Reflections on the Peace Corps

Alan Guskin, as most people know, was one of the key influences in the creation of the Peace Corps and went from the University of Michigan to Thailand with the first group of PCVs. He has had a long career in education and is currently the President Emeritus of Antioch University, where he was President and then Chancellor from 1985-97. This is a short except from his essay, A Way of Being in the World: Reflections on the Peace Corps 30 Years Later. It was published in the The Antiochian in the Fall of 1991. It is republished here with Alan’s permission.

. . .

The Peace Corps began in a light drizzle at 2 a.m. in the morning on Oct. 14, 1960, near the end of a tumultuous presidential campaign.  John Kennedy won the election a few weeks later, the hopes of a new generation of the 1960s began to unfold and the Peace Corps became a reality on March 1, 1961.  Founded in spirit on that evening in an off-the-cuff impromptu speech to 10,000 waiting students at the University of Michigan, the birth of the Peace Corps owes much to the spirit of social justice embodied in the civil rights movement, the students’ stirrings for change on campuses throughout the nation, the innocence and incredible optimism of a new decade and the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.

I was present on that rainy night 30 years ago, and along with a few others, formed a group that showed that students would respond to Kennedy’s challenge of whether we were prepared to serve in the developing nations.  It is said by chroniclers of the Peace Corps that Kennedy was moved by the Michigan student response.  A short time later he gave a major campaign address on the Peace Corps, just one week before election day.  He met privately with a group of us on the following day.  Eleven months later I entered the Peace Corps and served two and a half years in the first group to Thailand.

The Peace Corps reflected the spirit of John Kennedy;  in fact, in many countries Volunteers were called Kennedy’s children.  Kennedy was obviously not a radical, nor a revolutionary; neither was, nor is, the Peace Corps. Kennedy represented a new spirit and style domestically and internationally; so did the Peace Corps.

Kennedy’s significant influence on this nation was tied most directly to his spirit — his youthfulness, his willingness to take risks, his love of challenges, his ability to stimulate Americans and citizens of other nations to believe in the American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all people, and his ability, at times, to act as a moral leader of a generation by asking people to serve others.  But Kennedy was full of contradictions.  For, while his spirit seemed real, so too was his fierce pragmatism, his Cold War mentality, and his seemingly macho personal image.

Kennedy’s strong support of the Peace Corps reflected the contradictions he seemed to express elsewhere.  He seemed clear in his commitment to tapping the idealism of America’s youth to help with the social, economic, and technological change in the newly emerging nations of Africa and Asia as well as the developing nations of Latin America.  But the Peace Corps was also seen as part of the Cold War.   In this regard, it was seen as this nation’s best international public relations tool.  Kennedy’s hard-nosed pragmatism probably demanded all of these perspectives as justification for his interest in the idealism of the Peace Corps.

Like Kennedy, the Peace Corps also had its share of seeming contradictions.  Volunteers were not typically the tough political idealists who marched in the South or rode the freedom buses.  While supporting these forms of activism for civil rights, they were more gentle liberals for whom the physical risks growing out of the confrontations in the South were personally too threatening.  Yet serving in the Peace Corps proved to be a significant personal and physical risk, the “toughest job you’ll ever love” — to quote the advertisement.  There was no physical violence against the Peace Corps, but few Volunteers escaped without significant illnesses, many life-threatening.  Some died from these illnesses.

Another seeming contradiction was that the Peace Corps’ creation and ultimate success was tied directly to the idealism of young people, those who served overseas were people who believed in making a difference by serving others in need.  But, the Peace Corps’ ability to function overseas, as well as be supported in domestic political circles, was tied to the international politics of the Cold War and the desire for the United States to be seen as a nation of peace facilitating significant economic and social changes in developing nations.   And it was tied to the Peace Corps’ identification with President Kennedy; not only his personal support but the fact that its director was the President’s brother-in-law.  This relationship was not lost on the leaders of the developing nations.

So, while cold war pragmatism swirled around the Peace Corps along with America’s more idealistic commitment to the development of third world nations, the real success of the Peace Corps, I believe, was and is the people-to-people, non-political nature of its programs and its specific assignments.  The impact of the Volunteers was on the individuals with whom they worked–specific, live human beings — and their own personal growth.  Peace Corps volunteers did not create broad-scale changes;  they effected individual people’s lives.  For the Volunteers, the Peace Corps was a noble and humble undertaking.  Returned Volunteers will tell everyone who will listen that we gained much more than we gave.

The Peace Corps today remains important in doing what it always did well — creating people-to-people programs where host country individuals and programs are well served and Peace Corps Volunteers are deeply affected by their service. My sense is that returned Volunteers truly understand this and foreign policy professionals have difficulty with it.  The Peace Corps is an effective instrument of U.S. foreign policy only to the extent that serving individuals and groups in other nations is considered as a good, and that developing an ever-growing cadre of Americans who are emotionally committed to the needs and interests of people in the developing nations is seen as a good.

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