One of John F. Kennedy’s most enduring contributions to American civic life began as little more than an afterthought in the waning days of his 1960 campaign for the White House.
No one’s really sure why he bothered to bring it up—the idea hadn’t sparked much interest before, and there was little reason to think it ever would.
But his three-minute improvised speech to a 2 a.m. throng of University of Michigan students, in which he challenged them to volunteer for public-service work abroad, caught fire. From that speech, a movement would give rise to a new federal agency that remains one of the few tangible policy achievements of Kennedy’s short time in office.
“How man of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” Kennedy asked from the steps of the Michigan Union, thousands of young men and women massed around him. “Technicians or engineers: how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”
Most of the journalists covering the campaign had gone to bed by then, or didn’t see much worth reporting. The students, however, took up the challenge. With encouragement from some Kennedy advisers, they circulated a petition asking classmates to pledge to spend their post-graduate years working in the developing world—Africa, Asia, Latin America. Hundreds signed.
Kennedy didn’t learn of the reaction until a couple weeks later, and saw an opportunity to harness the new American idealism that he hoped to embody—and compete with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of countries that had not yet taken sides in the Cold War. In the campaign’s final week, Kennedy formally proposed the creation of a “peace corps.” Thousands responded with letters of support.
“If the students didn’t run with it, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” said Stanley Meisler, a journalist and former Peace Corps administrator and author of “When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and its First Fifty Years.”
Even after Kennedy beat Richard Nixon, the proposal remained low on the new president’s list of priorities. He wanted to proceed cautiously. “His idea once he became president was, ‘Let’s have a small number of volunteers go out and hope they don’t cause too much trouble,'” Meisler said.
It took one of JFK’s most trusted deputies—his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver—to turn the concept into a more far-reaching program. Shriver, tapped to run the new project, persuaded the president to act big, and act quickly. It worked: within two months of JFK’s January 1961 inauguration, the Peace Corps had been officially created, and by August the first group of volunteers were headed to Africa.
Kennedy saw that inaugural group off in a ceremony on the White House lawn. Walking back to the Oval Office, he told an aide, Harris Wofford, that he now had big expectations.
“This will really be serious when it’s 100,000 volunteers a year,” Wofford recalled Kennedy saying. “And in one decade there will be a million Americans with first-hand experience in Asia, Africa, Latin America.”
That was clearly overambitious. But the Peace Corps became wildly popular. The number of volunteers abroad grew to nearly 3,000 within the first year of operations. By 1966, three years after Kennedy’s death, the number climbed past 15,000.
That would end up the peak of participation, a high-water mark for a program that has since been battered by politics, foreign wars, budget squeezes and crimes committed by and against volunteers. But the Peace Corps remains committed to its original goal to provide skilled manpower to impoverished countries. More than 210,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries as teachers, public health aides, farmhands, and other development roles. Many have gone on to become members of Congress, journalists, university presidents, civil-rights leaders or public school teachers.
“Two-hundred-thousand is an achievement in terms of what the Peace Corps has done and affected lives,” said Wofford, a former U.S. senator who helped develop the program, oversaw its Africa operations and went on to serve as the agency’s associate director. “And yet what an opportunity it was that we lost…in terms of numbers.”
Today the Peace Corps suffers from what could be called a public relations problem—a interesting twist given that its early successes were built on the Kennedy mystique. Many people don’t realize that the Peace Corps remains in operation. There are only around 8,000 volunteers currently in the field. The agency has been without a full-time director since late 2012. Even some advocates admit that it’s difficult to show the tangible results of its five decades of work on behalf of the world’s poor.
Many former volunteers say their work overseas mattered less than the world-expanding experience they took home with them.
“I’m sure everyone you talk to will say they got more out of it than they gave,” said Ann Morgan, who first volunteered as a teacher in Nigeria in 1962 and later served administrative roles in Asia. “It’s the person-to-person exchange that is the importance of the Peace Corps, not the jobs you do.”
C. Payne Lucas, who was so inspired by Kennedy’s call to service that he left college in 1962 to enlist, said he was disappointed in the lack of job training. But that was overshadowed by the cultural impact of returning volunteers.
“The biggest byproduct (of the Peace Corps) is the breakdown of culture and color barriers,” said Lucas, who went on to run the agency's operations in Africa and later founded the aid organization Africare. “It’s very difficult to find an ex-Peace Corps volunteer who is racist.”
He added: “All this spirit that Jack Kennedy created needs to be renewed. The Peace Corps was colorblind, and America will not realize its potential until it becomes colorblind.”
Wofford, one of the few remaining people from Kennedy’s inner circle, believes that if his old boss were still around he’d be disappointed that the Peace Corps wasn’t bigger. But Kennedy would also have to keep in mind that he originally feared the initiative, the product of improvisation and idealism and creativity, would become a fiasco. That was far from the case.
A couple years ago, the Peace Corps celebrated its 50th anniversary with a parade of thousands of former volunteers through downtown Washington D.C., carrying flags from the countries they served. The procession, miles long, was an extraordinary symbol of the program's impact.
Had Kennedy seen it, Wofford said, he might have smiled and concluded: “Well done.”