Where Did The Three Goal of the Peace Corps Come From?

Quiz any RPCV or PCV and they’ll tell you the three goals of the Peace Corps. While the wording varies from one publication to the next, these are the goals: (1) Contribute to the development of critical countries and regions; (2) Promote international cooperation and goodwill toward the country; (3) Contribute to the education of America and to more intelligent American participation in the world. 

Now, those are the stated goals, and I know that they have been tweaked with by staff and PCVs over the last 49 + years. For example, “living at the level of the HCNs” is often stated as Goal # 2.

But the question is, who came up with these goals and why only three? Or why not just one?

Well, at the famous Mayflower Hotel when the task force began to draft the proposal to give JFK that would define what “Peace Corps” was, a clear statement of purpose was needed. Harris Wofford explains in his book Of Kennedys and Kings that there were many long discussions of how to state the reason for the new agency. He writes that there were at times as many as a dozen goals listed by the Mayflower Gang who were creating the new agency.

Some members of the task force wanted a single purpose, or at least a central one. “Peace” was the overriding purpose, and as many as a dozen “purposes” were argued about, until Shriver sat down and wrote out three that we have today, it could have been something else, but what Shriver and the others wanted with a new form of overseas work, Volunteers who would not be missionaries, business representatives, government officials, intelligence agent, or researchers. Nor would they be high-level experts or advisers. Peace Corps Volunteers would be different. They would go with a different purpose, operate in a different relationship to their host country colleagues, and presumably return with different results.

Volunteers would break the pattern of government aid experts, as Wofford wrote in his book, who often operated at too high a level. There was a humorous story told then about American advisors that made this point. When the prize American bull, sent by the U.S. aid program, was put in the pasture with the cows, he just looked around. When asked why he didn’t do something, the bull replied, “I’m an adviser.”

I can say with confidence that wasn’t how PCVs saw their roles.











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  • The context of the Three Peace Corps goals needs amplification. In 1961, the Cold War war was a freakin’ obsession in America. To push PC legislation through Congress, it was necessary to integrate intensive training of new recruits in the Theory and Practice, dare I write it[?], of Marxism-Lennisim. In my PC training group we absorbed three hours per week on the subject. Thus could Shriver and Moyers go to the Hill and intimate that Volunteers – once in place overseas – would be personal bulwarks against the Red Menace. It was nonsense, of course, but in those days, there were Congresspeole who really thought Peace Corps Volunteers would stand on soap boxes in their barrios and inveight against the Soviet Union and Maoist China!

  • There is a wonderful line in the movie, “The Secret of Santa VItoria,” the funny movie about an Italian village that tries to hide its wine stores from the occupation Germans. Knowing that the Germans will beat up, if not worse, the town’s mayor to find the wine they elect the town drunk played by Anthony Quinn to the office. When his wife, who owns the town’s bar, asks him, “Why they elect you, whatta you know about being de mayor?” Quinn responds that they elected him because, “I smell the people and the people smell me.” And that is what the Peace Corps is to me, we smelled the people and they smelled us. The goal was to promote better understanding of each other.

  • Dick Irish:

    I loved the explanation for all the indoctrination on Marxism-Lennisim. But just as John Coyne explained that each new PCV is the First PCV, I think that each PCV brings their own experience to the how and why of his/her service, and so there are really now over 200,000 Peace Corps.
    Let me tell you about mine:

    Our Marxism-Lennsim training consisted of a graduate level course in Russian history by an expert in the field. It was excellent. i do remember that “someone came out from Washington” and challenged an auditorium of trainees to a debate on the merits of communism vs. our system. A wonderful woman from our group, a demure appearing Irish Catholic graduate of an all female Catholic college accepted the challenge. She made mincemeat of him and he flew back to Washington. Our ability to defend our country was never questioned again.

    In Latin America, perhaps because of the long history of United States intervention, I certainly found myself, if not defending the United States, certainly explaining our system. Castro was a hero among the young men in the highschool in my area and I was engaged by them in discussion. There was ambiguity about Castro because it was widely held that he had been behind the Kennedy assassination. While I was in Colombia, FARC began to make itself known and it was Marxist supported. Although, I never knew anyone to defend FARC.

    I have a theory about the elements of the early Peace Corps training. I think it had to do with what happened to the American POWs captured during the Korean War. Some of them were “brain washed” by their North Korean captors and were used for propaganda to denounce the United States. That was a major concern of the United States military and a lot of study went into why that happened. Two conclusions were that the GIs were not knowledgeable about their own government and that they had no group “cohension.”

    I believe that there was real concern that naive young Americans in the Peace Corps could be psychologically “captured” by well trained Marxists in the Third World and used for propaganda purposes. Hence, training was designed to give potential PCVs a grounding in their own government and also a strong group identity. I think that the horrific selection processes, the constant observation, the intense physical training had as one goal the development of a strong group identify. I think that worked. My training group became my family. Even now, those of us who served in the sixties identify by Group Number. I will always be Colombia XI. However, I also need to say I have made a search of original documents in the Peace Corps archives at College Park and I could find absolutely nothing to substantiate my theory. My search was by no means exhaustive, but nothing and nobody referenced training in the context of the POWS in the Korean War.

    Finally, as an Army brat, I was obsesssed with the so-called Cold War. It was sixty years ago, almost to the day that my father put me, my mother and mysisters on a midnight flight out of Japan and then he got on another plane and flew to Korea on what was understood to be a possible suicide mission. We were in Germany during the Hungarian Revolution and my dad taught me to drive so that I would be able to evauate my family if the Russians tanks came across the border. I remember the helplessness I felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, I vowed then that the next time, nuclear was was imment, I could say to myself that I had done my best to stop it.

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