03/02 – The Peace Corps

JFK greeting young members of the Peace Corps in 1961. (Peace Corps)

On this day in 1961, American president John F. Kennedy ordered the foundation of the Peace Corps, a volunteer organization dedicated to providing various sorts of aid to developing (or Third World) nations. Concerned by stereotypes that Americans were a violent and greedy people, Kennedy sought to provide a program for American college students to serve overseas in a non-military capacity. During two years of service, Peace Corps members were to aid in the development educational, infrastructural and healthcare initiatives designed to foster peace prosperity. As of 2020, over 235,000 Americans have taken part in the program.

A map indicating areas the Peace Corps has worked in (purple) or is currently active in (blue). (Wikimedia Commons)

Naturally, the Peace Corps was a controversial organization from its inception. Some members of the American government argued that the program was a waste of resources; members of the Soviet Union complained it was a covert tool for American imperialism. During the Cold War, critics held that the Peace Corps was merely a “neo-colonial” effort at exerting control over the world’s poorer countries, or a weak attempt at improving America’s image through poorly organized charitable efforts. Whatever the case, the Peace Corps was a manifestation of 1950s-era American optimism that saw the election of president Kennedy, the “space race”, and the forward-looking mass media like “The Jetsons”. Although the aforementioned spirit of optimistic American idealism was forever tainted by the Vietnam War and Watergate, the Peace Corps lived on, functioning as a model for newer institutions and NGOs.

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