Stanley Meisler is the author of When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. Meisler was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times for three decades. He was also deputy director of the Peace Corps’s Office of Evaluation and Research in the mid-1960s. Meisler, who lives in Washington, D.C., has written for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Smithsonian, and periodically posts news commentaries on his Web site.
March 1st marked the 50th birthday of the Peace Corps, but the anniversary celebrations are continuing for another six months, culminating in September when thousands of former Volunteers descend on Washington to lobby Congress, exchange memories, discuss the future, and party.
In a sense, the half year of celebration parallels the gestation of the Peace Corps 50 years ago. President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. But the Peace Corps was no more than an idea and a hope then. The President gave his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the enormous and complex assignment of molding a new agency out of an exciting but cloudy idea.
A madcap six months followed. Shriver hired a staff (preferring those who broke the bureaucratic mold like mountain climbers and sea captains), and the team sifted thousands of applications, selected potential Volunteers, rushed them to universities for high-speed training, and dispatched them overseas. The crucial job of persuading foreign presidents and prime ministers and royalty to invite the Volunteers, of cajoling Congress to approve and fund the new agency, and of sustaining the American public’s enthusiasm fell on the charming, irrepressible, idealistic Shriver.
On August 30, the first contingent of Volunteers landed in Ghana in West Africa. On September 21, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act by overwhelming votes. President Kennedy signed it into law the next day.
There are now more than 200,000 former Peace Corps Volunteers (who prefer to call themselves “returned Volunteers”), and many belong to associations based on where they now live like Boston Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or where they once served like Friends of Cameroon. These associations are sponsoring celebrations throughout the 50th anniversary year. Some like the early Ghana and Philippines Volunteers have published books about their experiences during the first year of the Peace Corps.
Universities, especially those with large numbers of Peace Corps alumni, have already staged symposiums, exhibitions and ceremonies in honor of the 50th anniversary. These include the University of Michigan, UCLA and the University of Wisconsin. Others joining them in the months ahead include Portland State University, Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, Bowdoin and Boston College.
In mid-summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which celebrates different ethnic cultures for a couple of weeks every year, will honor the Peace Corps this year by featuring crafts, foods, music and drama from groups helped by the Volunteers overseas.
The National Peace Corps Association, the main organization of former Volunteers, usually sponsors a national celebration in September every five years. There was one exception: The 40th anniversary events had to be postponed for a year because of the shock over the terrorism of 9/11 in 2001.
The association has scheduled a varied program in Washington September 21-25 including a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill, a symposium on the future of the Peace Corps, the laying of a wreath at the grave of President Kennedy in Arlington Cemetery, and a formal Gala with television news commentator Chris Matthews (a former Volunteer in Swaziland) as emcee.
Aside from the official activities sponsored by the National Peace Corps Association, there are a host of other events including separate reunions of Volunteers from many of the Peace Corps countries, a luncheon at the Library of Congress honoring Peace Corps authors, and pre-game ceremonies at the baseball park of the Washington Nationals.
It is a full anniversary year.
View all of the videos included in this post and more in our When the World Calls YouTube Playlist.