Peace Corps Signed Into Law 9/22/1961

This morning on NPR Garrison Keillor, as a part of his writer’s almanac series, honored Peace Corps and read part of Kennedy’s speech in Ann Arbor, MI.  Click the link here for the text or option to download the audio.

Kennedy first spoke about the idea of a Peace Corps in his final weeks of campaigning for the presidency. At 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, after a long day of campaigning, the young senator stood on the steps in front of the student union at the University of Michigan. The journalists had gone home, thinking that nothing more would happen that day, but 10,000 students remained, hoping to see and hear Kennedy. He gave a short speech, in which he said:

“I think in many ways it is the most important campaign since 1933, mostly because of the problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented to us in the 1960s. The opportunity must be seized, through the judgment of the President, and the vigor of the executive, and the cooperation of the Congress. Through these I think we can make the greatest possible difference.

“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.”

Within two months of taking office, Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Then, on this day, Congress authorized the executive order that Kennedy had signed, creating an agency whose purpose was “to promote world peace and friendship” by making available to interested countries American men and women “qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”

Since the start of Peace Corps, 195,000 volunteers and trainees have served in 139 countries. Currently, there are more than 7,800 volunteers (60 percent of whom are female) serving abroad in 76 countries.

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