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50 Years of the Peace Corps

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. The idea for the Peace Corps came from an impromptu speech made a few months earlier by then-Senator Kennedy at the University of Michigan, in the final few weeks of his presidential campaign. At about two in the morning on the steps of the Michigan Union, he presented an idea to a crowd of restless students for an organization that would rally American youth in service. Though the speech lasted barely three minutes, his germ of an idea morphed dramatically into Kennedy's most enduring legacy. From this offhand campaign remark, shaped speedily by President Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, in 1961, the organization ascended with remarkable excitement and publicity, attracting the attention of thousands of hopeful young Americans.

Watch President Kennedy's announcement made fifty years ago today.

President John F. Kennedy Announces The Executive Order to Form Peace Corps (YouTube)

Whentheworldcalls Of course, what transpired in those months between an inspiring speech and the establishment of a transformative institution-- not to mention what has happened in the fifty years since-- is a fascinating story, one you can now read in When the World Calls, the first complete and balanced look at the Peace Corps's first fifty years. Revelatory and candid, Stanley Meisler's engaging narrative exposes Washington infighting, presidential influence, and the Volunteers' unique struggles abroad. Meisler deftly unpacks the complicated history with sharp analysis and memorable anecdotes, taking readers on a global trek starting with the historic first contingent of Volunteers to Ghana on August 30, 1961.

The Peace Corps has served as an American emblem for world peace and friendship, yet few realize that it has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. Tracing its history through the past nine presidential administrations, Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when Volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; he reveals how Richard Nixon literally tried to destroy the Peace Corps, and how Ronald Reagan endeavored to make it an instrument of foreign policy in Central America. But somehow the ethos of the Peace Corps endured, largely due to the perseverance of the 200,000 Volunteers themselves, whose shared commitment to effect positive global change has been a constant in one of our most complex-and valued-institutions.

This past weekend, the LA Times published an essay by Meisler about the legacy of the Peace Corps:

Fifty years on, what has the Peace Corps accomplished? It's possible to cite the pounds of fish sold or the pounds of honey produced under volunteer projects. But how do you measure the influence of an inspiring teacher? Or the effect on an impoverished teenage boy such as Alejandro Toledo, who, with volunteers' help, goes on to college and becomes the president of Peru?

But there is no difficulty measuring the impact of the Peace Corps on the United States. Half a century after Kennedy's call, the Peace Corps' greatest achievement may be the volunteers themselves.

Peace Corps alumni include two U.S. senators — Chris Dodd of Connecticut and the late Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts — and nine members of the House of Representatives, as well as governors of Wisconsin and Ohio and the mayor of Pittsburgh. One Cabinet member was a volunteer: Donna Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration and now the president of the University of Miami. Ten other volunteers are presidents of universities and colleges.

More than 20 have served as ambassadors or assistant secretaries of State; others went on to become teachers, doctors, economic development specialists. The novelist Paul Theroux heads a long list of Peace Corps writers, and the roster of journalists includes Chris Matthews of MSNBC and George Packer and Peter Hessler of the New Yorker. The founders of Netflix and the Nature Co., and the board chairs of Levi Strauss and the Chicago Bears, were also volunteers.

In all, some 200,000 Americans have lived, often in the remotest of villages, in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Eastern Europe — places most other Americans can't find on a map. We would not have this enormous asset today without the Peace Corps. That is surely worth a birthday celebration.

This Thursday, Meisler will appear at the John F. Kennedy Library at a forum celebrating the anniversary. Register to attend here or watch the live webcast on the JFK Library website.

Read an excerpt from When the World Calls here or at Scribd. Did you or someone close to you serve in the Peace Corps? Please share your memories in our comments.

When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, excerpt