The Creation of the Peace Corps, March 1, 1961

On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed the executive order to create the Peace Corps. Three weeks later, on March 22, he would name Sargent Shriver as its first Director.

JFK signs the Peace Corps Act and gives the pen to Sarge

Sargent Shriver believed deeply that the Peace Corps was a cornerstone of peacebuilding, and that it needed to play a central role in our foreign policy and diplomacy. A disruptive, innovative idea at the beginning of the 1960s, the Peace Corps continues to play a significant role in allowing Americans to serve in communities abroad, bringing us closer to our brothers and sisters in developing countries. With new challenges coming about from the effects of climate change, war, pandemics, and other crises, Peace Corps volunteers could play an even bigger role in serving vulnerable communities everywhere — if our leaders would dare to innovate and evolve as President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver did.

Below Sargent Shriver’s Remarks at the Peace Corps 35th Anniversary posted on the home page of the

The Sargent Shriver Peace Institute

              In 1964, in the early days of the Peace Corps, the Foreign Minister of Thailand welcomed me to Bangkok. He gave a brief speech. Four sentences from that speech have ever since been framed and displayed in all the offices where I have worked, overseas, or here at home. The four sentences are as follows: —

“It is indeed striking that this most important idea, the most powerful idea in recent times, of a Peace Corps, of youth, mingling, living, working with youth, should come from the mightiest nation on earth, the United States. Many of us who did not know about the United States thought of this great nation as a wealthy nation, a powerful nation, endowed with great material strength and many powerful weapons. But how many of us know that in the United States, ideas and ideals are also powerful? This is the secret of your greatness, of your might, which is not imposing or crushing people, but is filled with the hope of future goodwill and understanding.”

             Those words express the original dream and the reality of the Peace Corps. It was a dream, or a vision, of what the United States should mean, and could mean to all peoples, at all times, and in all places, on the whole earth. It is a vision that was embodied in 12,500 Volunteers working around the world in 1965. It is a vision our nation has not supported fully since those early days. Sad to say, the Peace Corps was cut from 12,500 Volunteers overseas in 1965 to 6,000 in 1970. And, its size has continued small through the 70’s and 80’s, and now in the 90’s, we are still only 6,800, approximately, in number. This year, moreover, the Peace Corps budget is being reduced again…if only by another 6%.

             The Foreign Minister of Thailand saw that the secret of our greatness, as he expressed it, rested in our ideas and ideals, not on our military, or economic might, or leadership in politics. Where does his vision of the Peace Corps stand today? Regrettably, most Americans do not know very much, if anything, specific about that vision, or the Peace Corps’ fulfillment of it. If they did, they would be fighting against reductions in the Peace Corps’ budget. The vision and success of the Peace Corps is respected, but financially, Congress has not invested more and more dollars in the Peace Corps, year after year after year. The Peace Corps today should have at least 35,000 Volunteers serving abroad, exemplifying, physically and continuously, the best in American political theory and idealism. But, we struggle to maintain even the 6,800 we now have.

              In contrast to the Peace Corps, the Defense Department, this year, will receive seven billion dollars more than it requested from Congress! The Peace Corps will be lucky, they say, to receive a budget cut, only, of 6%. The Peace Corps’ total budget is less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Defense Department’s budget. Even the smallest part of the Defense Department’s armed forces, the famous U.S. Marine Corps, is eight times bigger than the Peace Corps, with a budget ten times larger than the Peace Corps. Of whom, or of what, are we, healthy, prosperous, well-armed, Americans so afraid that we must spend 251.8 billion dollars on defense?

Defense against whom or what? Remember the challenge, — “Put your money where your mouth is?” Today, we put our money where military power is, where economic power is, where physical control lies. We do not pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to our own country. We have forgotten those words. Instead, we hire soldiers and sailors to give their lives, if required, to our defense and prosperity. “Mercenaries” such troops were formerly called. Do we still strive to live in accordance with our “sacred honor” as the Declaration of Independence phrased it? Just read your daily newspaper. You will find the answer to that question in the numbers of murders, the huge number of successful prosecutions by the Securities Exchange Commission on Wall Street, and the unbelievable number of sexual crimes against women.

                Today, how many would pledge “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to anyone, or anything? What’s even worse, — no one is even asking us to do so! That’s part of Bob Dole’s problem. That is also part of Pat Buchanan’s appeal. He at least is trying to rally everyone to fight for their own selfish interests! Bob Dole, a very decent and good man, doesn’t seem to know what he is asking us to do, or why we should join him in fulfilling his dream for our country. What is his dream anyway? What difference does all of this make? To me, it means there’s lots of work for all RPCV’s to do, all present and former staff members to do, and all believers in the Peace Corps to do.

                First, I think we need to participate in a profound rethinking and re-commitment to a Peace Corps greatly expanded, because the need for the Peace Corps is much, much larger today than in 1961 when Kennedy launched this Movement. Second, we need to present a new explanation to the Americans of 1996. We must explain why the Peace Corps is just as important, maybe more important, to the future vitality of our country than the Peace Corps was when President Kennedy challenged Americans to make it work. In brief, why shouldn’t Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, and yes, Pat Buchanan, all guarantee to enlarge the Peace Corps? Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we have not told them why and proved to them that the Peace Corps, like the Defense Department, should be increased, not decreased. The 21st Century needs ideas and hopes for humanity just as startling and new and presumptuous as our 18th Century Declaration of Independence and our 18th Century Constitution. In those 18th Century days, most practical, down-to-earth people thought we American colonists, revolutionaries, if you prefer, were a bit crazy. In their minds, they asked themselves, “Who do writers of those documents think they are? What power do they have? Against the British Empire? Against European Kings, Queens and Nobles? Against Indian Rajah? Against Chinese absolute Emperors? Against War Lords everywhere?”

                The power Jefferson had, and Madison, and Adams and Washington, and many others shared, was the power of the mind and of the heart, and of the soul. They were ready to risk everything — “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” — for what? For a new world of laws, and a world giving specific, important rights to all citizens, a world which specifically itemized Government’s obligations to everyone. Today, our Defense Department is actively studying and restudying its role, functions, needs, etc., in relation to the realities of military power and potential military actions everywhere. They are trying to justify the need for themselves and their work. The C.I.A. is struggling to define reasons for its own continued existence now that its “target enemy,” the USSR, no longer exists. Many citizens are asking “Why do we need a C.I.A. when there is no K.G.B.? Within the cabinet, the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Commerce are both struggling to explain the need for the continued existence of their Departments. And so are many other U.S. Governmental agencies and activities.

                 What about the Peace Corps? Is the Peace Corps less necessary for the 21st Century than during the years when Kennedy started the Peace Corps and foreigners like the leaders of Thailand, and of India, and Africa, and South America and endorsed his initiative? Can Peace Corps Volunteers working overseas today perform better than host country nationals, or better than private sector, business leaders and workers? Is the Peace Corps needed at all now that there is no Cold War? Yes, we have 130,000 RPCV’s here at home, but can we prove what their presence contributes to the American economy? Or to American politics? Or to American spiritual values? Have they changed anything in American life for the better? Do they even vote more regularly than other citizens? Fortunately, we do have Cabinet Members, and Senators, and Congress persons who have been Volunteers. But do most Americans think the Peace Corps should be larger than it is, even 5 or 10 times larger than it is?

                What reasons or justifications or objectives do we Peace Corps veterans have for our own country and for all people of the world in the next Century? Does our Peace Corps experience give us any special ability of clarity to see what the 21st Century will need? Suppose all nations become just like us in politics and economics, and democratic values. Is that “it?” Will the mission of our country and our raison d’etre be fulfilled and finished? If not, what do we have to offer beyond representative democracy; private business freedom, growth in personal wealth; plus equal rights before and within the law?

                I do not mean to disparage these precious rights in any way whatsoever. It has taken 210 years for most of the world to believe in and accept these rights – It has taken 25-30 years, an entire generation for most Americans, I believe, to accept the idea of the Peace Corps- The United States, moreover, has already made huge contributions to civilization, to freedom of the individual human being, and respect for the legal rights of all peoples.

                But, I ask again, is that the end of our mission as a nation? Is nothing else needed for the 21st Century?

                 Why do we need a Peace Corps, when we’re cutting budgets for programs at home? Yes, even Head Start is being cut, and Job Corps has been fighting for its life, and so have VISTA.

                Why do we need a Peace Corps when people here are losing jobs and foreigners keep adding to our population?

                Five years ago, I proposed putting the Peace Corps and VISTA together. I still think that’s a good idea. There is a no less expensive way to deal with human disasters taking place in our biggest metropolitan areas. There is no better way to help people to help one another than to enlist selfless volunteers in the task… there is no better way to reawaken in America the spirit of yesteryear, namely, that this country is our country, that we are all here together, responsible for one another and our common heritage and destiny. We are not a nation of hedonistic individuals, selfish, self-indulgent, spoiled by affluence and consumer goods,– destined to live and die in shopping malls.

                 Pat Buchanan does indeed have an audience for his retreat into selfishness. And almost every European country has its own Pat Buchanan, politicians who rail against all foreigners. Its France for the French; Austria for Austrians; Germany for Germans; Serbia for Serbs. Kill those Muslim. “Get them out of our country. Yugoslavia for Slavs.”

                 What a change from earlier years. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Alcide de Gasperi, all united in the war against Hitler, Stalin and their allies.

                 Were all these Western countries united only because they had enemies in common?

No! I say and believe. Yes, they did have enemies… conspicuous, frightening enemies:– Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini et al. But was it only their enemies who untied them? Again, I sat “no”. In addition to enemies, they had visions of a united Europe,– even at one point a vision for a United States of Europe. They and we took specific financial and political initiatives to re-invigorate Europe:– The Marshall Plan, NATO, The European Union.

But what do we propose today? What new vision or visions do we propose for the next Century?

                   President Clinton took a big, big step in creating NAFTA. But does the Peace Corps, the RPCVs, all of us old-timers, all of us together, have any vision to the purpose for the 21st Century especially for the Peace Corps in the next century?

                   The United States should not stand part, or rest on our laurels, or act only if threatened. Our country is still young. But what can we do? We are as well-placed and experienced as any other civilian group. Why don’t we RPCVs and early staff members express our hopes and convictions concerning the Peace Corps, and its mission for the next centuries just as Jefferson spoke for our country in the Declaration of Independence?

Bill Moyers could write our new Declaration with clarity and eloquence. Together with experienced, loyal, imaginative RPCVs and well-chosen Peace Corps staff members, Moyers could pen a new Declaration. With help from others he could describe what the Peace Corps believes in and offers to the 21st Century. A new Declaration could project the spirit and vision of 1776 forward into the 21 Century even beyond. That new Declaration would explicitly summarize the world problems of today just as Jefferson itemized the problem in the thirteen colonies which necessitated the creation of a new entity,– the U.S.A… Our fledgling nation was founded on new political, new economic, and new social realities then appearing for the first time in history.

                    Please don’t tell me it was easier than for Jefferson, Madison, Washington, Adams, et al, to explain their vision of a new nation. It was not easy in 1776 and 1781, and it won’t be easy in 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, or even in the year 2000 A.D… But a New World is struggling to be born, the New World of instant communications, or microchips, cybernetics, of Internet, of outer space, now extending 385 trillion light-years from our planet. This immense New World does require a new vision.

                    Don’t tell me that Moyers and Mankiewicz and Warren Wiggins, Tom Scanlon, Loret Ruppe, Chris Dod, Christopher Shays, Paul Tsongas, Bill Haddad, Walter Carrington, Harris Wofford, Bill Josephson, Mike Tidwell, Bellamy, Patti Garamendi and Paul Tierney, etc… can’t describe what’s needed to establish and maintain world peace, human respect for all peoples, equitable economic development, and as FDR phrased it, “freedom from fear, freedom from want”.

                   Does everyone remember the thoughtful and eloquent and visionary, thirty-one-page essay Warren Wiggins wrote proposing a National Peace Corps in 1961? He called it “The Towering Task”. That title came from President Kennedy’s State of the Union Address to Congress, January 30, 1961. Kennedy wrote:–

“… We must improve our economic tools. Our roles is essential and unavoidable in the construction of a sound and expanding economy for the entire non-communist world… The problems in achieving this goal are towering and unprecedented as well…”

                   Well today, my friends, we have a new “Towering Task”. This time we must prove, eloquently, why the Peace Corps is more needed than ever, why Peace, not War, is absolutely necessary if humanity is to overcome the threat of nuclear war.

                    The Towering Task stands before us once again. We must prove for the next century what “the secret of our greatness, of our might, lies not in imposing or crushing people, but in our ability to fill all peoples with the hope of future good will and understanding”.



Leave a comment
  • Reading this speech, made me realize once again how inspirational Sarge was and how badly we need such moral leadership today. I believe there are 230,000 RPCVs today. Yet we are basically are unorganized. At one NPCA conference, a Congressman (a RPCV whose name I forget,) said the NRA annual conference has 100,000 + attendees. He challenged us – Where are those numbers for an RPCV conference, he asked. Can’t we organize and come together with our shared experiences to help build a more equitable, just and decent society? Can’t we at least organize around one single issue – properly fund and expand the Peace Corps – and let more returned volunteers take their place in American society and bring more of the Third World back home? I hope so.

  • RPCV are all over our country. Everyone I know is working in NGOs, as Volunteers with migrants, children, etc. There is a facebook group for RPCV for Political Action. Last June, Congressional Republicans voted to defund the Peace Corps for a year, which of course would have have meant the effective end of Peace Corps. The NPCA mobilized the RPCV Community within a week, every Congressional Representative heard from at least one RPCV in his or her District. There were ove 10,000 responses.

    I have non-RPCV friends who are still in awe of that volunteer response. As for a properly funded and expanded Peace Corps, please see the NPCA request which was just posted on this page, asking RPCVs to do exactly that!

    I understand, Marty, how great it would be to see 100,000 RPCVs marching for Peace and programs to support that. But let us acknowledge what is being done and done well. My Colorado Representatives have not signed the Peace Corps funding letter and I am contacting them as soon as I post this!

  • We should feel a sense of shame that our Dept. of Defense spends more on veterinary medicine than our nation does on sustaining a Peace Corps abroad.

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