The Peace Corps: A Wacky and Dangerous Idea

In 1960 not everyone thought the Peace Corps was a great idea. Many people (and some of them good people) thought it was a wacky and dangerous idea.

Former President Eisenhower declared it a “juvenile experiment,” and Richard Nixon said it was another form of “draft evasion.”

The Daughters of the American Revolution warned of a “yearly drain” of “brains and brawn…for the benefit of backward, underdeveloped countries.”

In those first few years of the agency, we didn’t know if the Daughters of the American Revolution and the other critics of the Peace Corps might not be right. Our joining up with Kennedy’s new venture might mean a stain on our careers for the rest of our lives.

And yes, it was a dangerous idea, but not in the way the Daughters thought. The Peace Corps changed us. It made us aware of the world in ways we never would have been if we had stayed at home. Like Margery Michelmore in Ibadan, Nigeria, we were initially shocked by the conditions in which most of the world lives daily. We were innocent. We were naive. We went into the Peace Corps as the Silent Generation, but because of our experience, we came home knowing that the peoples of the world did go to bed hungry every night, and did not have the opportunities we took for granted in America. The Peace Corps experience made us better citizens. It made us more involved and concerned about the welfare of the have-nots in our country and around the world.

 And a year after it all began, Time magazine declared in a cover story that the Peace Corps was the greatest single success of the Kennedy administration.

Can you top that Obama?

3 Comments

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  • had it not been for the Peace Corps volunteers, I will not be where I am today. So the Peace Corps was a great idea. I had PCV teachers from 1962 to 1968 in Asmara, Eritrea.

    Ghebre selassie Mehreteab

  • My wife and I were in Somalia at the height of the Vietnam War. Most of the PCVs in Somalia were opposed to our Government’s policies in Vietnam. Somalis were always surprised when we debated them in tea shops, expecting us to support the War. It gave us a great opportunity to show them that democracy in the U.S. meant that we could be sent overseas by the Government, be paid by the Government and still as free citizens, criticize our Government when we disagreed with its policies.

    Our closest and best friends today, 43 years later are still fellow Volunteers and Somalis we met then who are now living in the U,S.

  • I never thought about the Peace Corps being a potential “stain” on my career. From the moment it came to light the Peace Corps gathered more excitment and good wishes than any other idea floating around at the time. Joining the Peace Corps in the early 1960s was akin to signing up to fight faschism in the early 1940s.

    I do take issue with the idea that before the Peace Corps Americans had no idea of the world around them. Prior to the Peace Corps thousands of Americans had spent scool years abroad, usually living with a foreign family. Many other thousands had spent years working as missionaries in other lands usually living chock a block with their hosts. Many had worked in private business abroad. And of course millions of Americans had served in the US military abroad.

    Many thousands of Americans have actually taken up residence in other countries and at this time there are 4 million Americans living in other countries. Our universities are filled with scholars from other countries and foreign schools are filled with American scholars. My class in my own tiny high school had a foreign exchange student from whom we learned about the world around us.

    Now one could say that Peace Corps Volunteers are “different.” But I would counter that Volunteers are basically no different from their fellow countrymen. We all are exposed to the same basic culture, values, ideas, concepts and aspirations. We do not all come away with the same view points. But the experience is the same.

    And I would suggest that no PCV is more passionate in his or her desire to help the less fortunate than any missionary. I know that it is almost heresy to compare PCVs to missionaries but I do not believe that one or the other is more or less concerned about the less fortunate of the world.

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