Teachers

Teaching With Documents:
Founding Documents of the Peace Corps

Background

The founding of the Peace Corps is one of President John F. Kennedy's most enduring legacies. Yet it got its start in a fortuitous and unexpected moment. Kennedy, arriving late to speak to students at the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960, found himself thronged by a crowd of 10,000 students at 2 o'clock in the morning. Speaking extemporaneously, the presidential candidate challenged American youth to devote a part of their lives to living and working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Would students back his effort to form a Peace Corps? Their response was immediate: within weeks students organized a petition drive and gathered 1,000 signatures in support of the idea. Several hundred others pledged to serve. Enthusiastic letters poured into Democratic headquarters. This response was crucial to Kennedy's decision to make the founding of a Peace Corps a priority.

Today if you go to a Peace Corps recruiting office you will see that night commemorated in posters. Since then more than 150,000 citizens of all ages and backgrounds have worked in more than 130 countries throughout the world as volunteers in such fields as health, teaching, agriculture, urban planning, skilled trades, forestry, sanitation, and technology. How did Kennedy transform a campaign pledge into a new agency of the U.S. government? How does the Constitution delineate the legal processes by which a new vision can become a reality? This lesson offers an opportunity to teach students not only about Kennedy and the New Frontier, but also about how our Constitution works.

The origins of the idea for a Peace Corps are numerous and go back long before the Kennedy era. Religious organizations had sent missionaries to remote areas of the world for centuries, not only to preach but to teach trades and build schools. In 1904 the American philosopher William James formulated the idea for a peace army into which young Americans would be drafted in the service of peace rather than war. Since 1917 the American Friends Service Committee has sent Americans to work in refugee camps and to work on community projects. Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps (1933) put young people to work for their country, and after World War II many private groups like the International Voluntary Service sponsored international work camps.

By 1960 two bills were introduced in Congress that were the direct forerunners of the Peace Corps. Representative Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin proposed that the government study the idea, and Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota asked for the establishment of a Peace Corps itself. These bills were not likely to pass Congress at the time, but they caught the attention of then-Senator Kennedy for several important reasons.

In contrast to Eisenhower's policy of "dynamic conservatism," which called for the maintenance of existing governmental programs but not the establishment of new ones, Kennedy foresaw a "New Frontier." Inspired by Roosevelt's New Deal, the New Frontier envisioned programs to fight poverty, help cities, and expand governmental benefits to a wide array of Americans. Having won the election of 1960 by a slim majority, Kennedy was only partly successful in pushing his programs through Congress. He revised the minimum wage to cover more workers, increased Social Security benefits, and pushed for the establishment of Medicare. After Kennedy's untimely death, it was left to President Lyndon Johnson to successfully negotiate the passage of new programs such as Medicare through Congress. Johnson's Great Society brought to fruition many of the ideas initiated by Kennedy in the New Frontier.

In foreign affairs Kennedy was also more of an activist than his predecessor. He viewed the presidency as "the vital center of action in our whole scheme of government." Concerned by what was then perceived to be the global threat of communism, Kennedy looked for creative as well as military solutions. He was eager to revitalize our program of economic aid and to counter negative images of the "Ugly American" and Yankee imperialism. He believed that sending idealistic Americans abroad to work at the grass-roots level would spread American goodwill into the Third World and help stem the growth of communism there.

Kennedy lost no time in actualizing his dream for a Peace Corps. Between his election and inauguration he ordered Sargent Shriver, his brother-in-law, to do a feasibility study. Shriver remembered, "We received more letters from people offering to work in or to volunteer for the Peace Corps, which did not then exist, than for all other existing agencies." Within two months of taking office Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps within the State Department, using funds from mutual security appropriations. Shriver, as head of the new agency, assured its success by his fervent idealism and his willingness to improvise and take action. But to have permanency and eventual autonomy, the Peace Corps would have to be approved and funded by Congress. In September 1961, the 87th Congress passed Public Law 87-293 establishing a Peace Corps. By this time, thanks to Kennedy's executive order and Shriver's inspired leadership, Peace Corps volunteers were already in the field.

The Peace Corps was not without its critics. Richard Nixon predicted it would become a haven for draft dodgers. To avoid this possibility, service in the Peace Corps provided young men with draft deferment, but not exemption. To allay fears that the Peace Corps would harbor secret agendas or become a tool of the CIA, Peace Corps volunteers are sent only to countries that request their services. Today any citizen at least 18 years old and in good health can apply, but he or she will be automatically disqualified for previous work with an intelligence agency.

President Kennedy felt a special bond with Peace Corps volunteers, and he welcomed them to the White House at every opportunity. They came to be known fondly as "Kennedy's kids." In his last State of the Union address Kennedy said, "Nothing carries the spirit of American idealism and expresses our hopes better and more effectively to the far corners of the earth than the Peace Corps." Today, several thousand Americans every year answer his call to "ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country" by serving in the Peace Corps.

Other Resources

Burner, David. John F. Kennedy and a New Generation. Boston: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1988.

Hapgood, David, and Meridan Bennett. Agents of Change: A Close Look at the Peace Corps. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1968.

Hoopes, Roy. The Complete Peace Corps Guide, Third Edition. New York: The Dial Press, 1966.

Luce, Iris, ed. Letters from the Peace Corps. Washington, DC: Robert B. Luce, Inc., 1964.

Reeves, T. Zane. The Politics of the Peace Corps & Vista. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988.

Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.

Shriver, Sargent. Point of the Lance. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964.

The web site of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library at http://www.jfklibrary.org/

The Web site of the Peace Corps at www.peacecorps.gov.

OurDocuments.gov

The Documents

Executive Order 10924
March 1, 1961

Executive Order 10924
Click to Enlarge

View Pages: 1 | 2

National Archives and Records Administration
General Records of the United States
Record Group 11
National Archives Identifier: 300010

 

President Kennedy Greeting
Peace Corps Volunteers
August 28, 1961

President Kennedy Greeting Peace Corps Volunteers, 1962
Click to Enlarge

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
White House Photographs
Abbie Rowe, Photographer
National Archives Identifier: 194174

 

Public Law 87-293
September 22, 1961
Public Law 87-293

Click to Enlarge

View Pages: 1 | 2

National Archives and Records Administration
General Records of the United States
Record Group 11
National Archives Identifier: 299874

 

President Kennedy Greeting
Peace Corps Volunteers
August 09, 1962
President Kennedy Greeting Peace Corps Volunteers, 1961

Click to Enlarge

John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library
White House Photographs
Abbie Rowe, Photographer
National Archives Identifier: 194180

Teachers >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.