to be of further service to the Peace Corps once I retire.
The Peace Corps, together with the Fulbright program and USAID, are great initiatives and success stories.
Sami Jamil Jadallah
These letters appear in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
WRITE US: email@example.com
Where are we going? Where have we gone? Some answers lie within the pages of this magazine. see more
Sixty years of Peace Corps. Volunteers returning to service. And a first for this magazine.
Illustration by Tim O’Brien
By Steven Boyd Saum
A year ago the cover of WorldView bore the image of a dove encaged by a COVID-like molecule and asked: “What’s the role of Peace Corps now?” It’s a question we’re still seeking to answer. There were then, as now, no Volunteers in the field — though staff in posts across the globe were sustaining connections with communities. And tens of thousands of returned Volunteers, whether they had been abruptly evacuated because of the pandemic or had served decades before in countries where Peace Corps programs no longer existed, were working as best they knew how to nurture the flame of peace and friendship in a dark time.
A snapshot — from an ad that ran four decades ago: Statue of Liberty, arm pointed toward an exit stage right, and a suggestion for how to make America a better place: Leave the country. Only part of the journey, that. “Maybe it’s not just what you do in the Peace Corps that counts. But what you do when you get back.”
If you return stateside, that is. Get back. Because, of course, central to the imperative for launching this audacious Peace Corps mission 60 years ago was the fact that this nation needed to do better when it came to understanding people and communities around the world: speaking languages, listening, and grasping on a truly human level how the best of intentions — not to mention policies conceived in cynicism or indifference to suffering — might exact a terrible cost. And that understanding should inform the work of diplomats and those who serve as hands-on workers and leaders alike in diplomacy and education, alleviating poverty and bolstering public health, and so much more.
GET BACK. A phrase zipping around the zeitgeist these days, and not only thanks to an epic Beatles documentary. Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet. That’s one of the conversations taking place in this edition.
Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet.
So is this: Peace Corps Volunteers are about to get back into service in countries around the world. Whatever title they carry, related to education or the environment or public health, all will have a role to play when it comes to fighting COVID-19. After the unprecedented evacuation, everything will be different. But the work of Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in battling smallpox and Ebola and HIV/AIDS over the decades means this is not entirely uncharted territory. And the person-to-person connections that define the Peace Corps experience couldn’t be more important.
Which is one more reason we’re heartened that this fall, WorldView brought home top honors in the FOLIO Awards, honoring magazine editorial and design excellence. The aforementioned cover of the Fall 2020 edition, illustrated by David Plunkert, earned an OZZIE design award for best cover. And, in an award that recognizes the work of dozens of contributors, WorldView earned an EDDIE award for editorial excellence for a series of articles in the Summer 2020 edition. Telling the stories of Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in 2020, the series captures the experiences of Volunteers and the communities in which they were serving, and the unfinished business left behind.
These awards mark the first time that this magazine — published for the Peace Corps community for more than three decades — has earned such recognition. The awards, presented on October 14 at the FOLIO gala in New York City, have honored top work in publishing for more than a quarter century and draw competition from across the United States and internationally. It’s rewarding to see outstanding work recognized. Even more important is amplifying the voices of the Peace Corps community in this unprecedented time.
SO HERE WE ARE, with this special 60th anniversary edition. Even before the pandemic hit, it hardly seemed appropriate to serve up a self-congratulatory feast of nostalgia. Too much is happening, and too much on the line.
Let’s end, then, with beginnings: the cover of this magazine. An iconic portrait of John F. Kennedy from illustrator Tim O’Brien. Six decades after this Peace Corps endeavor took flight, we ask: Where are we going? Where have we gone?
Some answers lie within the print and digital pages of this magazine. So many more have yet to be written.
This note appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. Write him.
Lessons from the past in how to become a less polarized country once again see more
The U.S. is profoundly polarized — politically, culturally, socially, and economically. That was true during the Gilded Age, too. Halfway between then and now, John F. Kennedy exhorted his fellow Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you — but what you can do for your country.” So what happened? And how do we turn things around?
From a conversation with Shaylyn Romney Garrett
We Can Do It! image courtesy the National Museum of American History
In The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett offer a sweeping overview of U.S. history from the Gilded Age to the present, tracing how the country was transformed from an “I” society to a “we” society — and then back again.
Earlier this year we caught up with Garrett to talk about this project — which would seem to have a special resonance for the Peace Corps community. The period their data pinpoints as the pinnacle of an American sense of “we are all in this together” is the early 1960s — the same moment that gave birth to the Peace Corps.
Garrett served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan 2009–11. She is a founding contributor at Weave: The Social Fabric Project, founded by David Brooks and housed at the Aspen Institute, and she writes about rebuilding community and connection in a hyper-individualistic world. Here are edited excerpts from her conversation with WorldView editor Steven Boyd Saum.
Origins of The Upswing
A lot of people ask, “How did you come to write a book with Robert Putnam?” In the year 2000, his seminal book Bowling Alone was published. I was taking his seminar on Community in America, his foray into teaching the research behind Bowling Alone. He closes that book with a look at the Progressive Era as a potential template for how to revive communities, associations, and the social capital that he documented as having been lost over the previous half century. I was captivated by the Progressive Era, particularly the settlement movement. Some people are familiar with Jane Addams and Hull House in Chicago. But there were hundreds of settlement houses across the United States. The movement itself — sort of imported from the U.K. — sought to build bridges across lines of difference and, in a sense, offer educated, college-age people a Peace Corps–type experience within the United States. Something like AmeriCorps today.
I wrote an undergraduate thesis advised by Robert Putnam. In the subsequent 20 years, he and I have worked together on multiple projects, the last of which is The Upswing. Bob brought me into the project at a point when he had discovered a remarkable statistical finding that serves as the backbone of the book.
Bowling Alone looked at one aspect of American society — social connectedness, social ties, social cohesion — and asked: What does the trend look like over time? Looking back to roughly the 1960s, Bob saw a marked decline in measures of association, community, and social capital. It was a big finding. But it was a pretty narrow picture. So over the years, Bob started to ask: What was going on with other things — economic inequality, religion?
The Upswing incorporates four different metrics. One is social capital, a measure of how connected people are to one another in society. Another is economic inequality. Another is political polarization. The final one is culture — whether we’re more oriented toward a culture of solidarity versus a culture of individualism. It looks at the last century and then some, roughly 1900 to today. When you track those four metrics over this period, they follow the exact same trajectory. For each individual metric, the century-long trends are widely known. But Bob discovered that what scholars had largely thought of as independent phenomena are actually all part of the same century-long meta-trend — a truly striking finding.
In the early 1900s, we were a very unequal, polarized, disconnected, and narcissistic America. Over time, that turned a corner dramatically — into a multifaceted upswing, where all of those measures started moving in a positive direction for six to seven decades. Then, remarkably, in roughly the same five-year period, all of those disparate metrics turned and went the other direction. All that progress we saw over the first two-thirds of the century was reversed, landing us today in a situation remarkably similar to the one in which Americans were living in the late 1800s or early 1900s; historians call it the Gilded Age.
There are different ways you can interpret that upswing/ downturn story. One is to look at the downturn and say, “We’ve had this fall from grace. We need to make America great again. Let’s turn back the clock and go back to this mid-century America that was so wonderful.” A lot of people, particularly of the generation who lived through that period, have been putting forward that narrative. To a certain extent, that narrative culminated in sort of an ugly way with Trump’s MAGA movement.
“If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?”
That’s not really the story Bob or I wanted to tell about these trends. Much more powerful was to ask: “If we’ve been in a situation that is, by hard data, measurably identical to the one that we’re living in today — a multifaceted, deep crisis, in all sorts of areas of our society — if we’ve been here before, but we pulled up and out of it, what lessons can we learn from that period that was a downturn that turned into an upswing?” That becomes a story of when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era and set us on this upward course that lasted decades. The book looks at the Progressive Era as an instructive period where we can gain inspiration, ideas, and lessons about what to do and what not to do to bring about another upswing.
ECONOMIC, POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL TRENDS, 1895–2015. Through the early 1960s, all four metrics swing upward: toward equality, bipartisanship, and a greater sense of the common good. The question: How do we move the metrics in that direction again? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
I-We-I and the origins of the Peace Corps
We needed a bit of a shorthand to describe this curve — an inverted U curve: Things were bad, then they went up and got better, then they got bad again. Bob was looking for a way to track cultural trends over time — culture is a notoriously difficult thing to measure statistically — and he discovered Ngram, a database of digitized books in the English language that Google has put together. You can put in different words to track their frequency of use over time. If you put in the word “the” over this 125-year period, it would be a flat line. The incidence of the use of “the” has not changed, which makes sense. However, more culturally tied words are used more or less frequently over time, which gives us a clue about what our culture was more or less focused on during different time periods.
When we track the ratio of the first-person pronoun versus the plural pronoun — “I” and “we” — the curve looks exactly like the curve for economic inequality and polarization. Society was very “I” focused; then “we” as a pronoun became much more common during those first two-thirds of the 20th century. Then it flipped at almost the same time as all of these other curves did, to where “I” became a much more common pronoun. We’re talking about pronouns in all kinds of books, not just academic books: gardening books, cooking books, books about traveling. Mainstream culture books. It’s shocking that it really does look like that, I-we-I.
One interesting point about that moment when the Peace Corps was founded: When we look back to the ’60s we can see two more or less simultaneous phenomena. One was very communalistic, very “we” — the founding of the Peace Corps and the Great Society programs, for example. Then there’s the countercultural movement, which was much more focused on personal rights and freedoms. What’s fascinating about the historical narrative underneath the statistical findings of The Upswing is that you see clearly in the ’60s this moment when the “we” gives way to the “I.”
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way … like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of. However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing.
When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” we often think it was like reveille for a new era. People at the time really felt it that way. Bob Putnam was physically present at that speech and says he felt it zing throughout his entire body — like this was a call for the new and greater heights of “we” that America could move toward, including a more global “we,” which the Peace Corps is part of.
However, in retrospect, what felt like reveille for a new era actually ended up being more like “Taps” sounding for an era that was closing. We went into the ’60s with all of this energy moving toward “we,” but then there were a number of things that turned that energy into a downward trend toward “I” — such that in the 1970s, you get the “Me” Decade, as Tom Wolfe famously called it, on the heels of this president calling not only for a greater sense of “we” in the sense of civil rights, but also that global sense of what kind of influence America could have in a world that was becoming increasingly connected.
In some ways, that was the heyday of something that is now lost. But that heyday was itself the culmination of something that had been building for 60 to 70 years. Often it’s that first piece of the century that we miss. We don’t realize that America wasn’t always that “we”-focused. Quite the contrary. It took quite a while for us to build up to that apogee in American thinking that spawned things like the Peace Corps.
Only the strong survive.
How did an idea like the Peace Corps get into the atmosphere? What were the decades of work and change, and thinking — and change in language — that got us to that point? That story, again, begins back in the Gilded Age — a time, culturally speaking, that was characterized by social Darwinism. Darwin had articulated a theory about the laws that govern the natural world. Much to his chagrin, people in the social sphere began to take those ideas and say, “Survival of the fittest — this is a great way to organize society.” Essentially, society is one giant competition, there are winners and losers, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s the philosophy that spawned the robber barons and horribly exploitative situations that so many Americans — particularly immigrants and women — found themselves in during the Industrial Revolution.
Onto that scene came reformers who began to question the morality of that as an organizing principle. Jane Addams was one moral voice saying, “Something is not right about the exploitative way that we have organized our society. It’s a betrayal of our founding ideals as Americans. It’s also a betrayal of Christian ideals.”
So we began to ask whether we were really being called upon to take care of our most vulnerable, and not just work for the good of the self. That cultural transformation began to take hold. Moral outrage became the reigning narrative; people began to translate outrage into action. It wasn’t just outrage where we wanted to identify all the bad apples and expel them from society. Jane Addams realized that she had become complicit in systems that were exploitative, so she began to work in innovative ways — at the level of the neighborhood, at the level of the tenement — to try and create change. She was working at the level of individual lives, individual families, trying to help them get out of poverty and exploitative employment relationships. Ultimately, her vision became one of changing policies so that it would become illegal for these things to take place, and more social safety nets would be in place.
A lot of the reformers of the Progressive Era created narratives that we describe as “we” narratives. Over time, these really took hold: in policy, politics, economically, culturally, and socially. But there were also ways these didn’t take hold, particularly around issues of race. The “we” that was being built by Progressives was a very racialized “we.” But at the same time, Black Americans were themselves engaged in a very deep effort to build their own “we,” especially as they moved out of the South during the Great Migration — to build a deeply enmeshed society of mutual aid and care that propelled them forward despite the inequality and exclusion that persisted during the 20th century.
Looking back to this period, you might think, “This was this horribly dark moment. How could people have let it get this bad?” But look around; then you say, “Oh no, this same thing is happening again today.” During the Texas power crisis earlier this year, the mayor of one city literally said to his constituents that they were on their own, that “only the strong will survive.” This is the epitome of the “I” moment we’re living in once again as a nation. As extreme as it sounds to talk about the social Darwinism of the Gilded Age, I think that we are living through an absolute and very clear revival of that cultural mindset today.
COMMUNITY VS. INDIVIDUALISM IN AMERICA, 1890–2017. “Ask not what your country can do for you.” Were those words spoken by JFK in 1961 reveille for a new era — or “Taps” for one that was ending? Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Ends and means
Not only was there a cultural self-centeredness in the Gilded Age, but there was also a deep sense of isolation and social fragmentation. So Progressives started all of these association-building initiatives to invent new ways of bringing people together. Paul Harris, founder of the Rotary Club, had moved from a small town in the Northeast to Chicago, and described himself as feeling desperately lonely as a result. So he invited a few other professionals to start getting together for lunch to create community. For him, that was an end — to satisfy his own need for connection.
But over time, a lot of reformers begin to realize that there’s real power in associations. They could do more things together than they could do alone. And as they were able to bring people together from disparate worldviews or across class lines, they built bridges and started weaving a stronger social fabric.
That same phenomenon goes on with the Peace Corps: Association is an end, in the sense of wanting to go out and meet people in another culture, have an experience that’s connected. It becomes a means because Volunteers are able to take what they learn, and those relationships, and bring them back to educate people and knit together a more cohesive world. All the research shows the power of social capital as something that’s not only good in and of itself, but also has all these positive externalities that it brings with it: in terms of the health of democracy, the mental and physical health of the people engaging in relationship. That was something that the Progressives discovered that we could look to today and emulate.
We need new ways of bringing people together to solve our problems. We have to center our efforts on that idea of relationship and connection once again.
What causes the shift?
Can we identify the main culprit behind what’s driving these massive — positive or negative — shifts? That’s the million-dollar question — both in the sense of what caused the upswing and what caused the downturn. But that’s hard to do because we’re looking at scores of data sets. It’s a little bit like looking at a flock of birds in flight: They’re all going one direction, then suddenly they change to a different direction. Which one turned first? Which was the leading edge of that change?
It’s a little easier to do with the upturn. It’s harder with the downturn. However, we do know that economics was a lagging indicator; we didn’t fix the economic inequality first. We actually fixed it last, which is very counterintuitive, particularly to people on the Left; there’s a sense that if we could just fix inequality, then we would love each other again. I think there’s a little of that mindset even in the Peace Corps: If we could just help improve the material lot of people in the developing world, that would bring all these other good things. Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
Of course material well-being is critically important, but what’s fascinating is, the other stuff shifted first — particularly culture, both in the upswing and in the downturn.
During the upswing, those first two-thirds of the 20th century, we were not very careful in creating a “we” that was welcoming to all different kinds of Americans. It was a “we” that was heavily white, male, upper middle class. And there was a lot of pressure to conform to that ideal. So in the 1950s — a decade before you see this big pivot — you see cultural harbingers, people saying, “I don’t like this conformity that’s coming along with intensifying community.” You see Rebel Without a Cause, The Catcher in the Rye, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit — cultural narratives saying there’s a cost to this hyper “we” mentality. That counter-pressure culminated in a kind of “be yourself, don’t worry about any commitments.” The response to hyper-communitarianism became hyper-individualism.
Another harbinger that we can’t fail to mention is race. This highly racialized “we” being built during the first two-thirds of the 20th century essentially meant that the upswing, as great as it was for creating positive change, had knit into it the seeds of its own demise — in the sense that the Progressives were largely racist. They created great programs to address inequality, poverty, and polarization. But they did so while kicking the racial question down the road. As a result, we’ve never really done the work of racial reconciliation. We sort of skipped over that. The New Deal very clearly sacrificed the needs of people of color in the name of progress.
At the peak of this moment — the 1960s, when the Peace Corps was founded and we passed the civil rights legislation — America was ready. Vast majorities of Americans supported the Civil Rights Acts. But the minute racial equality became about more than just laws and regulations, when it became about desegregating neighborhoods and schools, sharing resources with people whom we didn’t have to share them with before, there was a huge white backlash: a very clear “not in my backyard” phenomenon, which to me indicates that we didn’t do the hard work underneath what we were doing legally and politically. It’s hard to say whether the broader societal turn toward “I” precipitated the white backlash, or whether the white backlash fueled the broader turn toward “I.” They were certainly intertwined. It became possible for politicians to exploit white backlash to create a subtly racialized politics with a hyper-individualistic focus. Politicians began to tell Americans it was okay to just look out for number one.
And this translated into an economic mindset that it’s a zero-sum game between growth and equality: You can have equality or you can have growth, but you can’t have both. But look at the first two-thirds of the 20th century: We had high growth and growing equality. Look at material equality between the races and chart that as a ratio: Black Americans were actually doing better at a faster rate than white Americans during this period of high growth. So that idea that you can’t grow the pie and share the pie at the same time is simply false. The opposite was true during 60-odd years of the upswing.
FROM “I” TO “WE” TO “I” IN AMERICAN BOOKS, 1875–2008. First-person pronouns over the years, as tracked through Ngram. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
If we needed a crisis to unify us, seems like that’s here.
One of the ways in which the 20th century often gets misinterpreted is the idea that we didn’t come together as a nation until the Great Depression and World War II. The Upswing provides a data-based story that shows quite clearly that America’s move toward solidarity did not begin with the Great Depression. It didn’t begin with the New Deal. Or World War II. It began decades earlier, and continued for decades after those acute crises.
What you actually see in the data is a dip, a pause in progress toward “we” during the Roaring Twenties and the 1930s. Then we pull ourselves back into it. Do we need a Great Depression crisis to motivate us? No, we don’t. The Progressives didn’t need it. The crises that motivated them were personal: moral moments of watching terrible things happen to their fellow Americans and feeling appalled at the realization that they had been a part of the systems that made them happen.
That being said, when you look at the American Recovery Plan passed in the spring — that wouldn’t have been possible without the pandemic. The question is whether it’s durable. Many of the policies put in place are historic in addressing the opportunity gap across lines of class and race. But many of those things are set to expire within years. And so the true test is going to be, does that policy change actually represent the manifestation of an underlying cultural and moral change? Or does that policy change represent just a panic in response to this economic crisis? Because 2008 was its own crisis. Did it prompt a new upswing? Absolutely not. We haven’t learned. And so I think a lot of the learning has to happen in our hearts, has to happen in our own sense of morality, and in our own sense of whether we really believe we’re all in this together, or whether that’s just a nice catchphrase that gets us through the crisis and back to business as usual.
INCOME EQUALITY IN THE UNITED STATES, 1913–2014. An important and clearly measurable indicator. But research for The Upswing shows it followed, not led, the other metrics. Courtesy Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett
Digital connections are not enough.
One of the reasons that I was motivated to stay in the Middle East after finishing my Peace Corps service, and to continue to build youth programming, was because we were in Jordan when the Arab Spring unfolded. The Arab Spring is a quintessential example of using Twitter to form a modern social movement — but one that’s extremely fragile. There was no organizing underneath to create something new to replace what was torn down. So in many countries, you have a resurgence of autocracy or militarization. That does hark back to: “What are the lessons from the upswing? How do we do it again today?” The biggest thing is that we can’t skip over the power of face-to-face relationship building and grassroots solution building. What I always used to say when I taught youth in Jordan was that we don’t need more revolutionaries, we need more solutionaries. That was what the American Progressives who drove the upswing believed.
We live in a moment where, particularly because of the influence of technology — specifically social media — we have this idea that new ideas for society can scale extremely fast. But unfortunately that skips over the hard work of building local capacity, connections, and relationships — social capital. Look at the Progressive Era: People didn’t just go out into the street and demand that the robber barons be stripped of their posts at these exploitive companies. They did the work of building support for regulations that would hold exploitation in check: trust-busting and consumer protection agencies. And they also put in place a new infrastructure for an economy that had a different underlying moral logic: publicly owned utilities and unionized workplaces and a progressive income tax.
My co-author and I often get asked: “Are we in the upswing yet? When can we expect the upswing to happen?” The hard answer to that is: It depends on us. If we think we’re going to engineer another upswing just by voicing outrage on social media, we’re wrong. We have to use our agency as citizens to build.
One of my heroines is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was influenced by the work of people like Jane Addams. Day taught that we need to build a new society within the shell of the old. That’s very inspiring as a method. Instead of focusing our energy on tearing down the old, we need to focus on building up the new — ready to step in when the old eats itself alive. It’s certainly possible that our hyper-individualism and eroding social trust will create a collapse of institutions. We’ve seen some of that with the pandemic. What’s going to rise up to replace those defunct institutions? Answering that question with action is where the work of the upswing really happens.
The pandemic has taught us that digital connections are not enough — for either our own human needs or the needs of society. For a long time, we’ve allowed ourselves to believe the fiction that it was okay that we were letting our social fabric fall apart in the face-to-face world, because there was this other online world that was sort of going to magically replace that. But then due to the pandemic we all had to do Zoom Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we realized we need other people in the flesh, not just on a screen. It actually gives me hope that we’re starting to realize it is time to reinvest in face-to-face connection.
There are a lot of really good social innovators out there working to bring people together in physical spaces to work together on projects. That’s the other piece of this in the Peace Corps: One thing you learn quickly as a Volunteer is that the best way to build bridges is co-creating, working together on a project that everyone cares about. Folks who are pursuing initiatives like that in the United States give me a lot of hope.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer.
Shaylyn Romney Garrett. Photo courtesy the author
But what keeps me up at night is the fact that there are a lot of countervailing forces working against this positive change. For every good green shoot that we see, there’s a lot of shadow and darkness. I think it happened with the contested election, and on January 6. It keeps happening with debates about masks and vaccines.
Whether things tip or not is really about critical mass. How do you get all the people who are sitting on the sidelines to get in there and work toward pushing us back toward the light? I think that was the story of the Progressive Era. People always ask, “What was the moment that the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era?” There was no clear historical moment. There were all these forces working for good and all these countervailing forces working to tear that down. Ultimately the good won out because people put in enough energy to push it up and over.
I am often asked what would be my policy prescription for the administration that would help move us toward an upswing. National service is my absolute go-to answer. As both a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a proponent of learning the lessons of history, I am deeply supportive of the idea that creating incentives and opportunities for millions of young people to work together for the good of our nation should be a top priority. This could help us address not only economic inequality, but also polarization, cultural narcissism, and social fragmentation — all the aspects of our current multifaceted crisis. And I think the Peace Corps in particular has a lot to say about how national service could help Americans turn a corner by rediscovering a sense of solidarity — a “we” — as well as find purpose and a sense of American identity that could lead us in a new direction.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.
READ MORE: “A Life-Altering Detour” — Shaylyn Romney Garrett tells the story of how serving in the Peace Corps led her to work on a national education project in Jordan.
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. see more
The program you may not know about that inspired JFK. And that has been sending U.S. volunteers abroad since 1958.
By Reverend Dr. Jonathan Weaver
The man who was the visionary behind Crossroads Africa, Dr. James Robinson, in many ways has not gotten the recognition he deserves. Dr. Robinson first traveled to Africa in 1954 on behalf of the Presbyterian Foreign Missions Board and saw sweeping changes taking place throughout the continent. He went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to several giants in African history: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who later served as the first president of Nigeria; and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who led the Gold Coast to independence from Great Britain and served as first president and prime minister of Ghana.
After his 1954 trip, Dr. Robinson started talking to students at colleges across the United States. In 1957, talking to students at Occidental College in California, he shared his vision of young people who would engage in experiences with counterparts. The students said, We’re ready to go. Operation Crossroads Africa was established in 1958. Volunteers went to Ghana and Liberia.
Dr. James Robinson, center, envisioned a program of young people “building bridges of friendship to Africa.” Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected, he learned about the work of Operation Crossroads Africa. He also had an opportunity to meet Haskell Ward, who first went to Africa with Operation Crossroads in 1962. Ward went on to serve as a Volunteer with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia 1963–65 and as director of recruitment and selection for Operation Crossroads Africa 1967–69. He later worked for the Ford Foundation and became deputy mayor of New York City.
James Robinson said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it.
What struck me about Dr. Robinson was his passion for wanting to connect people from the United States with the people of Africa. Several things that he said have stayed with me from the time that I served as a volunteer in 1971. He said that the darkest thing about Africa is America’s ignorance of it. Tragically, I believe that most of us would have to agree that statement still has a great deal of relevance today. He also said: While you may leave Africa, Africa will never leave you. Certainly that’s true for those of us who have been Crossroaders — about 13,000 since 1958.
There is no doubt Dr. Robinson had a tremendous influence on the creation of the Peace Corps. In June 1962, President Kennedy hosted the Crossroaders on the South Lawn at the White House. Talking about some of the many difficulties facing emerging nations in Africa — and the greatest concerns among the leaders of a dozen new nations he had met — Kennedy said, “The problems they face today, in every case, they have told me, were far more difficult than the problems they faced in the fight for independence. Now that problem is to maintain that national sovereignty and independence and make it worthwhile, because disillusionment is the second wave that comes after the wave of enthusiasm.” Kennedy paid particular tribute to Crossroads by saying the volunteers in this effort really were “the progenitors of the Peace Corps.”
White House meeting, 1962: Before a gathering of volunteers for Operation Crossroads Africa, James Robinson talks with John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Photo courtesy Operation Crossroads Africa
WHAT CROSSROADS HAS BEEN DOING for a number of years led to the establishment of what I consider to be the most encouraging indication of the desire for service — not only in this country, but all around the world — that we have seen in recent years. Dr. Robinson became an advisor for the Peace Corps. And many other people have been directly influenced by that Crossroads experience.
I’ve spent my life ever since volunteering — now 50 years — very much involved in Africa because of Dr. Robinson. Crossroads is still in existence and working to promote understanding of Africa and the African diaspora. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, no volunteer groups went out last year or this year. My hope and my prayer is that there will be teams going out in 2022. Dr. James A. Robinson transitioned in 1972. But his vision, his legacy, lives on.
These remarks were delivered on September 14, 2021, as part of “Strategies for Increasing African American Inclusion in the Peace Corps and International Careers,” a series of conversations hosted by the Constituency for Africa and sponsored by National Peace Corps Association. They appear in the 2021 Anniversary Edition of WorldView magazine.
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Weaver is pastor of the Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie, Maryland. Reverend Weaver previously served as director of development for Operations Crossroads Africa. He is the founder and president of the Pan African Collective, whose mission is to build bridges of understanding, forge diverse partnerships, and promote economic and social development in Africa and other places.
Some moments that have defined the Peace Corps from 1960 to today see more
Some moments that have defined the Peace Corps from 1960 to today. Plus a year-by-year look at countries where Peace Corps programs began.
Researched by Ellery Pollard, Emi Krishnamurthy, Sarah Steindl, Nathalie Vadnais, and Orrin Luc
At right: the 10th-anniversary Peace Corps stamp, issued in 1972. Image courtesy Peace Corps
As part of the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2021, WorldView magazine has published a series of timelines tracking Peace Corps’ beginnings — and we’ve traced the 25-year history of Peace Corps Response. Explore more here:
Annotation: Changing World | The Globe in 1961, the year the Peace Corps was founded
1961: Towering Task Edition | A look at the year in which the Peace Corps was founded with great aspirations — and the troubled world into which it emerged
Peace Corps Response: Snapshots from the First Quarter Century | In 2021 Peace Corps Response marked a quarter century since its founding. Some moments that have defined it.
“Dove of Peace” by Howard Jessor, on the cover of Foreign Service Journal, December 1963 edition. The publication is literally on press, in November 1963, when news breaks that President John F. Kennedy has been shot in Dallas. Courtesy American Foreign Service Association
In Greensboro, North Carolina, four Black college students sit down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and are denied service. A six-month protest results in desegregation of the lunch counter by summer.
Nations gaining independence from Britain and France include Nigeria, Cameroon, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Madagascar, Benin, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Togo, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and Mauritania.
“How many of you are willing?” JFK’s campaign speech at the University of Michigan presents the idea of the Peace Corps.
In a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, John F. Kennedy uses the term “Peace Corps” and calls for revitalizing U.S. global engagement.
JFK at the Cow Palace. Photo courtesy OpenSFHistory.org
John F. Kennedy inaugurated as president. He declares, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
Sargent Shriver outlines steps to forming the Peace Corps in a memo to JFK. Central are ideas put forth in “The Towering Task,” a memo by William Josephson and Warren Wiggins.
Executive Order 10924 establishes the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver is appointed its first director on March 4.
Bay of Pigs invasion
First Peace Corps Volunteers begin training for Colombia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Ghana.
Amnesty International founded in the United Kingdom.
Berlin Wall erected overnight.
Sargent Shriver leads the first groups of Peace Corps Volunteers to the Rose Garden for a send-off by President Kennedy.
The first group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrives at Accra Airport in Ghana.
Peace Corps Act signed into law by President Kennedy, creating the Peace Corps as an independent agency with a mission to “promote world peace and friendship.”
Newsweek magazine cover: “Peace Corps in Action: Ira Gwin”
In Colombia, a plane crash in the jungle kills more than 30 people — including Larry Radley and David Crozier, the first Peace Corps Volunteers to die during service.
There are 2,816 Volunteers in the field.
Nations gaining independence from Britain, France, and Belgium: Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda
Cuban Missile Crisis
Sargent Shriver and the Peace Corps appear on the cover of Time.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers “I Have a Dream” speech.
President Kennedy assassinated in Dallas.
Kenya gains independence from Great Britain.
In State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson announces a “War on Poverty” in the U.S.
Mr. Ed the talking horse wants to join the Peace Corps.
Freedom Summer voter registration drive
While still directing the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver begins serving as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity. Establishes Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, Foster Grandparents, and Legal Services for the Poor.
Malcolm X assassinated in New York.
The Selma to Montgomery march for civil rights begins — is met with brutal force by police.
LBJ signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah overthrown by a military coup.
Sargent Shriver steps down as Peace Corps director. LBJ appoints Jack Vaughn director.
15,000+ Peace Corps Volunteers are serving — the highest number yet. That record still holds.
Guyana, Botswana, and Lesotho gain independence from Great Britain.
Lillian Carter, mother of future president Jimmy Carter, departs for Peace Corps service at the age of 68 as a public health Volunteer in India.
“Volunteers to America” Peace Corps initiative brings people from other countries — including Argentina, Ghana, Nepal, the Philippines, Iran, and Israel — to serve in impoverished areas in the United States. The program lasts until 1971, when it is defunded by Congress.
Tet Offensive begins in Vietnam.
Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis.
Robert F. Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles.
Soviet Union leads Warsaw Pact troops in an invasion of Czechoslovakia to crack down on reformist trends and end the “Prague Spring.”
Joseph Blatchford appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
June 28–July 3
Apollo 11 moon landing
Now we are ten: Released in 1972, this poster by artist Patrick Koeller wins a competition for a design marking the first decade of the Peace Corps. Courtesy West Michigan Graphic Design Archives
First Earth Day
President Nixon orders U.S. ground troops to invade Cambodia.
Members of Ohio National Guard fire into crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University; four are killed, nine wounded.
Twelve members of a group calling themselves the Committee of Returned Volunteers enter the fourth-floor offices of the Peace Corps and seal off a wing. They occupy offices for several days and hang a Viet Cong flag through the window.
Greenpeace founded in Canada.
The Pentagon Papers, a study by the U.S. Department of Defense about the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, are published in The New York Times.
Executive Order 11603: President Nixon folds the Peace Corps into a new federal volunteer agency, ACTION. Kevin O’Donnell is appointed Peace Corps director.
The first Peace Corps stamp is issued in the U.S.
Police arrest burglars in the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C. Evidence will link the break-in to Nixon’s reelection campaign.
Donald Hess appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
U.S. Supreme Court issues 7–2 decision in Roe v. Wade, ruling that states cannot completely bar a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.
Nick Craw appointed Peace Corps director by President Nixon.
Endangered Species Act signed into law.
President Nixon resigns.
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie deposed following a Marxist military coup.
First Returned Peace Corps Volunteers elected to U.S. House of Representatives: Christopher Dodd of Connecticut (Dominican Republic 1966–68) and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts (Ethiopia 1962–64).
John Dellenback appointed Peace Corps director by President Ford.
Saigon falls to communist troops from North Vietnam. Mozambique and Comoros gain independence from Portugal and France.
The Concorde takes flight — first supersonic commercial air travel.
The United States celebrates its bicentennial.
Apple II computer, Commodore PET, and Radio Shack TRS-80 introduced, beginning the personal computer craze.
South African activist Steve Biko dies after suffering a massive head injury in police custody.
Carolyn Robertson Payton appointed Peace Corps director by President Carter. She is the first woman and first Black American to serve in that role.
Iranian Revolution begins. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran will be stormed in November 1979.
Rainbow (Gay Pride) flag created by Gilbert Baker.
Peace Corps closes its post in Afghanistan. In December, Soviet troops invade the country.
National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (NCRPCV) founded. It will evolve into National Peace Corps Association.
Richard F. Celeste appointed Peace Corps director by President Carter.
Executive Order 12137: President Carter grants the Peace Corps full autonomy.
The dove at 25: In 1987, this Peace Corps logo adorns a budget presentation to Congress. Volunteers partner with communities to address problems that include “hunger and malnutrition, infant mortality, poverty, illiteracy and limited educational opportunities, inadequate health care, and declining natural resources.” Image courtesy Peace Corps
World Health Assembly declares that smallpox has been eradicated from the planet.
As Peace Corps marks its 20th anniversary, the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers hosts the first national Peace Corps conference in Washington, D.C.
Loret Miller Ruppe appointed Peace Corps director by President Reagan. She serves eight years, more than any other director before or since.
First case of AIDS identified. In U.S. it is initially called “gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).”
Belize gains independence from Great Britain.
Legislation grants Peace Corps its independence as an agency.
Mexico tells the U.S. it can no longer service its $80 billion debt. Brazil, Argentina, and virtually every other country in Latin America is unable to pay back loans, triggering a regional economic crisis.
The Internet is born when the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) adopts the standard TCP/IP protocol of the World Wide Web.
Peace Corps establishes the Small Project Assistance (SPA) program.
Apple Computer introduces the Macintosh.
In Bhopal, India, 30 tons of methylisocyanate, an industrial gas used to make pesticide, are released at a Union Carbide plant, killing some 15,000 people.
Loret Miller Ruppe signs a letter of agreement establishing the Coverdell Fellows Program with founder Dr. Beryl Levinger (Colombia 1967–69).
For the first time in Peace Corps history, more women than men begin service as Volunteers.
Letter home: In 1986, Tuvalu commemorates the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. Volunteers began serving in the Pacific island nation in 1977. Courtesy PeaceCorpsOnline.org
Lillian Carter Award established to honor those over the age of 50 who have served and advanced the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. Lillian’s son, President Jimmy Carter, calls the award “a wonderful celebration of what is best about the Peace Corps — offering up some of America’s best to the world, and bringing the world home to other Americans.”
Reactor 4 at Chernobyl explodes in Ukrainian S.S.R. — worst nuclear disaster ever in terms of casualties and cost.
Wole Soyinka of Nigeria becomes the first African to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
The number of Peace Corps Volunteers serving drops to new low: 5,219. Government mistrust and aftermath of the Vietnam War take their toll.
The Peace Corps and its 120,000 current and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are honored with the Beyond War Award for their commitment to nonviolence.
Black Monday on the U.S. stock market. Dow plummets 508 points, more than 22 percent.
Barbara Jo White (Dominican Republic 1987–89) creates the World Map Project, which has been replicated by Peace Corps Volunteers in countries around the world.
Coffee bearing the Fair Trade label is introduced.
Paul D. Coverdell appointed Peace Corps director by President George H.W. Bush.
Coverdell establishes World Wise Schools program (WWS) to connect American educators in classrooms with Peace Corps Volunteers.
Berlin Wall falls. On November 17, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia leads to end of communism there. That same date, in El Salvador, a military hit squad murders six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter.
Civil war begins in Liberia, pitting Charles M. Taylor against former subordinate Prince Johnson. Fighting lasts until 1996.
You’ve got mail: In 1993, Fiji celebrates the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in communities there. Courtesy David Downes
Poland’s ruling communist party votes to dissolve. In ensuing elections, Lech Wałęsa, leader of the Solidarity Movement and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, wins the presidency.
Nelson Mandela freed from prison in South Africa after 27 years.
First Peace Corps Volunteers begin serving in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.
Iraq invades Kuwait.
LGBT RPCV formed in Washington, D.C.
First Gulf War begins, with a U.S.-led coalition driving invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
First website appears on World Wide Web.
Elaine Chao appointed Peace Corps director by President George H.W. Bush.
Soviet Union dissolves.
Former Peace Corps medical officer Mae Jemison travels into space on Shuttle Endeavor. She is first Black American woman in space.
Terrorists detonate a truck bomb beneath the World Trade Center, killing 6, wounding more than 100, and causing more than 50,000 people to evacuate.
Following a referendum, Eritrea breaks away from Ethiopia to become an independent nation.
AmeriCorps established by the National and Community Service Trust Act, creating a “domestic Peace Corps.”
Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 1963–65) sworn in as Peace Corps director. She is the first Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to hold the post.
European Union becomes reality.
A new constitution takes effect in South Africa, officially ending the apartheid system.
Domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols park a truck bomb beneath the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At least 168 people are killed in the explosion, including 19 children in a childcare center located in the building.
Peace Corps Volunteers in Romania create Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).
Mark D. Gearan appointed Peace Corps director by President Clinton.
Peace Corps sends three Volunteers to Antigua to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Luis — a step toward creation of Crisis Corps.
Crisis Corps officially launched at a Rose Garden ceremony to send Returned Peace Corps Volunteers on short-term, high-impact assignments.
Scientists in Scotland clone Dolly the Sheep — the first cloning of a mammal.
Kofi A. Annan becomes Secretary General of the U.N. He is the first sub-Saharan African to hold the post.
First cohort of Peace Corps Volunteers arrives in South Africa.
In Menlo Park, California, grad students Larry Page and Sergey Brin launch search engine Google.
NATO airstrikes begin against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, aimed at halting actions by Slobodan Milošević’s government against ethnic Albanians, and forcing it to withdraw from Kosovo.
First commercial camera phone introduced.
Mark L. Schneider (El Salvador 1966–68) appointed Peace Corps director by President Clinton.
“A Common Mission: Peace Corps and Foreign Service” is the theme of the October 2008 edition of Foreign Service Journal, with cover illustration by Philippe Béha /i2iart.com. Courtesy American Foreign Service Association
International Space Station opens.
It is estimated that some 36 million people worldwide are infected with the HIV virus.
High Atlas Foundation established in Morocco by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to further sustainable development.
Terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Peace Corps recruiting office in Building 6 of WTC is destroyed when the Twin Towers collapse. Volunteers will be evacuated from Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
A U.S.-led coalition begins a bombing campaign against Afghanistan and later begins a ground offensive.
Gaddi H. Vasquez appointed Peace Corps director by President George W. Bush. He is the first Hispanic American to serve as director.
The Peace Corps and National Peace Corps Association are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
U.S. invades Iraq; second Gulf War begins.
Sequence mapping of the human genome is completed.
The Peace Corps commits an additional 1,000 Volunteers to fight HIV/AIDS.
The Museum of the Peace Corps Experience project is introduced at the National Peace Corps Association Group Leaders annual meeting in Portland, Oregon.
Disputed parliamentary elections in nation of Georgia lead to the Rose Revolution.
Disputed presidential elections in Ukraine lead to the Orange Revolution.
A massive earthquake under the Indian Ocean triggers a tsunami, killing more than 200,000. Peace Corps Response Volunteers assist with relief efforts in several nations.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath, Peace Corps Response Volunteers are deployed domestically for the first time to assist with relief efforts.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf becomes the first African woman to lead an African nation when she is elected president of Liberia.
Atlas Corps founded to bring individuals on service fellowships to the U.S., earning reputation as a “reverse Peace Corps.”
The International Astronomical Union demotes Pluto to the status of dwarf planet.
Ronald A. Tschetter (India 1966–68) sworn in as Peace Corps director.
Apple debuts the iPhone.
Peace Corps Prep program inaugurated at select U.S. colleges.
Crisis Corps is renamed Peace Corps Response — a name that better captures the broad range of assignments Volunteers are undertaking.
Peace Corps returns to Liberia after an absence of nearly two decades.
Barack Obama inaugurated president. National Peace Corps Association leads returned Volunteers in the inaugural parade.
After leaving Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Peace Corps Volunteers return to begin working in secondary education and HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
Kate Puzey, a Volunteer in Benin, is murdered after reporting the sexual abuse of girls within her community by a Peace Corps staff member.
Joseph Acaba (Dominican Republic 1994–96) becomes first returned Volunteer to serve as a NASA astronaut, making his first trip to space aboard Shuttle Discovery.
Aaron S. Williams (Dominican Republic 1967–70) sworn in as Peace Corps director.
Fiftieth anniversary project, launched thanks to a letter from Congressman John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966–68) to Librarian of Congress James Billington. Among those thanked: Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia 1962–64) of Peace Corps Writers. Courtesy Library of Congress
Total number of Peace Corps Volunteers who have served surpasses 200,000.
National Peace Corps Association introduces new logo.
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hits Haiti, killing some 200,000.
Explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil drilling rig kills 11 people and spills more than 3 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.
Peace Corps HQ begins presenting the Franklin H. Williams Award, named for an early agency leader. Established by the New York recruiting office in 1999, the award recognizes ethnically diverse returned Volunteers committed to promoting understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. The agency reopens programs in Colombia, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone.
ABC news program “20/20” airs “Peace Corps: A Trust Betrayed,” telling the story of Kate Puzey.
Peace Corps releases 50th-anniversary commemorative print by artist Shepard Fairey.
President Obama signs the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act into law.
CorpsAfrica is launched by RPCV Liz Fanning to give young Africans the opportunity to work with communities in a Peace Corps–style program.
Egypt’s first competitive presidential election. Mohamed Morsi wins. After months of protests, he is overthrown in a coup in July 2013.
RPCV and U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens killed in attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Volunteer Nick Castle dies in China after failing to receive adequate medical care; his parents call for Peace Corps reform and begin advocacy work that continues to this day.
Peace Corps approves assignments for same-sex partners.
Nelson Mandela dies.
Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. Russia seizes Crimea and then backs separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet (Western Samoa 1982–83) appointed Peace Corps director by President Obama.
Ebola sweeps across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, eventually killing 11,000 people. Peace Corps evacuates Volunteers in August. Peace Corps staff in Guinea step up to play an instrumental role in contact tracing and training.
Malala Yousafzai wins Nobel Peace Prize.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama announce Let Girls Learn, an initiative to expand access to education for girls around the world. Peace Corps begins a close collaboration with the First Lady to address barriers to education for girls.
U.S. Supreme Court rules same-sex marriage is legal.
Peace Corps receives 23,000 applications during the fiscal year, breaking 40-year record.
Terror attacks in Paris kill 130, wound 494. ISIS claims responsibility.
Peace Corps logo gets a makeover, alongside a refreshed brand platform and new website.
#MeToo movement gains prominence after widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein.
Volunteer Bernice Heiderman, serving in Comoros, dies due to undiagnosed malaria. As her story is told, it raises hard questions about how Volunteer illness is handled during service.
Dr. Josephine (Jody) K. Olsen (Tunisia 1966–68) is sworn in as Peace Corps director.
President Trump signs the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act into law. Key provisions: strengthening criteria for hiring overseas medical officers, and supporting Volunteers victimized by sexual assault or other forms of violence.
National Peace Corps Association marks its 40th anniversary.
“A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps” documentary premieres at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Peace Corps announces the “graduation” of the program in China.
World Health Organization declares COVID-19 pandemic.
In an unprecedented decision, all Peace Corps Volunteers are evacuated from around the world because of COVID-19.
Killing of George Floyd sparks national and then global protests against racial injustice.
Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen announces Peace Corps program to launch in Viet Nam in 2022.
National Peace Corps Association hosts town halls and ideas summit as part of Peace Corps Connect to the Future. This results in a report on how to reimagine, retool, and reshape the Peace Corps for a changed world.
Peace Corps launches Virtual Service Pilot program for evacuated Volunteers to continue working with countries where they were serving.
A violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol attempts to stop the certification of the presidential election.
Carol Spahn (Romania 1994–96) assumes responsibilities as acting director of the Peace Corps.
Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 introduced by Rep. John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966–68). It’s the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades.
Peace Corps deploys Response Volunteers with FEMA at community vaccination centers to fight COVID-19 — only the second time they have served domestically. Staff who continue to serve at posts around the world also partner in efforts to fight COVID-19.
Last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, after two decades of fighting.
NPCA hosts 60th-anniversary Peace Corps Connect. The theme: “Mobilizing for a Lifetime of Service and Impact.”
Volunteers are invited to return to service in five countries.
Peace Corps Place, new headquarters for National Peace Corps Association, to open in Truxton Circle neighborhood in Washington, D.C., providing a home for the Peace Corps community with a café and event space.
PEACE CORPS BEGINNINGS: COUNTRY BY COUNTRY
And year by year — beginning in August 1961, and looking toward plans in 2022.
1961 | Chile, Colombia, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, St. Lucia, Tanganyika (now Tanzania)
1962 | Afghanistan, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Jamaica, Liberia, Malaysia, Nepal, Niger, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela
1963 | Costa Rica, Gabon, Guatemala, Guinea, Indonesia, Malawi, Morocco, Panama, Uruguay
1964 | Kenya, Uganda
1966 | Botswana, Chad, Grenada, Guyana, Republic of Korea, Libya, Federated States of Micronesia and Republic of Palau, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis
1967 | Antigua and Barbuda, Burkina Faso, Dominica, The Gambia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Samoa, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tonga
1968 | Barbados, Benin, Fiji, Nicaragua
1969 | Mauritius, Swaziland (now Eswatini)
1970 | Malta, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo)
1971 | Mali, Solomon Islands
1972 | Central African Republic (CAR)
1973 | Oman, Yemen
1974 | Bahrain, Kiribati, Montserrat, Seychelles
1975 | Rwanda
1977 | Tuvalu
1980 | Anguilla, Turks and Caicos
1981 | Papua New Guinea
1982 | Cook Islands, Haiti
1983 | Burundi
1984 | Sudan
1986 | Marshall Islands
1988 | Cape Verde, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau
1990 | Czechoslovakia (now Czechia and Slovakia), Hungary, Namibia, Poland, São Tomé and Príncipe, Vanuatu
1991 | Bulgaria, Republic of the Congo, Mongolia, Romania, Zimbabwe
1992 | Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan
1993 | China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Madagascar, Moldova, Turkmenistan
1994 | Niue, Zambia
1995 | Eritrea, Suriname
1996 | Macedonia (now North Macedonia)
1997 | Jordan, South Africa
1998 | Bangladesh, Mozambique
2000 | Bosnia and Herzegovina
2001 | Georgia
2002 | Timor-Leste
2003 | Azerbaijan
2004 | Mexico
2007 | Cambodia
2014 | Kosovo
2016 | Myanmar
2020 | Montenegro
2022 | Viet Nam
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 12, 2022 at 8:45 a.m. to correct spelling.
Comments or suggestions? Write us. | Story updated December 29, 2021 at 5:10 PM.
Peace Corps beginnings — with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote see more
When President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act into law, it permanently established the Peace Corps as an independent agency. But forging the legislation and getting it through Congress didn’t happen on their own. We take a look at those beginnings and share some stories few have heard. And we look ahead to what the Peace Corps must become.
A conversation with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote
The legislation that established the Peace Corps on a permanent basis, the Peace Corps Act, was signed by President John F. Kennedy in an Oval Office ceremony at 9:45 a.m. on September 22, 1961. On the day JFK signed the act, three groups of Volunteers were already in their countries of service: Colombia, Ghana, and St. Lucia.
To mark the 60th anniversary of the signing, National Peace Corps Association hosted a conversation with two key figures in the establishment of the Peace Corps — and one Volunteer who was evacuated in 2020, and whose commitment to the ideas and ideals of the organization points to the Peace Corps of the future. The conversation was moderated by Joe Kennedy III — JFK’s great-nephew and himself a returned Volunteer who, while he served in Congress, championed the creation of the Peace Corps Commemorative, which will establish a place in the heart of the nation’s capital to symbolize what the Peace Corps represents.
Here are edited excerpts. You can also listen to the conversation on Spotify.
Co-architect of the Peace Corps and Founding Counsel for the agency
Photo by Rowland Scherman
Journalist and first Associate Director of the Peace Corps
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto / LBJ Library
Joe Kennedy III
Former Congressman and Peace Corps Volunteer in Dominican Republic 2004–06
Photo courtesy Joe Kennedy III
Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin 2018–20; Donald Payne Fellow at Georgetown University
Photo courtesy Marieme Foote
“The Towering Task”
Joe Kennedy III: Walk us through those early days — taking an idea, translating that into legislation, getting members of Congress around it.
Bill Josephson: My colleague Warren W. Wiggins said that we needed to make an impact with this administration. The Peace Corps was what everyone asked us for our opinion about. The result was the writing over Christmas and New Year’s of 1960–61 the memo “The Towering Task,” and the distribution of it to as many people as we could find who would read it, including Harris Wofford. Harris describes walking into Sargent Shriver’s office, carrying “The Towering Task” and saying to Sarge this is something he ought to read — only to find Sarge was already reading it.
Joe Kennedy III: There’s a story I’ve heard about getting the bill signed into law that involves you and a number of senators in a cloakroom, some chicken scratch on a piece of paper, a clerk to type something up, a couple of taxicabs … And lo and behold, the Peace Corps was born.
Bill Josephson: Roger Kuhn was principal draftsperson of the Peace Corps Act. I was an important kibitzer and the upfront person in House and Senate hearings. The bill went to the Hill without a lot of changes from the White House or the budget division, and was introduced by Hubert Humphrey in the Senate and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Doc Morgan of Pennsylvania. This was a genuine bipartisan effort. We enjoyed strong support from Republicans. Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
This was a genuine bipartisan effort … Two women on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Marguerite Stitt Church of Illinois and Elizabeth Bolton of Ohio — strong, traditional Republicans — were amazingly persuasive supporters of the Peace Corps.
Joe Kennedy III: Tell us how you were able to get such a big idea through Congress. At the moment, ideas are difficult to get through, to put it mildly.
Bill Moyers: There remains to this day, 60 years later, a certain vibrancy among people who were involved in the Peace Corps. It has really been a marvelous moment in American history. Lord knows so many people had talked about something like this from the beginning!
In 1950, Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, proposed a kind of tech corps of young people who would go abroad. Maurice Albertson, who had done pioneering work in mechanics and hydraulics, wrote a draft of a Point Four youth program. Hubert Humphrey introduced the first bill in 1957. He said he got no enthusiasm. Reverend James Robinson of Crossroads Africa founded that program with an eye that could have well been on a future Peace Corps. This was an American idea that rose among the ranks of people who did not hesitate to call themselves idealists but knew how to pass bills in Congress; that made a big difference.
Sarge gave me the job of associate director for public affairs. I had three portfolios: one, Congressional relations; two, public affairs — news, press, and advertising; and three, recruiting. When Bill Josephson and Warren Wiggins and those who helped them drafted the legislation, they sent Sarge and me up to the Hill to sell it. We had to persuade a Congress that contained many advocates for the Peace Corps — but also some real opponents.
We first called on a handful of friends: Hubert Humphrey and Congressman Henry Reuss from Wisconsin, who had proposed a Peace Corps along with Humphrey. We wanted our friends to stand and fight for us. As Sarge and I prowled Capitol Hill, we decided to call on every member of Congress. I think we made it, with the exception of one.
He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.”
We went to known adversaries of the Peace Corps — those who had declared opposition before they knew what it was. One was a congressman born in 1916, Otto Passman. He was literally known as “Otto the Terrible” because he was so opposed to any foreign aid, except that which took a brickbat and tried to hit a communist over the head. He called the Peace Corps a “kiddie corps.” He got Congressman H.R. Gross, an influential conservative from Iowa, on his side, and he called it a utopian playground.
I went first to see Otto Passman, because I was from the South. He was from a deeply Southern and segregationist district in Louisiana, not far from my hometown across the Texas border. I got my congressman, populist Wright Patman of East Texas, to call Otto the Terrible and say he was sending this kid over to see him and say, “Just listen to him.” I went over and Passman said, “What do you want to talk to me about?” I said, “I just am here to arrange a meeting with the future director of the Peace Corps.” “I don’t want to see any future director of the Peace Corps. I just want to veto the thing when it comes to my desk.” I said, “Don’t you want to sit down with the president’s brother-in-law and talk about this?” There was silence. He said, “The president’s brother-in-law?” I said, “Yes, Sargent Shriver, who is John Kennedy’s brother-in-law, married to Eunice, is going to head the Peace Corps, and he would like to come see you.”
That was an appeal to Otto the Terrible. He saw Shriver, and Shriver knew instantly what to talk about, because we had done our homework. While he didn’t want to hear about the Peace Corps, we wanted to talk to him about what it meant to be an entrepreneur. Sarge walked in and started talking to the Congressman about how he had started a business during the Depression selling refrigerators and other hotel and business equipment. Passman said, “How did you know that?” Sarge said, “I used to run the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, and we saw a lot of refrigerators and other things like that pass through. I was just wondering how you managed to do that in the Depression.”
Otto melted a little. He gave us a long visit that day. We probably paid more visits to Otto Passman, chairman of the influential Foreign Relations Funding Committee in the House, than any other Congressman. We never brought him around. But word spread quickly that Sarge had been given the courtesy of extended and frequent visits to Passman, and that turned into a lot of goodwill. When the legislation passed, we got some 90 Republican votes in the House; very few who had stood up and condemned it before they knew anything about it, protested. They didn’t vote for us, but they didn’t fight us tooth and nail. The legislation sailed through the Senate.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver.
There was never a better salesman, never a better idealist at explaining what an ideal is, than Sargent Shriver. He could adjust very quickly to the mood, interest, and concerns of a member of Congress. We sat down with the member of Congress, and their staff asked questions. By the time it was over, I don’t think there was a program in Washington that had a better aura around it. And we had the young, dynamic president behind us.
The moment: September 22, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (laughing) signs HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C. Looking on (from left): Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island (in back); Director of the Peace Corps, R. Sargent Shriver; Senator Philip A. Hart of Michigan (in back); Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Chester Merrow of New Hampshire; Representative Thomas F. Johnson of Maryland (in back); Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Representative Wayne L. Hays of Ohio (partially hidden behind Representative Zablocki); Representative Leslie C. Arends of Illinois (in back, facing right); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
An important factor: We asked President Kennedy to ask Vice President Lyndon Johnson — for whom I had worked — to be chairman of the Peace Corps Advisory Committee. Johnson had been director of Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Program in Texas 1935–37. He had done the best job in the country of all the state directors. Johnson gave us the time we needed when the State Department and the Agency for International Development tried to take over the Peace Corps and turn it into just another box on the bureaucratic chart. Johnson explained patiently to Sarge and me how the bureaucracy worked. He had seen it for 30-some years. “Here’s what you have to watch out for. Here’s how you have to turn the corner without running into somebody.” Two and a half hours later, we knew what to do. We went and talked about preserving the independence of the Peace Corps, which Josephson and Wiggins had said was so essential. Every time we needed help on the Hill, the vice president came through.
During the campaign of 1960, I had served as the liaison between the traveling teams. For Johnson, my job was to coordinate logistics, prepare speeches, answer questions to keep us on track. Every day I was in touch with some member of the traveling Kennedy campaign — most often Kenny O’Donnell, his closest political advisor. When it came time for me to want to go to the Peace Corps after the election, both Kennedy and Johnson said no, because then who would interpret Austin to Boston? I persuaded Ken O’Donnell to persuade President Kennedy to let me go. It’s the best move of my life, and to this day I am deeply indebted to JFK and LBJ.
Bill Josephson: A little known fact: Bill Moyers is the drafter of the first public speech favoring the founding of the Peace Corps, even before the Michigan speech of Kennedy. Johnson gave a speech advocating the creation of the Peace Corps in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks before the Michigan moment. The speech was drafted by Bill Moyers. My wife is Nebraskan; she knows about that event.
When Lyndon Johnson read the speech that had been drafted for him he said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.”
Bill Moyers: There was a speech we had received by wire from headquarters in Washington. We were on the plane and had just taken off from Hampton, New York, headed for Lincoln, Nebraska. Johnson said, “I can’t deliver this stuff. It’s crap.” He said, “Write something stirring.” The proposal he made, based on that speech, was called a Youth Corps. I wish I’d used the phrase “Peace Corps,” but that hadn’t occurred to me. But it was a great event — and promptly lost to history.
“You wanted to be independent, you’re independent.”
Joe Kennedy III: I’ve often said there wasn’t a single day when I was serving in Congress that I didn’t draw on my experience as a Volunteer. It wasn’t so much the language skills, speaking Spanish; it was understanding that if you want to bring people together to achieve a common goal, they need to be active participants in that process, and you need to help create the circumstances to allow people to buy in and hear them out. You mentioned trying to keep the agency independent. That issue came up when I was serving in Congress, an effort to try to subsume the Peace Corps within the State Department.
Bill Josephson: One of the arguments was that the State Department and the to-be-transformed International Cooperation Administration — which would become USAID — regarded the Peace Corps as a gem, as opposed to what they did, which did not enjoy anything like broad support, either in Congress or in the nation. Foreign aid was — and to some extent, still is — the stepchild. They coveted the Peace Corps. Sarge and Warren and Bill and I felt that the Peace Corps, to succeed, had not to be any part of the foreign affairs bureaucracy or Cold War programs of the United States. Legislation was the vehicle for independence.
There was a climactic meeting in the White House. I was there. Also present was Ralph Dungan, an important member of the White House staff; and the director of the budget, David Bell. We waited to see the president but didn’t get in. Ralph purported to resolve the issue against the Peace Corps and in favor of the State Department and the foreign aid programs. Bill Moyers then went to the vice president. The vice president had a private meeting with President Kennedy later that day, and persuaded him — in the way that Lyndon Johnson uniquely could persuade people — to make the Peace Corps an independent agency. Ralph called me the next morning to tell me this decision. I said, “Well, I’d like to come over and smoke the pipe of peace with you. We’re going to be working together for a long time.” He said very clearly, “Uh uh. You wanted to be independent, you’re independent. Don’t come running to us when you’re in trouble!”
“Already more than 13,000 Americans have offered their services to the Peace Corps.” President John F. Kennedy delivers remarks after signing HR 7500, the Peace Corps Bill, in the Oval Office, White House, on September 22, 1961. Looking on (from left): Representative Edna Kelly of New York; Representative Clement Zablocki of Wisconsin; Senator Robert S. Kerr of Oklahoma (in back); Representative Roman C. Pucinski of Illinois; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts (in back); Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota; Representative Thomas E. Morgan of Pennsylvania; Representative Cornelius E. Gallagher of New Jersey; Representative Sidney R. Yates of Illinois; Representative Harris B. McDowell of Delaware (in back, in shadow); Senator Clair Engle of California (partially hidden); Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee; unidentified man in back; Senator Jacob Javits of New York; Senator Thomas H. Kuchel of California; Representative John Brademas of Indiana; Senator John A. Carroll of Colorado; Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky; Senator Paul H. Douglas of Illinois; Representative Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Photo by Abbie Rowe / White House, courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Bill Moyers: There is another point to be made — slightly less lofty: You can hardly channel the imagination up an organization chart, nor can the imagination flow downward through an organization chart. Along the way, there are other people charged with responsibilities and duties that cause them to hack away at that passion to reduce it to their grasp. To persuade Congress to support you, go up unencumbered by other people’s mistakes and less desirable thoughts. Make your case, and stand and fall on what you can say about what I, Sargent Shriver, am going to be responsible for — and if you don’t understand this, you can count on me to keep my word to Congress.
Those powerful barons in Congress who opposed the Peace Corps considered us naive, if not harebrained. You couldn’t have sent a 25-year veteran of the bureaucracy to give a tutorial. One morning I took Sarge to have coffee with the vice president. Johnson called me later and said: “The way to sell the Peace Corps is to sell Shriver. They won’t be able to resist him.” And they weren’t. Most were dazzled to be courted by the president’s charismatic brother-in-law, not some long-standing official from the bureaucracy.
I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
I’m not damning the bureaucracy. It is central to the running of our government. And what turned the tide was not Sarge’s glamour but his passion. I saw jaded politicians begin to pay attention as Sarge talked about America’s revolutionary ideas and our mission to carry them out in the world as down to earth, believable: card-carrying idealists who can show how freedom is served by a teacher in a classroom, clean water from a pump in the village square.
One old unreconstructed racist, whose chairmanship of a key subcommittee could have meant life or death for our appropriation, was aghast that young Americans living and working abroad under official auspices might not only practice miscegenation but bring it home with them. Only Shriver could answer that — not a schedule C appointee in the Agency for International Development. Because when that congressman made the case that if Volunteers went abroad, they’d come back and marry interracially, Sarge never blinked. He said, “Congressman, surely you can trust young Americans to do abroad exactly what they would do back in your district in Louisiana.” That left the man scratching his head. When I returned later, for a follow-up call, his secretary told me he had confessed, “I was had.”
You can’t get that from — bless their hearts — career people who’ve had so much drained from them by compromise over the years. It took this man making the case and saying, “Believe in me, because I believe in the Peace Corps.”
John F. Kennedy’s remarks on signing the Peace Corps Act. Courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
We carry two passports.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck not only by the power of the idea but the relentlessness and optimism its champions demonstrated. Given your experience in the Peace Corps’ conception, implementation, and development — and looking back over these 60 years — what does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Bill Josephson: The essence of the Peace Corps is service. That’s a concept we emphasized over and over. You could see it in the reaction of the University of Michigan students to President Kennedy’s off-the-cuff speech. You could see it in the flow of applications that followed the announcement of the Peace Corps. You can see it in what more than 250,000 Volunteers did in service, and continue to do in serving those ideals after their Peace Corps service.
Relieve misery, nurture minds, inspire others, crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding.
Bill Moyers: What I take away is that America must always try to put its best foot forward. We will never know the prints it leaves — but we know that we still are trying as human beings to do our best in the world as patriots and as citizens of the world.
Sarge taught me that we carry two passports: one grounded in the soil of American democracy, which he served five years in the navy to defend; another as a global citizen. He believed that seeing a person could be as important as any institution — could relieve misery, could nurture minds, inspire others, and could crack open a little further the gates long shut by ignorance, bigotry, or just sheer misunderstanding. When I was his deputy, he gave me a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Promise and highlighted this paragraph: “Human beings don’t live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than a blink of an eye? I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye itself is nothing. The span of life is nothing; but the man or woman who lives that span, they are something. They can fill that tiny span with memory so that its quality is immeasurable.”
I believe almost every Peace Corps Volunteer has discovered that about him or herself. And what they did was immeasurable, and unforgettable.
All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual.
Joe Kennedy III: When somebody asks me what Peace Corps service is all about, I often share the story of being on an overcrowded bus on my way back into Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, when I got a tap on my shoulder. An older gentleman asked if I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was surprised and asked how he knew. He looked at me like I was crazy. Why else would I possibly be in the back of a crowded bus in the Dominican Republic? And he said, Thank you. Because when he was a little boy, there was another Volunteer sent to his village who put in a pipe to provide clean water to his community. He never got a chance, as a child, to be able to say thank you. All those years later, he just wanted to pass along that gratitude. He never asked my name, where I was from, what I was doing. He just wanted to take a moment to credit that individual. That matters.
New and enduring
Joe Kennedy III: We talked about the past and the roots of the Peace Corps. One of my mentors, Senator Chris Dodd, talked about the early days of the Peace Corps and getting dropped down in the Dominican Republic himself and picked up two years later. The world has changed now that everybody has a smartphone.
Marieme Foote: The Peace Corps was created on the heels of the civil rights movement. So much has changed in the past 60 years. My father, Mel Foote, served in Ethiopia in the 1970s. He had to drive to the village next door, hours away, to place a phone call at a post office to speak with his parents — maybe five times in his service. I had 4G in my village. I could stream Netflix. Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected. We have more Volunteers coming from diverse backgrounds, who are first generation, whose parents were served by Peace Corps Volunteers. My mother was served by Peace Corps Volunteers in Senegal. You see also a need for the Peace Corps itself to change; it can’t remain the same as it was in the ’60s. That’s a good thing. It was created as a radical, beautiful concept. National Peace Corps Association put out the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” last year, which brought out important issues that Volunteers today are facing, and ways we can support Volunteers and better serve communities. Those are questions we need to ask.
Look at the world around us — and conversations around racial justice, equity, class — and how this should affect the Peace Corps. These things are all connected.
Joe Kennedy III: In the early 2000s, I had to get on a bus to go into town to check email and such — but I was still in more or less consistent contact with my family; they could call a cellphone that worked. That constant flow of communication creates challenges, obviously. It also creates enormous opportunities when looking at climate change and the need to make changes and investments at the hyperlocal level. There’s an opportunity to leapfrog technologies and help make a dramatic impact, whether it’s climate resiliency, access to water, electricity, connectedness. There’s a huge opportunity for the Peace Corps as an organization to start to think: How do we leverage those opportunities that come with technology? How do we think through opportunities for partnerships — when obviously with COVID, we’ve seen that impacts around global health are hugely consequential? How can we leverage people on the ground in these communities, with the backing of the people of the United States, to make a long-term, sustained impact?
Marieme Foote: In my village, a lot of people didn’t have access to electricity; solar panels and renewable energy changed that. Among Volunteers I know, everyone has WhatsApp; they’re able to continue conversations overseas from the U.S., and a lot are working on projects with their communities and raising funds — creating educational centers, building resources for communities — all through the internet.
Joe Kennedy III: I’m struck by that, particularly when we talk about the Third Goal of the Peace Corps. Peace Corps can be leveraged to make an impact in communities overseas. But this also means a Volunteer coming home, engaging in teaching or an after-school program, being able to create a connection with a community the entire world away. We’ve all run into that challenge of somebody saying, “Oh, you just came out of the Peace Corps. How was it?” As if you could sum up the last two years of your life in 20 seconds. This enables us to actually be able to show those connections and tell that story in a much more powerful way. Given your time in Benin, your commitment to the ideals that Peace Corps hopes to help ignite in people, and your future with the U.S. Foreign Service: What does the Peace Corps mean to you?
Marieme Foote: Peace Corps, at its heart — as Bill Josephson said — is about wanting to serve and be with people. The people-to-people connection is the best part of Peace Corps. I still talk to my host family; I hope they’ll be my family forever. It has built some beautiful relationships in my life. Finding new ways to make this experience something all Americans can do, that everyone around the world can partake in and celebrate, is important in bridging connections. How we can make this experience accessible to this new generation — that’s my question going forward.
For All They’ve Done: Recognition and Thanks to Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers
As part of the Mark the Moment celebration, National Peace Corps Association presented Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers with special recognition for their work. In presenting the tokens of recognition, NPCA Board Chair Maricarmen Smith-Martinez noted, “Peace Corps wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for your efforts and the collaboration of others 60 years ago. And the greatest tribute, no doubt, is the impact of the 240,000 Volunteers who have served in every part of the world, an impact that is both immeasurable and unforgettable.”
The Peace Corps Act: first page and last, with JFK’s signature. Document courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
NOW LISTEN to this conversation on Spotify.
Story updated December 22, 2021 at 3 PM.
Jonathan Pearson posted an articleA momentous anniversary. And we are coming together to commemorate, celebrate, and act! see more
This year we mark 60 years since President John F. Kennedy signed the legislation creating the Peace Corps. Celebrate the moment in the morning. Take part in special advocacy programs throughout the day. And stay tuned for special news and commemorations from Capitol Hill.
By Jonathan Pearson
PHOTO: President John F. Kennedy signs the Peace Corps Act on September 22, 1961. Courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum
LISTEN on Spotify to the converation with Bill Josephson, Bill Moyers, Joe Kennedy III, and Marieme Foote from September 22, 2021.
As you prepare to join National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) for the 60th anniversary Peace Corps Connect conference September 23–25, we also invite you to take part in a special commemoration on September 22 — the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Corps Act.
While plans are being finalized, here is the programming you can expect, with individual links to register for each event throughout the day.
SEPTEMBER 22, 2021 | SCHEDULE
Events and timing subject to change.
Mark the Moment
9:30 AM – 10:30 AM (Eastern)
September 22, 1961 at 9:45 AM. That was the moment when President John F. Kennedy signed congressional legislation that formally established the Peace Corps. Join NPCA to celebrate this moment. Former Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, and Peace Corps pioneers Bill Josephson and Bill Moyers are scheduled to join us. Register here.
UPDATE: LISTEN on Spotify to the converation from September 22, 2021.
Social Media Mobilization
1:30 PM – 2:30 PM (Eastern)
Have a Twitter account? Are you a regular on Facebook or Instagram? Got connections that run far and wide on LinkedIn? Make plans to be part of a nationwide social media mobilization to amplify the importance of the Peace Corps at this historic 60th anniversary moment. While activity is likely and encouraged throughout the day, you can also plan to stop by anytime during an hour-long zoom gathering to say hello to others, hear the latest from NPCA leaders and citizen advocates, and celebrate 60 years of the Peace Corps! Whether you stop by the virtual gathering or not, help amplify Peace Corps through social media: Register here and we’ll keep you in the loop.
Honor Those Who Have Served | In-Person Wreath Laying at John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery
4:00 PM – 5:30 PM (Eastern)
Northern Virginia Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (NOVARPCV) host a wreath-laying ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Speakers include Peace Corps Director Carol Spahn; former Congressman and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Sam Farr; returned Volunteer Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA); and NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst, who will speak on the legacy of the Peace Corps to honor President John F. Kennedy. Following speeches, attendees will walk together to the grave site of President John F. Kennedy, where a wreath and flowers will be placed. This is an in-person event. Learn more and register here.
Learn the Ropes: How to Become a Citizen Advocate
8:00 PM – 9:00 PM (Eastern)
If you’re interested in becoming a citizen advocate but aren’t sure how — or if you’re just wading in — this is the most important hour of the day. We need to substantially build our ranks to score significant victories in Congress in this key moment in Peace Corps’ history. Don't think you alone will make a difference? In this program, you’ll hear from NPCA advocates who absolutely have — bringing on board legislators who have never supported Peace Corps in the past. Don't think lawmakers listen to what you say? We will hear from RPCV Capitol Hill staff on that topic. Not sure if you can make a difference? Hear some success stories from RPCV advocates. Interested in other issues? Meet members of RPCV special interest affiliate groups on how they bring their Peace Corps voice to the conversation.
(UPDATE) We are happy to announce this program will begin with remarks from RPCV Congressman John Garamendi (D-CA), with an appeal to our community to help pass his Peace Corps Reauthorization Act legislation! Register here.
60th Anniversary Live ... from Capitol Hill?
We will be monitoring Capitol Hill for possible Peace Corps-related actions and news on or about September 22 — related to advancing the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act, support for Peace Corps funding, or commemorating the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Corps Act. Register here to be notified about any key Peace Corps developments that will be broadcast live from Capitol Hill.
LISTEN on Spotify to the converation from September 22, 2021.
Story updated December 22, 2021 at 1:30 PM.
Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association.
8/28/61 Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver leads 80 Ghana and Tanganyika Peace Corps Volunteers see more
The legislation that permanently created the Peace Corps had yet to pass the Senate. But the Peace Corps had been launched by an executive order issued in March. And the first Volunteers were about to embark on service in Ghana and Tanganyika.
A moment in time: August 28, 1961. Founding Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver leads 80 Volunteers who are headed for Ghana and Tanganyika, now Tanzania, to the White House, where President John F. Kennedy will give them a personal send-off.
JFK thanks them for embarking on their service, “on behalf of our country and, in the larger sense, as the name suggests, for the cause of peace and understanding.”
Two days later, on August 30, after a 23-hour flight from Washington, 51 Volunteers will land in Accra, Ghana, to begin their service as teachers. We’re grateful to them and the communities that have worked together with Volunteers over the past six decades. The mission of the Peace Corps, then as now, is to build peace and friendship. As if we needed reminding, that’s work far from finished.
Photograph by Rowland Scherman, Peace Corps. Courtesy the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Brian Sekelsky posted an articleA look at the year in which the Peace Corps was founded — and the world into which it emerged see more
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.
Communications Intern posted an articleAn invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves see more
An invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Let’s start with a story about an invitation. There’s that historic letter from JFK below, sent to the first would-be Volunteers. And let me tell you about Laurel Hunt, a recent engineering grad from University of Minnesota, and the years of Peace Corps service she has yet to undertake in Peru, working with a community on health and sanitation. Return to March 2020: “Friday the 13th was my last day at work,” Hunt writes. “As I packed up my desk that afternoon, I got a phone call from Washington, D.C. A frazzled-sounding Peace Corps employee told me that my Peru 35 group would be delayed at least 30 days.”
COVID-19 was burning its way across the globe, countries shuttering airports and closing borders. Two days later, Peace Corps announced a global evacuation of all Volunteers.
Peace Corps was something Laurel Hunt had her heart set on since junior high. While earning her engineering degree, she co-founded and served as president of Out in STEM. “As a queer woman in engineering, I’m used to feeling out of place,” she says. Peace Corps would no doubt bring more of that sense of displacement, in ways humbling and unexpected — and, so the story goes, lessons in patience, flexibility, resilience.
“I don’t know what my future holds, and the uncertainty is tough,” Hunt wrote a year ago. “For right now, all I can do now is wait, support my community, and wash my hands. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a safe place to stay and enough savings to make it through a few months in limbo.”
On her blog she wrote with admiration about returned Volunteers who, as the global evacuation was taking place, rallied to help the evacuees. There was a Facebook group focused on providing that support; within days, its membership swelled to 6,000 members, and then 14,000. Hunt pitched in as an administrator for the group.
She hoped, as so many did, that the pandemic might be tamed — and that Volunteers would return to their sites later in the year. By summer it was clear that wouldn’t happen. Hunt took a job at a seafood processor in Alaska for a few months. She returned to Minnesota. The firm where she had been working offered her a job again, while she waited to hear when she might begin Peace Corps service.
“The uncertainty is tough,” wrote would-be Volunteer Laurel Hunt. So she established a group to support others in the same boat: Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
Many hundreds of others were in the same boat, waiting. So Hunt formed a Facebook group to give them a place to share updates (what’s the latest on departure for your country?) and to offer advice and support and a shared sense of what it was to be living with this uncertainty while other forces in life exerted their gravitational pull. Hunt christened the group Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before. I have heard from one of my former students — Olena Halapchuk-Tarnavska, who is now on the faculty at Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University in western Ukraine and who has been training incoming groups of Volunteers for years — that they are eager for Volunteers to return. Those sentiments have been heard from every country where Volunteers were serving. But how things will be different remains to be seen.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps beginnings, in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView we also lean hard on what Peace Corps might be — and what place it has in a changed world. And not only Peace Corps, because this audacious endeavor — independent from the exponentially larger USAID and State Department, thanks to the vision and efforts of the early architects of the agency — does not exist in a vacuum. Which brings us to the words on our cover: The Time Is Now! For what? To commit as never before to a sense of service with a sense of solidarity, building up communities across the United States and around the world, fostering the personal connections that deepen our awareness and understanding — of shared humanity, of what equity and justice mean, and, for better or for worse, a common fate on this planet.
The thing about service and solidarity is that these are not a one-and-done commitment, boxes to be checked. For this work, there’s a standing invitation.
Letter image courtesy Maureen Carroll Collection, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Archives and Special Collections
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.Write him.
This essay appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address: What These Words Mean Now see more
How do the words President John F. Kennedy spoke on January 20, 1961 resonate across the decades?
On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address. The conclusion of that speech inspired a generation — and profoundly shaped the launch of the Peace Corps in 1961. Here are the last three paragraphs. For the 60th anniversary of this speech, we asked returned Volunteers and members of the Peace Corps community from around the world to share how these words resonate across the years. Read the entire address below. And tell us what these words mean to you. Use the comments form or email us.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
I think about this section a bit differently than it is often portrayed. Of course there are themes of service and sacrifice, but for me these words are about a more fundamental belief: America is the sum of its parts — which means its people. Her crowning achievements are ours to wear, her flaws and failings ours to bear. The greatness of this country depends on the willingness of all of us not just to do our part, but to hold ourselves, our government, and our leaders accountable to the promises we made the world. That’s the ongoing work of an imperfect union.
—Joe Kennedy III
Kennedy served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic 2004–06 and served the state of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives 2012–2021. His grandfather was Robert F. Kennedy, brother to the president.
JFK’s assassination was my sign to join the Peace Corps. Those last ringing words personify to me that we all spring from the same earth, that we share an impulse to goodness, and whether or not we believe in God, the ultimate purpose for many of us who chose to serve — and then fell in love and learned from the people where we served — to continue that service became our calling and real purpose in life.
Journalist, author, and special correspondent for Vanity Fair, Orth served as a Volunteer in Colombia 1964–66. She founded the Marina Orth Foundation, which has established a model education program emphasizing technology, English, and leadership in Colombia.
These words were one of the four eye-opening influences on my thinking in my formative years. And how important to realize this under a totalitarian regime, which was trying to atomize society and to sow mistrust among the particles in order to better control them! President Kennedy had of course been the archenemy and imperialist hawk in the mouth of communist propaganda, but during the Prague Spring of 1968 there appeared more objective articles about him in the media, including those beautiful concluding words of his inaugural speech. Yes, away with the humiliating submissiveness that was our life and which led us to a blind and passive acceptance.
—Miroslav Pospíšil, Czechia
Under communism in Czechoslovakia, Pospíšil was an organizer of the underground university, a network of resistance to the authoritarian regime. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, he led the country’s leading educational foundation, hosted one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers, and worked to transform civil society.
It is not easy to orient everyone toward the same ideal, even if the ultimate goal of humanity is to live in peace and prosperity. But it is imperative! How many times has humanity found inspiration in the example of the American people? President Kennedy called on his fellow citizens to use their wealth, their greatness, and their beauty — which is not without risk both inside and outside the States — for the world. Yet today, more than ever, Americans must become aware of the danger hidden in our modern societies, where competition is ruthless. The slightest relaxation is synonymous with collective suicide. God protect America. God bless the Americans.
—Ibrahima Sankare, Mali
Sankare is director and founder of Delta Survie, a nongovernmental organization whose work reaches across seven countries in West Africa. He is committed to fighting for the integration of marginalized populations and promoting health and education. In 2016 Sankara was recognized with the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award.
President Kennedy really understood the importance of service to building peace and freedom around the world. Service allows you to be generous to others. Generosity fosters trust and goodness for others as well as yourself. My Peace Corps Volunteer experience allowed me to be of service to the Georgian people, and not only did it benefit them, but it benefited me tremendously. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn about Georgia and its people and culture.
Ly served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia from 2018 until she was evacuated in 2020. She works with a school district within the Zuni Pueblo Indian Reservation.
I believe that Americans who ask what they can do for the United States of America are the embodiment of good citizenry. As a teacher, I tell people I meet that America is a kind and a generous society. All I have to do is tell my story about becoming one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I was in a refugee camp in Kenya for nine years. Life in the camp was miserable; it was hopeless. I had read about President Kennedy; he was a visionary. America has restored my dignity and given me a solid education. I decided to give back by serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Again and again. It takes resilience and humility to succeed.
—Peter Kok Ter
Ter served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Azerbaijan 2009–12, in the People’s Republic of China in 2015, and as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia 2015–16.
As we begin 2021, the U.S. continues to grapple with a racial reckoning, global pandemic, and government transition, reaffirming the importance of togetherness. JFK’s sentiments still ring true today. Earlier in the speech he says, “Let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness.” We cannot move forward together without first acknowledging each person’s grievances. We must converse with those who possess a different perspective. Remembering that we are all products of our environments and experiences, let us lean into listening and learning, so that we can work together to create and sustain equal and just freedom of all women and men.
Cron began serving as a Volunteer in the Dominican Republic in 2019 and was evacuated in 2020. She is working toward master’s degrees in business administration and international development at American University.
Not just that the world is different. We now see America for what it is, something less than the exceptional nation. We see who we are and who we should be. Can we still be an example to the world? Can we do any less than renew and change?
David Arnold served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia 1964–66 and is editor emeritus of WorldView magazine. A veteran journalist, he has been a Fulbright fellow in Pakistan and trained independent journalists in Kenya, Eritrea, Uganda, and Malawi.
Gordon Radley would single out these words as speaking to the Peace Corps community:
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
Within an inaugural address that people would parse as if it were the Gettysburg address, it would be difficult to not read Kennedy’s pledge as a statement to the world of why he would be creating a “Peace Corps” … which he did by executive order about 45 days later … Within the confines of two sentences, Kennedy spoke directly to what was then called the Third World and set out the principles of the pledge he was making and what would govern a Peace Corps: We would come not as “helpers” but as equals, “to help them help themselves,” not limited by an arbitrary time requirement, but “for whatever period is required”… and most important we come not out of some self interest but out of the moral responsibility that comes from being a citizen of the world … because it is right.
Radley served as a Volunteer in Malawi 1968–70 and as training program director in Western Samoa before becoming president of Lucasfilm.
Ask not: Kennedy’s inaugural address. Photo courtesy of JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address | The Full Speech
WE OBSERVE TODAY not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom — symbolizing an end as well as a beginning — signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forbears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge — and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do — for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom — and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required — not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge — to convert our good words into good deeds — in a new alliance for progress — to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support — to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective — to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak — and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course — both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms — and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah — to “undo the heavy burdens … (and) let the oppressed go free.”
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Inaugural moment. Photo courtesy of JFK Presidential Library and Museum.
Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation” — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.
Letters Winter 2021: Readers write see more
Letters, emails, Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram comments: Readers respond to the stories in words and images in our fall 2020 edition. We’re happy to continue the conversation.Write us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Renew, retool, return?
I suspect the Peace Corps will see a renewal following the Biden administration. Service to our country and promoting peace, prosperity, and democracy will take on new importance. It should be a promising future for the Peace Corps.
I struggle to see how it is ethical to send PCVs into different countries considering that America has no control over the virus right now, a huge number of Americans have the virus, and Volunteers will likely be sent to areas that may not have the best health facilities. My concern is for the host countries and people living in the communities where the PCVs will be stationed.
“How many of you…?” JFK at the Union (and the Cow Palace)
I used to pass by a plaque in the University of Michigan Student Union steps marking this spot twice a day. One day there was a sign taped to it announcing a Peace Corps recruiting session in the International Center. There were RPCVs in attendance to share their personal experiences ... and four awesome years later I was back in the same room, doing the same.
Assuming the Peace Corps survives, as I approach retirement I’m considering going back for another round.
I’ve heard about this speech for years. This is the first time I’ve actually heard it. Entertaining and inspiring!
I was working in the oil fields of eastern Venezuela when Jack Kennedy was killed. It made a deep impression on me; especially moving was the reaction of the Venezuelan people who considered him as one of their own. I subsequently resigned my job, went to Washington, walked into Peace Corps and was hired on the spot to become desk officer for Venezuela. Later I was sent to Brazil as associate director. Years later I ended up as Peace Country Director in Tunisia. The Peace Corps years were rich in experience and without doubt were the most challenging and rewarding years of my life.
Associate Country Director, Brazil 1966–68; Country Director, Tunisia 1981–83
I was inspired by that very speech and 20 years later served as a Volunteer in the Philippines. Over the years since then, I’ve given many presentations in schools on my Peace Corps experience and promoted Peace Corps service.
The Philippines 1981
I always liked Kennedy’s sense of humor … like when he said “I graduated from Harvard … the Michigan of the East” and “This is the longest short speech I ever gave.”
South Africa 2016–18
I am grateful for the Peace Corps services rendered to my birth country, Malaysia. I benefited much academically and personally. Diane was my maths teacher then at Penang Technical Institute in 1968. Thank you and God bless America.
Allen Ong via Facebook
I taught for two years in a beautiful country that was full of hope and progress. The people in Charikar made me feel like their daughter, their sister, their friend.
Without doubt the establishment of the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Program are the most important public and international policy in the history of the United States.
Sami Jamil Jadallah
Founder and Executive Director at New Initiatives Foundation
Today I was asked by a vendor wanting to find me a discount whether I served in the military. I responded as I usually do to that question, “No, but I served my country in the Peace Corps.” I think for the first time I heard from a vendor, “Thank you for your service.”
I joined because I thought I could make the world a better place. I came back a better person.
When I served in Guatemala in the 1980s it was dangerous to even teach indigenous people to read, let alone foster democratic involvement and economic and environmental justice. Well done, Mateo Paneitz.
Long Way Home is a great organization. Congratulations, Mateo!
In Memoriam: John Lewis
John Lewis: When I first met John Lewis, it was in the late 1970s, when I worked at ACTION, Nixon’s attempt to hide JFK’s agency called Peace Corps, which under ACTION became International Operations, with VISTA and other volunteer programs under Domestic Operations. He was associate director when I met him. He and his work have made the world a better place. We will miss him!
Nigeria 1966–68, Liberia 1968
May his soul rest in perfect peace.
In Memoriam: Joseph Blatchford
He was director when I was the training center director in Puerto Rico in 1970–72. Also a very good tennis player. Sad news that he has left us.
K. Richard Pyle
He was a good man who helped Peace Corps survive during a politically difficult period. Rest in peace.
Staff, Belize 1974–76; Country Director, Honduras 1976–79
Communications Intern posted an articleAt 2 a.m. on October 14 the Peace Corps community kicked off 60th anniversary celebrations see more
We’re marking the events in 1960 and 1961 that led to the creation of the Peace Corps. And we seek inspiration in how we can reimagine Peace Corps for a changed world.
By WorldView Staff
At 2 a.m. on October 14 the Peace Corps community kicked off 60th anniversary celebrations with a once-a-decade gathering: We returned (virtually) to the steps of the student union at University of Michigan to commemorate the impromptu speech by John F. Kennedy that helped launch the Peace Corps.
The questions that caught the zeitgeist: “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.”
JFK at the Union: 2 a.m., October 14, 1960. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
November 2 marks the anniversary in 1960 of a speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, in the final days of his campaign for president, in which Sen. John F. Kennedy proposed “a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for three years.”
These “ambassadors of peace,” he said, “would be a volunteer corps, and volunteers would be sought among not only talented young men and women, but also Americans, of whatever age, who wished to serve the great Republic and serve the cause of freedom, men who have taught or engineers or doctors or nurses, who have reached the age of retirement, or who in the midst of their work wished to serve their country and freedom, should be given an opportunity and an agency in which their talents could serve our country around the globe.” Watch a clip here.
PEACE CORPS DAY | MARCH 1
Celebrations with the Peace Corps community across the United States— and around the world.
PEACE CORPS CONNECT | JULY 29–31, 2021
Howard University, Washington, D.C. + Online
We hope that we’ll be able to come together in person for our annual conference, hosted by Howard University. But wherever you are in the U.S. or around the world you can join us—because we’ll have a robust digital program.
Stay tuned for more—and updates on how we’ll host our annual Days of Action on Capitol Hill at the beginning of March 2021.
STEP 1 - Create an account: Click here and create a login name and password. Use the code DIGITAL2020 to get it free.
STEP 2 - Get the app: For viewing the magazine on a phone or tablet, go to the App Store/Google Play and search for “WorldView magazine” and download the app. Or view the magazine on a laptop/desktop here.
An impromptu speech at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960 that started it all see more
Well after midnight on October 14, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the steps of the Michigan Union. Legend has it that he first proposed the idea of the Peace Corps here. The truth is a little more complex, but far more interesting.
By James Tobin
Senator John F. Kennedy’s motorcade rolled into Ann Arbor very early on the morning of Friday, October 14, 1960. The election was three and a half weeks away. The Democratic nominee for president and his staff had just flown into Willow Run Airport. A few hours earlier, in New York, Kennedy had fought Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, in the third of their four nationally televised debates. The race was extremely close, and Michigan was up for grabs. Kennedy’s schedule called for a few hours of sleep, then a one-day whistle-stop train tour across the state.
The campaign got word that students had been waiting outside the Michigan Union, where Kennedy was to spend the night, for three hours. As the cars reached the corner of State and South University, Kennedy’s speechwriters, Theodore Sorensen and Richard Goodwin, looked out the window. Students, densely packed, were milling all over the steps and sidewalks and into the street. Some carried signs or wore Kennedy hats. There were signs for Nixon, too. Cries arose as the cars pulled up.
“He won’t just let them stand there,” Sorensen told Goodwin. “He’s going to speak. Maybe that’ll give us a chance to get something to eat.”
He might have given the students a quick greeting and a standard pitch for votes. No one knows why he chose, instead, to ask them a question that would launch the signature program of his administration and ignite the idealism of a generation.
They hadn’t prepared a speech, but Kennedy was good at extemporizing in a pinch. He might have given the students a quick greeting and a standard pitch for votes. No one knows why he chose, instead, to ask them a question that would launch the signature program of his administration and ignite the idealism of a generation.
JFK at the Union. Photo by David Giltrow, courtesy Bentley Library
Since early in the campaign year, there had been scattered proposals for a volunteer corps of young Americans who would go abroad to help nations emerging from colonialism in Africa, Asia, and South America. Kennedy had asked for studies of the idea, including from Samuel Hayes, a U-M professor of economics and director of the Center for Research on Economic Development. In early October, his staff had floated the idea in a press release, but no sparks had been struck. And Kennedy, according to aides, had been leery of the idea, fearing the damage Nixon might cause, in the jittery atmosphere of the Cold War, by calling him naïve about foreign affairs.
Possibly it was a remark of Nixon’s that drew Kennedy’s mind back to the idea. In the debate the night before, the vice president had reminded the national audience that three Democratic presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman — had taken the U.S. to war. Kennedy may have wanted to strike a note that would associate his campaign with peace.
In any case, he did not actually propose a program. He issued a challenge. Speaking into a microphone at the center of the stone staircase, with aides and students around him, Kennedy began by expressing his “thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.” (A recording shows that this got a shout from the crowd.) The campaign, he said, was the most important since the Depression election of 1932, “because of the problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented to us in the 1960s, which must be seized.”
The motorcade. Photo by David Giltrow, courtesy Bentley Library
Then he asked his question:
“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.
“Therefore, I am delighted to come to Michigan, this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.”
”I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.”
He said he’d come to Ann Arbor merely “to go to bed” — drawing a ribald roar from the crowd — then: “This is the longest short speech I’ve ever made, and I’ll therefore finish it.” The state had not built the university “merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle,” he said. “There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it.” He was not merely asking for their votes, but for “your support for this country over the next decade.”
The students roared again. Then Kennedy went up to bed, telling an aide he appeared to have “hit a winning number.”
JFK arrives. Photo by Frederick L. Shippey, courtesy Bentley Library
There were 50 or 60 reporters with Kennedy, but few mentioned the senator’s remarks. Russell Baker of the New York Times reported that during JFK’s entire swing through Michigan, he said “nothing that was new” — which was true, if one counted the early-October press release. But in the aftermath of the speech, something new began.
The following Tuesday, October 18, Congressman Chester Bowles of Connecticut, a Kennedy supporter and advisor, spoke to students in the Union ballroom. He, too, proposed what the Michigan Daily called “a U.N. civil service, which would send doctors, agricultural experts and teachers to needy countries throughout the world.”
Among Bowles’ listeners were two married graduate students, Alan and Judy Guskin. From Bowles’ talk, they went to a diner where they drafted a letter to the Daily on a napkin. The letter was published the following Friday. The Guskins noted that Kennedy and Bowles had “emphasized that disarmament and peace lie to a very great extent in our hands and requested our participation throughout the world as necessary for the realization of these goals.” The two then pledged to “devote a number of years to work in countries where our help is needed,” and they challenged other students to write similar pledges to Kennedy and Bowles. “With this request,” they wrote, “we express our faith that those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive an education will want to apply their knowledge through direct participation in the underdeveloped communities of the world.”
JFK at the Union. Photo by Frederick Shippey, courtesy Bentley Library
Over the next two weeks, events moved fast. The Guskins were contacted by Samuel Hayes, the professor who had written the position paper on a youth corps for Kennedy. Together, they called a mass meeting. Some 250 students came out to sign a petition saying they would volunteer. Hundreds more signers followed within days.
Some 250 students came out to sign a petition saying they would volunteer. Hundreds more signers followed within days.
Then Mildred Jeffrey, a Democratic state committeewoman and UAW official whose daughter attended U-M, got word to Ted Sorensen about what Kennedy and Bowles had wrought in Ann Arbor. Sorensen told Kennedy.
On November 2, in a major address at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Kennedy formally proposed “a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country ... for three years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service.” (Nixon responded by calling the idea “a cult of escapism” and “a haven for draft dodgers.”)
On Sunday, November 6, two days before the election, Kennedy was expected at the Toledo airport. Three carloads of U-M students, including the Guskins, drove down to show him the petitions. “He took them in his hands and started looking through the names,” Judy Guskin recalled later. “He was very interested.”
Alan asked: “Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?”
“Until Tuesday we’ll worry about this nation,” Kennedy said. “After Tuesday, the world.”
Alan asked: “Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?”
“Until Tuesday we’ll worry about this nation,” Kennedy said. “After Tuesday, the world.”
Two days later, Kennedy defeated Nixon by some 120,000 votes, one of the slimmest margins in U.S. history. Some argue the Peace Corps proposal may have swayed enough votes to make the difference.
“It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty,” wrote Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law and the Peace Corps’ first director, in his memoir. “Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead, it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”
Alan and Judy Guskin were among the Peace Corps’ early volunteers. They served in Thailand.
A Letter to the Michigan Daily, October 21, 1960
To the Editor:
Representative Chester Bowles and Senator Kennedy in their speeches to the students of the University of Michigan both emphasized that disarmament and peace lie to a very great extent in our hands and requested our participation throughout the world as necessary for the realization of these goals.
In reply to this urgent request, we both hereby state that we would devote a number of years to work in countries where our help is needed, either through the United Nations or through the United States Foreign Service.
WE ALSO WOULD like to request that all students who feel that they would like to help the cause of world peace by direct participation send a letter to this paper and/or our address. These letters will be forwarded to Kennedy and Bowles as an answer of the students of the University of Michigan to their plea for help. If it is at all possible, we would like students to start asking others in their classes, dorms, sororities, fraternities, house, etc. to send letters expressing their desire to work toward these goals. We also request that those who have friends at other universities write to them asking them to start similar action on their campuses.
With this request we express our faith that those of us who have been fortunate enough to receive an education will want to apply their knowledge through direct participation in the underdeveloped communities of the world.
— Alan E. Guskin, Grad.
— Judith T. Guskin, Grad.
Story updated October 15, 2020
COMING SOON: Video of Special 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Speech That Launched the Peace Corps
On October 14, 2020, members of the Peace Corps community came together at 2 a.m. (yes, 2 a.m.!) to to mark this historic moment. We’ll upload video from the evening where you can hear an interview from October 2020 with Judy Guskin, who was there — and is one of two University of Michigan graduate students who helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps.
WATCH: An interview with Judith Guskin from October 2020 recounting the night Kennedy gave his speech and the first months that shaped the Peace Corps. She takes inspiration from what she sees with the new generation of Americans. And, she says, we have a responsibility to act.
READ MORE about how University of Michigan graduate students Al and Judy Guskin helped propel the creation of the Peace Corps.
James Tobin is an author and historian. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War. This article appeared originally in Michigan Today, the alumni publication of the University of Michigan, and previously appeared in the Fall 2010 edition of WorldView magazine .
Sources include articles in The Michigan Daily and the Ann Arbor News and the following books: Robert G. Carey, The Peace Corps (Prager, 1970); Richard N. Goodwin, Remembering America (Little, Brown & Co., 1988); Gerard T. Rice, The Bold Experiment (Notre Dame, 1985); Karen Schwarz, What You Can Do For Your Country: An Oral History of the Peace Corps (Morrow, 1991); Sargent Shriver, Point of the Lance (Harper & Row, 1964); Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy (Harper & Row, 1965); Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings (FSG, 1980).