Background & history
Since the end of the Second World War, various members of the United States Congress had proposed bills to establish volunteer organizations in the Third World. Privately funded non-religious organizations had been sending volunteers overseas since the 1950s.
John F. Kennedy first announced his own idea for such an organization during 1960 presidential campaign at a late-night speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14. During a later speech in San Francisco, California on November 1, he dubbed this proposed organization the "Peace Corps". Critics of the program (including Kennedy's opponent, Richard M. Nixon) claimed the program would be nothing but a haven for draft dodgers. Others doubted whether college-aged volunteers had the necessary skills. The idea was popular among college students, however, and Kennedy continued to pursue it, asking respected academics such as Max Millikan and Chester Bowles to help him outline the organization and its goals. During his inaugural address, Kennedy again promised to create the program.
Established & authorized
On March 1, 1961, Kennedy signed an Executive Order which officially started the Peace Corps. Concerned with the growing tide of revolutionary sentiment in the Third World, Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the notions of the "Ugly American" and "Yankee imperialism," especially in the emerging nations of postcolonial Africa and Asia. 1 2
On March 4, Kennedy appointed Sargent Shriver to be the program's first director. Shriver was tasked with fleshing out the organization, which he did with the help of Warren W. Wiggins and others. Shriver and his think tank outlined the three major goals of the Peace Corps and decided the number of volunteers they needed to recruit. The program began recruiting volunteers that following July.
Until about 1967, applicants to the Peace Corps had to pass a placement test that tested "general aptitude" (knowledge of various skills needed for various Peace Corps assignments) and language aptitude. After an address from Kennedy on August 28, 1961, the first group of volunteers left for Ghana and Tanzania. The program was formally authorized on September 22, 1961, by Congress, and within two years, over 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers were serving in 44 countries. This number would jump to 15,000 in June of 1966, the largest number in the organization's history.
Despite its success over the past four decades, the organization was tinged with scandal in its first year. On October 13, 1961, volunteer Marjorie Michelmore in Nigeria wrote a postcard to her boyfriend in the U.S. in which she described the "squalor and absolutely primitive living conditions" of Nigeria. Somehow, the postcard never made it into the mail. A Nigerian student at the University College at Ibadan found it and made copies to distribute around campus. Nigerian students accused the volunteers of being spies of the U.S. government or agents of imperialists. The story was picked up by the international press, and some people began to question the future of the program as a whole. After several days of isolation imposed on volunteers by angry Nigerian students, the American personnel went on a hunger strike. Organizations such as the Nigerian-American Society and the Organization of Nigerians Trained in America also came to the Peace Corps' defense. Finally, the Nigerian students agreed to open a dialogue with the Americans.
In July 1971, President Nixon brought the Peace Corps under the umbrella agency, ACTION. Peace Corps would remain under ACTION until President Jimmy Carter declared it fully autonomous in a 1979 executive order. This independent status would be further secured when Congress passed legislation in 1981 to make the organization an independent federal agency.
Peace Corps started to branch out from its traditional concerns with education- and agriculture-related projects. In 1982, President Reagan appointee Director Loret Miller Ruppe initiated several new business-related programs. For the first time, large numbers of Republican volunteers joined their Democrat counterparts as overseas volunteers, and the organization gained a reputation as a non-partisan endeavor.
However, funding cuts during the 1980s dropped the number of volunteers to 5,380, its lowest level since the organization's early years. Funding increased again in 1985, and Congress passed an initiative to raise the number of volunteers to 10,000 by 1992.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks alerted the nation to growing anti-US sentiment in the Middle East, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organization within five years as a part of his "War on Terrorism." Congress later passed the proposed budget increases for the 2004 fiscal year.
- 1961 - 10924 - Establishment and administration of the Peace Corps in the Department of State (Kennedy)
- 1962 - 11041 - Continuance and administration of the Peace Corps in the Department of State (Kennedy)
- 1971 - 11603 - Assigning additional functions to the Director of ACTION (Nixon)
- 1979 - 12137 - The Peace Corps (Carter)