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In the spring of his inaugural year, President John F. Kennedy signed into effect what would perhaps become his most enduring legacy: a government volunteer program called the Peace Corps. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was created to send educated Americans overseas to assist developing areas with cultivating their own functioning societies. The Peace Corps was founded upon three main goals:
The altruistic goals of the Peace Corps aimed to nurture cooperation between the United States and the Third World as it was called at the time, but its foundation was born from a Cold War administration troubled by the Soviet Union’s increasing grip on the developing world. Anxious to prevent the further encroachment of communism, the Peace Corps was formed to support the development of Third World countries into capitalist nations. Many of the Peace Corps positions, today, still focus on teaching English as a second language or financial literacy of capitalism to local residents of developing countries, promoting an American way of growth as according to the modernization theory. While volunteers work in small, close-knit communities, the overarching effect of the Peace Corps has exerted American influence far and wide across the developing world. The Peace Corps has strongly refuted its role in the expansion of the American Empire, but an important question begs to be asked: is it possible to offer assistance in the development of countries without doing so in one’s own image, regardless of noble intentions?
Today, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to nearly 140 different countries to work in the sectors of agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth development. Despite its underlying tone of the imperialism, the Peace Corps has “concentrated on increasing productivity and encouraging self-reliance in the villages and towns often ignored by the more well-endowed development agencies” leading to satisfaction and collaboration among both volunteers and local peoples.
The seed that grew into the Peace Corps came from the ideas of Representative Henry Reuss and Senator Hubert Humphrey (Rice, 1985, p. 10). Both men proposed a coalition of American volunteers to travel to developing countries. While spending time in Southeast Asia, Reuss noticed the impact that local volunteers had on the small communities they were working in. When he returned home, Reuss was presented his ideas to the House floor for a “Point Four Youth Corps” which he proposed would send educated college-aged men and woman abroad to developing countries. The House Foreign Affairs Committee allocated $10,000 to research the feasibility of such an organization. This was the farthest the idea had made in Congress. Around the same time, Senator Hubert Humphrey coined the term ‘Peace Corps’. He had a similar vision to Reuss’s but wanted personal aid to target multiple sectors of “education, health care, vocational training, and community development”. The proposals of both men sparked much interest among college students and young people across the country, but they took longer to resonate within politicians. Reuss and Humphrey had an important hand in the thought-process behind the Peace Corps, but it was ultimately future-President John F. Kennedy that brought it to fruition.
Much of the 1960 presidential campaign surrounded candidates’ views on how to address the Cold War and the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed against each other to prove their superiority to the rest of the world; the first stood as an emblem for capitalism and the other for communism. Both believed their system of governance and economy was better than the other. The United States, feeling threatened by the spread of communism, began their policy of containment to keep the Soviet Union from further pushing the boundaries of its frontier (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, 2019a). Supplies and economic assistance were sent to democratic countries bordering the communist side of Eastern Europe.
This era was also marked by anti-colonial policies and the decolonization of countries in Africa and Asia. The United States and other imperial countries signed several charters promising to honor colonies’ rights to become independent states. As colonies fought for their independence from colonial empires, the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to influence whether they became capitalist or communist nations. Although the Cold War tension never amounted to war directly between the two superpowers, both the United States and the Soviet Union funded opposing sides of the civil wars in newly independent countries. The 1960s, however, brought new ideas about the policy of containment and how to support non-communist countries along with a new president.
American leaders were interested in ensuring the developing world remained on a trajectory towards modernization. The modernization theory in the 1960s described “how traditional societies moved along a convergent path toward a universal condition of modernity”, which to American officials meant a society marked by high mass consumption. It has been considered to be the “ideology” that determined the United States foreign policy decisions during the Cold War and era of anti-colonialism.
After beating out Senator Humphrey in West Virginia, John F. Kennedy was selected as the Democratic nominee. The party’s platform that election year recommended taking a stronger approach in the developing world against impinging communism. While the Democratic Party believed continued military support was necessary to maintain the national policy of containment, it also recommended aid in the form of educated diplomats like “tacticians” and “technicians” (Democratic Party Platforms, 1960). It charged the Soviet Union with hindering the ability of developing nations to blossom into independent states and called for a “revamp” of American foreign assistance policies saying:
The proper purpose of these programs is not to buy gratitude or to recruit mercenaries, but to enable the peoples of these awakening, developing nations to make their own free choices. We shall seek to associate other capital-exporting countries with us in promoting the orderly economic growth of the underdeveloped world…Communist strategy has sought to divert these aspirations into narrowly nationalistic channels, or external troublemaking, or authoritarianism…The Democratic programs of economic cooperation will be aimed at making it as easy as possible for the political leadership in these countries to turn the energy, talent and resources of their peoples to orderly economic growth.
Although, the platform also mentioned supporting the efforts of developing nations in solving “illiteracy, poverty, and disease”, it was more focused on the development of these countries into modern societies. The Democrats recognized that the United States’ lack of personal involvement in the developing world was allowing agents of the Soviet Union to expand their own platform. As the nominee, Kennedy focused a major part of his campaign on addressing this problem. He strongly believed the United States had a duty to fledgling countries to share with them the American values of democracy and freedom saying, “ …ideal contact is between peoples rather than governments’” (Rice, 1985, p. 25).
His first public announcement regarding a Peace Corps came during a rally in the middle of the night at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He posed the college students with a question: who of you is willing to volunteer overseas in an impoverished nation? Later, he would receive letters of support from 30,000 people who saw him talk passionately on television a Peace Corps to spread peace and good will in the world (DeVries et al., 1964). Kennedy spoke to voters of the Russians’ involvement in the developing world and its threat to democracy and freedom. He addressed the lack of Americans abroad during a campaign speech in November of 1960:
Placing America’s grave deficiency in the Cold War context, he said that diplomats skilled in languages, teachers, doctors, technicians, and experts in many fields were pouring out of Moscow to advance the cause of communism in the Third World. Again, he made an unfavorable comparison with the Lenin Institute, which was sending out hundreds of young people willing to serve at grassroots levels in emerging nations.” The United States might have been preventing the spread of communism by military means and economic aid, but it was failing to do so on an intellectual level. To Kennedy, the Peace Corps would be a means to combat the Soviet Union’s influence on vulnerable countries through philanthropy and volunteerism. He further ignited the spirit of competition in the American people who were watching closely as the Soviet Union’s reach seemed to creep even further.
After elected to office, President Kennedy quickly set his plans into motion. He appointed his brother-in-law Robert Sargent Shriver to lead a task force to determine the feasibility of a federal volunteer organization such as the Peace Corps. When Shriver’s report came back saying it was possible, Kennedy soon after signed Executive Order No. 10924 (1961) to establish the Peace Corps and asked Shriver to become its first director. In his public announcement of the order, he proclaimed:
Our Peace Corps, I want to emphasize, is not designed as a weapon of propaganda; is not designed as a tool in the Cold War. It is a genuine effort by the people of the United States, particularly those who are young to play their part in working for peace and improving the lives of all mankind. It comes, I think, from a deep historic and revolutionary experience that we have had. The people of this country are anxious to see a world in peace. Young people in this country are anxious to hold out their hand to people in other worlds. They will learn as much as they will teach.
His tune had changed slightly from the campaign trail. Now, Kennedy was framing the Peace Corps as a volunteer organization without any political or imperial motives, separate from the Cold War and the American empire. Before his election, Kennedy had emphasized the Soviet Union’s intention for sending its people to developing countries was to serve its purpose of imposing communism on the world, telling voters, “‘Our young men and women, dedicated to freedom, are fully capable of overcoming the efforts of Mr. Khrushchev’s missionaries who are dedicated to undermining that freedom…letting young Americans serve the cause of freedom as servants of peace…as the Communists work for their system’” (Rice, 1985, p. 15). He was unable to connect these same motivations to his administration’s push for a Peace Corps. The “cause of freedom” is the promotion of democracy in the world; a form of government that the American people subscribe to. Whether they were actually aware of it or not, the Kennedy administration created the Peace Corps as a way to spread this “freedom” throughout the developing world. As Rice (1985) explains in his book The Bold Experiment, “There was a hint of cultural imperialism about the Peace Corps in the Kennedy years. Endemic to that era was the idea that the export of American values and traditions, of themselves, would be of inestimable benefit to the rest of the world”. This “endemic idea” could be considered American exceptionalism, or the belief that Americans are unique among all others. The people of the United States carry a sense of pride for their value in the “absence of feudal structures, monarchies, and aristocracies” (Lipset, 1996, p. 19). These values stem from the Revolutionary War in which the American people became the first independent colony. The American people have become increasingly reliant upon the federal government in the last century due to the Great Depression and World War II, but they still maintain an “individualist” and “anti-statist” attitude. The United States clings to its title of exceptionalism, ignorant to the empire it has grown into. How could the group of colonies that once rose up against the powerful British Empire ultimately become one itself? The self-realization of themselves as an empire would challenge the very foundation of American values.
This ignorance may have been the greatest strength propelling the American Empire forward during the Cold War. The Kennedy administration was able to identify the seemingly nefarious intentions of the Russian agents infiltrating the developing world but could not recognize the Peace Corps as its own form of influence. In hindsight, it is quite obvious that the Peace Corps was a tool in the Cold War. Molly Giedel and George Lipsitz (2015), authors of Peace Corps Fantasies, aptly describe how the Peace Corps allowed the American Empire to influence the development of vulnerable countries and form them in the image of itself under the guise of altruism and foreign aid. They say the Kennedy administration produced “fantasies” of good will through the creation of the Peace Corps, “framing the Third World as an idealized frontier space where men bonded through physical tests while securing contested territory and promising cooperative Third World counterparts inclusion in these spaces in exchanged for participation in the U.S.-guided path to correct development”.
Leftist critics condemned the Peace Corps as a direct contradiction to the United States’ supposed commitment to decolonization of the developing world. They claimed it “functioned as an arm of American imperialism economic, cultural, and political” and “softened up Third World markets for American business”. They also harshly charged the Peace Corps with forcing “Western education, arts, and morals on Third world peoples with the express aim of keeping a firm grip on their political sympathies”. Director Shriver fiercely defended the Peace Corps saying “if people had the impression that thousands of young Americans were about to invade the developing countries then ‘they did not get it from anything the Peace Corps or the President had stated’”. He strongly emphasized the Peace Corps stipulation that countries must invite and welcome American volunteers meant it could not be an imperialistic organization. However, the way Shriver described the role of the Peace Corps in his 1964 book The Point of the Lance made it apparent how ignorant the Kennedy administration and U.S. leaders, in general, were to the American Empire. Shriver explained the United States needed to be actively involved in the modernization of decolonized counties and that the Peace Corps was “necessary ‘to recapture that leadership and assure the basic ideas of our revolution are neither misunderstood nor misused’”. The notion that the United States needed to be involved in developing world to ensure American values were understood and appreciated is a direct form of imperialism. This was almost impossible to avoid because “‘volunteers [believed] in America’s historic mission to spread the value of freedom of choice’” in the areas they served. Volunteers were expected to stay out of the local politics, but certain programs like community and youth development put volunteers in influential positions.
The Peace Corps created an “imaginary global brotherhood” between the United States and the developing world, masking American influence on Third World modernization as cooperation and understanding between both sides. In reality, the Peace Corps bridged a gap the Kennedy administration saw in the United States’ assistance to the developing world. The modernization theory that dominated Cold War foreign policy decisions believed “global poverty would be conquered by the widespread adoption of capitalist habits and values rather than the redistribution of resources” and the Peace Corps accomplished this.
Today, the Peace Corps is an admired organization which sends educated people abroad to dedicate two years of their lives to improve those of the less fortunate. The Peace Corps has certainly done that and more. A 2016 study published by the Peace Corps surveyed the people from 21 countries where volunteers were stationed to determine the effectiveness of their programs. Nearly 87% of respondents said the volunteers’ work accomplished Goal One because the projects were “much better” or “somewhat better” afterwards. They also found 90% of the projects to be sustainable after volunteers served, meaning the local people were motivated to maintain the work started by volunteers (Rohrbaugh, 2016, p. 4). Perhaps the Peace Corps was not founded with the purest of intentions, but there is evidence that in its nearly 60 years it has left a profound impact on the communities it has served.
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