Foreign Assistance Act of 1961

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Why has the Peace Corps been considered a success?

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The election of the young, attractive senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency stood in sharp contrast to the campaign of the individual against whom he competed, Vice President Richard M. Nixon.  While the administration of Dwight Eisenhower, under whom Nixon served as vice president, can fairly be viewed as having been a successful period in U.S. history, by the time of the 1960 campaign, Eisenhower and Nixon presented a more mature and sclerotic image than the vibrancy associated with Kennedy and his wife, Jacquelyn Bouvier Kennedy, and much of the country was very enthusiastic about the start of the Kennedy Administration.

One manifestation of the new spirit of volunteerism was the creation of the Peace Corps, about which then-Senator Kennedy had propounded during a campaign speech on October 14, 1960, at the University of Michigan:

“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?  Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?  On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years of service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.  I think it can!  And I think Americans are willing to contribute.  But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”

The optimism and enthusiasm with which the new administration was greeted by its supporters included this new emphasis on volunteerism captured in Kennedy’s inaugural address, in which appealed to the nation’s youth to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  Kennedy’s appeal to volunteerism in far away, desperately poor parts of the world struck a responsive chord with many young Americans, who joined the newly-established Peace Corps, and who have continued to do so 50 years later. 

The Peace Corps has been successful because it appeals to the better nature of young Americans who also seek adventure before addressing the decisions on how they will direct the remainder of their lives.  The opportunity to travel to areas like Africa, Latin America, Asia and, since the end of the Cold War, Eastern Europe continues to appeal to many who crave the adventure and positive role they can play in helping those less fortunate themselves.  The sense of service in support of mankind – as well as the opportunity to represent their country in a positive capacity – continues to be a driving factor in decisions to join the Peace Corps, as does the emotional or mental connection many feel to the long-lost era of Camelot. 

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