A bit of a strange bird, the Peace Corps is. It falls outside of the three major U.S. branches of foreign activity — defense, diplomacy and development (or foreign aid). And while the Corps has elements of the latter two — sending smiling ambassadors of goodwill abroad to foster sustainable growth — it obviously operates a bit outside of the mainstream. If the program was being proposed today, I can’t imagine it getting very far. The 2011 federal budget deal cut $71 million from the Peace Corps budget, and Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan would slash 44% of the total budget for international affairs and foreign assistance by 2016. Today, 59% of Americans favor cutting foreign aid, although that’s probably because Americans think that foreign aid makes up more than 10% of the federal budget, when it really makes up less than 1%.
So how did Peace Corps start?
The official Peace Corps website explains the organization “traces its roots and mission” to an inspirational speech given by John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign. He was scheduled to give a quick talk at the University of Michigan on the night of October 13, 1960. Running late, he didn’t arrive at the school until two in the morning, and was surprised to find that some 10,000 students were still gathered, expectantly awaiting his address. Inspired, Kennedy extemporaneously laid the foundation for a youthful, altruistic good-will global volunteer service. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Just about every part of this founding story is wrong.
First, efforts to create a U.S. organization that would allow young Americans to volunteer overseas preceded any work by Kennedy. In fact, Senator Hubert Humphrey submitted a bill in June 1960 that actually used the name “Peace Corps.”
Next, to put it bluntly, the much-mythologized speech is pretty terrible. Kennedy’s speech was improvised, and it shows in the bland, jumbled paragraphs. And if you look at the text, it’s not at all clear that Kennedy is describing a Peace Corps-like program; on the contrary, he makes a direct plea for more career diplomats and aid-workers:
…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!
Most important, however, is the context in which the speech was given. There’s every reason to believe that Kennedy wasn’t just reaching out to a mass of wide-eyed, do-good youths — he also saw thousands of potential Cold Warriors, just awaiting their marching orders.
On the morning of October 13, Kennedy had his third debate with Richard Nixon. The bulk of the debate concerned battling the influence of the Soviet Union. Leaning into the TV studio’s camera, his square jaw thrust forward, Kennedy proclaimed the importance of American prestige abroad, saying,
…if we are on the mount, if we are rising, if our influence is spreading, if our prestige is spreading, than those who stand now on the razor edge of decision between us or between the Communist system, wondering whether they should use the system of freedom to develop their countries or the system of communism, they will be persuaded to follow our example.
I’m not writing just for the fun of picking apart an oft-repeated tale — the facts of the real story are more instructive, and more inspiring.
After Kennedy’s middling speech, a group of students at the University of Michigan formed a group called Americans Committed to World Responsibility. The idea of an international youth service quickly spread across college campuses; mail supporting the concept flooded the Democratic campaign headquarters, and a group of students went to discuss the idea further with the Kennedy campaign.
Kennedy picked up the groundswell of support, and in a speech given two weeks later (at the awesomely-named Cow Palace of San Francisco), he laid out an argument describing and endorsing the Peace Corps. Still, Communism remained at the center of the speech, as Kennedy warned of “enemy advances” and the superiority of “The Lenin Institute for Political Warfare.”
The other remarkable aspect of the story is that the Peace Corps managed to avoid becoming just another Cold War tool. Warren Wiggins, one of the most influential architects of the Corps, argued that the organization could not fall under the auspices of the International Cooperation Administration (later USAID). The idea was endorsed by Sargent Shriver, the Corps’ first director, and then by President Kennedy himself.
By establishing the Peace Corps as an independent federal agency, the organization grew with its own ethos, and has generally been accepted by foreign governments as free of the obligations — both formal and implied — associated with other forms of foreign aid.
Ultimately, the organization was inspired by Kennedy, and it was built under his direct supervision. The above story, however, seems a better embodiment of the Peace Corps spirit — an unlikely project that began as a bottom-up movement, with a commitment to independence and humanitarian ideals that pushed the organization further from the binds of parochial politics.
[Additional information taken from Brent Ashabranner's excellent book A Moment in History]