by Maria Madden
April 2009

1960s American culture is often equated with incredibly radical and counter-cultural movements. However, amidst the hippies, rock stars, cult leaders, and drug addicts, an equally radical yet infinitely more propitious group of people worked not to avoid society, but make it better. These young idealists would become the first members of the newly formed Peace Corps. Already having a spirit of service, these accomplished young adults would be further inspired by President John F. Kennedy, who shared their vision of a world without poverty. Yet, in as much as these young, brilliant, and optimistic minds were whole-heartedly determined to fight poverty at any level, they were still children of the Red Scare. Various publications from the 1960s suggest that the youth were  enthusiastic about joining Kennedy’s Peace Corps for two reasons: they were passionately committed to ending world poverty, and they had a subtle fear of the Soviet Union spreading their communist ideology through similar humanitarian efforts.

Established in 1961, the Peace Corps was not the first organization to mobilize youthful enthusiasm for global relief efforts. Small-scale humanitarian organizations had experienced a great deal of success due to the response of optimistic young adults. In The New York Times article, “A Force of Youth as a Force for Peace,” Gertrude Samuels discusses how one such organization, Operation-Crossroads Africa, would have been a flop had it not been for students at Occidental College taking interest in the project. Pastor Dr. James H. Robinson had tried to gather volunteers to assist him in helping needy villages in Africa.  Unable to find support amount his contemporaries (Samuels 61), he appealed to the student body at Occidental.  According to the article, 900 students rallied together to send 10 students to Africa with Dr. Robinson (Samuels 61). Other organizations mentioned in this article, such as the International Voluntary Service Committee and the American Friends Service Committee, relied on young college graduates to take their energy and idealism to some of the furthest and poorest comers of the world in hopes of making those remote areas better places. Another New York Times article, “Kennedy’s ‘Peace Corps’ Program Wins Support From the Nation’s Colleges,” discusses how organizations like Americans Committed to World Responsibility, founded at the University of Michigan, are springing up on college campuses across the United States (News E7). These articles make it apparent that the youth were displaying a true concern for the world even before the Peace Corps was brought into being.

Evidently, American youths were concerned for the poor of the world before the Peace Corps; yet, during this same time the Cold War intensified. The post-war generation, traumatized by the violence of the recently passed Second World War, was looking for purpose in a cause that brought about significant change in a creative and essentially good manner. However, the threat of a world ruled by communist tyrants also had a significant effect on the American psyche. At the same time Dr. Robinson was organizing his mission to Africa, the Soviet Union was establishing its reign throughout Eastern Europe. The Marxist doctrine of a classless “worker’s paradise” that was being instilled in the people of the U.S.S.R. utterly horrified Americans. The founding values of the United States rested centrally on the concept of liberty, which gave every citizen the right to pursue life and happiness however they saw fit. To rob a human being of this liberty, as the Soviet government was doing, was seen by Americans as a gross injustice. As the Soviets attempted to spread their ideology to the third world through grassroots humanitarian efforts, Americans became increasingly frightened of the prospect of communist ideology being embraced by other nations. The author C. P. Snow takes note of the Soviets’ efforts and warns Americans that if they do not act out of either “goodwill or enlightened self interest” (Samuels 61), the communists would succeed in winning the hearts and minds of the poor of the world, wrecking havoc on the already unstable world community.

Although well aware of the looming communist threat, President John F. Kennedy took office on January 20, 1961, with an optimistic attitude. He found that his own enthusiasm for restoring the dignity of every global citizen was matched ten-fold by the youth who had already shown that they were ready to work for a just and peaceful world. Kennedy’s inspiring rhetoric and genuine concern for the global community built momentum amongst the youth for active humanitarian service. In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously calls on his “fellow Americans” to work for a better world, saying:

ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.  (Kennedy 3)

Kennedy held all people accountable for the world they create and, garnering great respect from his constituents, they heeded his call to service.  This accountability is reflected in one particular advertising poster for the Peace Corps, which asked, “What in the world are you doing?”  This question was not aimed at those volunteers who served in the third world but rather at those who remained complacently at home.  All citizens of the United States were being called upon to answer this pointed question with a firm sense of purpose.

However, as much as Kennedy stressed that Americans should be optimistic about the future, he also knew that the fear of a pan-communist movement was still deeply embedded in the minds of many citizens. In his inaugural address, Kennedy frequently alludes to this undertone of fear. When discussing his plans to help those who are in need abroad, he makes it clear that Americans are volunteering out of virtue and absolutely “not because the Communist are doing it” (Kennedy 2). Kennedy also reminded Americans in this speech that the threat posed by the Soviets was not to be run away from nor was it to be attacked in a violent manner, saying that as global citizens we should “never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate” (3). Although optimistic in his approach, this recurring topic of fear lets us know, as Gertrude Samuels writes, that “the Soviet campaign to influence people [was] clearly on everyone’s mind.” (61) .

Whether their motive for bringing about global social justice was sincere care, “enlightened self-interest,” or a mix of both, unprecedented enthusiasm was energetically offered by many citizens, especially the youth, in support this new movement. As  Samuels put it, Kennedy had “reached directly into the hearts and minds of thousands of young men and women” (1). “Recruits Flocking to Join Corps,” an article by David Halberstam published in The New York Times, states that “President Kennedy is reported to have received more letters about the peace corps than about any other issue” (1). Spellbound by a government program that fully engaged their talent, time, and energy, these optimistic youths were willing, according to one letter, “to spend the rest of [their lives] in work like this because it can mean so much to our country” (Halberstam 13).

Although this vivacious energy may not be immediately remembered when history recalls the 1960s, the Peace Corps movement was nonetheless a significant cultural event of that time. Whether citizens of the United States were moved to help their fellow global citizens out of altruism or out of fear, they battled world poverty with incredible enthusiasm. These first Peace Corps volunteers left a vibrant legacy of service, which has been handed down to the current generation. Today, the Peace Corps is still changing the world for the better, with volunteers who work tirelessly to bring about positive social change in the poorest and most desolate parts of the world.

Works Cited

Halberstam, David. “Recruits Flocking to Join Corps.” New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 2 Mar. 1961, 1-2. ProQuest Historical Newspapers:  The New York Times (1851 – 2004). ProQuest. Reinsch Library. Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 11 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>.

Kennedy, John F. “Inaugural Address.” 20 Jan. 1961. 3 Feb. 2008. <http://www.bartleby.com/124/ pres56.html>.

“News Notes: Classroom and Campus: Kennedy’s ‘Peace Corps’ Program Wins Support From the Nation’s Colleges.” New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 18 Dec. 1960, E7. ProQuest. Reinsch Library. Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 11 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>.

Samuels, Gertrude. “A Force of Youth as a Force for Peace.” New York Times (1857-Current file) [New York, N.Y.] 5 Feb. 1961, SM26. ProQuest Historical Newspapers:  The New York Times (1851 – 2004). ProQuest. Reinsch Library. Marymount University, Arlington, VA. 11 Mar. 2008 <http://www.proquest.com>.

“What in the World Are You Doing?” Poster. JFK Library. 11 Mar. 2008. <http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/JFK+in+History/Peace+Corps.htm>.

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