Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Steven Saum (Ukraine 1994-96)
Now 60 years old, the Peace Corps can be more than a Cold War artifact,
By investing in engagement and exchange with other people, a better world is possible.
By Lacy Feigh (Ethiopia 2012-14)
March 5, 2021
In his inaugural address, President Biden called on Americans to not draw inward to their own political camps at home, and internationally to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” It was both a call for healing and a recognition of our brokenness in this moment.
It also echoes a call made 60 years ago when political and social pushback threatened to block the civil rights movement domestically, and the Cold War divided the world. Then President John F. Kennedy offered Americans his own inaugural challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Only two months later, in March 1961, Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, making real his campaign promise to establish a national Peace Corps with the mission to promote world peace and friendship.
As the coronavirus pandemic has re-erected geographical borders and the era of President Donald Trump made devastatingly clear long-simmering racial and social conflicts, our country is longing for bold ideas rooted in cross-cultural understanding and radical empathy.
One path forward is looking to our past: a new commitment to and reorientation of the United States Peace Corps that could work with a renewed focus, not as a tool of foreign aid, but as a way for all Americans to engage, listen to and learn from the rest of the world.
As a candidate for U.S. president in 1960, Kennedy talked about the global importance of Americans committing to public service. He asked a crowd of students at the University of Michigan how many of them would be willing to commit to years of service abroad to better their own country.
It was not just an altruistic idea. It was strategic — domestically and internationally. A corps of citizen ambassadors could counter popular narratives of American diplomatic ignorance and help fill a growing State Department in need of bureaucrats familiar with other cultures and languages. Additionally, it could help the United States establish allies in newly independent African states that were understandably wary of continued external intervention.
Later, as the war devastating Vietnam grew more unpopular, the United States needed to rebuild its image abroad. Better than any major foreign policy agenda, these citizen diplomats would supposedly espouse values of “freedom” and “capitalism” across the globe by circumventing governments and forging individual relationships with people.
Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, took on the task of bringing the new Peace Corps to life. He visited foreign leaders to discuss new sites and checked on recently-placed volunteers in the field. Together with early Peace Corps staffers like Harris Wofford and Program Officer Charles Nelson, Shriver coordinated with leaders from Colombia to Thailand to establish programs. Within a year, over 2,800 volunteers served in 28 host countries across the globe.
Early detractors of the Peace Corps, such as Richard Nixon, saw it as a way for young American men to avoid the draft. Though this accusation aligned with the antiwar sentiments of many early volunteers, the Peace Corps only offered these volunteers a deferral, not exemption from their local draft board. Until 1967, volunteers could be, and sometimes were, recalled from service with the Peace Corps and sent to fight in Vietnam.
For many, volunteering for the Peace Corps was also a pragmatic choice. They wanted to see the world, and perhaps help others along the way. Volunteers quickly came to understand that they gained much more from their experience abroad than they ever provided. When recalling their service, this early generation of volunteers speaks of the empathy, understanding and relationships that continued to inform their lives years later.
Despite threats to its funding in the waning years of the Vietnam War, the Peace Corps retained funding and bipartisan support in Congress throughout its history. In the early 1970s, the Nixon presidential administration reclassified the Peace Corps, moving it from the State Department to a new agency for service programs called ACTION. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter — whose mother, Lillian, served as a volunteer in India at the age of 68 — signed an executive order granting the agency autotomy.
Over the years, presidents have downplayed the role the Peace Corps plays in American life, and instead have used the organization to highlight their own foreign aid priorities. President Ronald Reagan emphasized computer literacy and small business programs. During the Bill Clinton administration, a $21 million increase in funding aimed to bring in a more diverse corps of volunteers that included people of color, older volunteers and LGBTQ volunteers, and highlighted the global fight against HIV/AIDS. President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiative expanded this fight even further, making HIV/AIDS prevention a key goal across Peace Corps sectors. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama emphasized girls’ education programs through the Let Girls Learn initiative.
In the past four years, President Donald Trump signaled his dislike of foreign aid with constant threats to cut Peace Corps’ numbers and funding — none of which came to fruition.
Yet despite widespread support, the organization has often faced challenges and critiques largely from former volunteers and at times from community members where they have served. Even with stringent regulations forbidding intelligence agency involvement, the fear and possibility of CIA plants plagued the organization from its beginning until recently. Others have criticized the organization for failing to serve as an efficient form of development across the world.
But criticisms and the Trump administration’s disdain for international engagement did not ultimately curtail the program: that took the global coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, the program was suspended and all volunteers hastily evacuated. As coronavirus vaccinations ramp up and it becomes safer for volunteers to return to their posts, how should the United States think about the program? At 60 years old, has the Peace Corps outgrown its time and relevance?
Viewed as an organization meant to provide foreign aid and development, maybe. But as a vehicle to build relationships, empathy and experiences, it is as important as ever.
It is the unbridled idealism and hope embedded in the goals of the Peace Corps — to promote better understanding on the part of Americans and people across the world — that are urgently needed today. From covid-19 to climate change, our current and future challenges will require nothing less than global cooperation and solutions.
Unlike boutique government programs aimed toward high-achieving students with specific research or language goals, the Peace Corps provides opportunities to a vast swath of Americans. It brings together Americans from all races, creeds, ages and economic backgrounds, and it exhibits to the world the promise that the United States strives to fulfill. To volunteers it offers the opportunity to connect, to learn and to grow. And for this opportunity, it requests that volunteers contribute a skill to their community — not economy-shifting foreign aid — but a small offering for being welcomed into the community.
This moment demands rethinking how Americans engage with the world. After an administration that actively hollowed out international institutions and goodwill, a renewed commitment to the world is necessary to show that this behavior was anomalous. A commitment not based on dominance and strength, but on respect, compassion and friendship. Just as it did 60 years ago, the Peace Corps offers us a way forward: By investing in engagement and exchange, we create a better American community, and, in turn, a better world.
Lacy Feigh is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pennsylvania and previously served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yirgalem, Ethiopia.