President John F. Kennedy greets Peace Corps volunteers on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 9, 1962. Library of Congress photo

As the Cold War grew increasingly tense in the early 1960s, U.S. President John F. Kennedy envisioned an organization that would send skilled Americans overseas to assist in the development of low-income countries and promote world peace. Importantly, he stressed that the program would not be designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda. Rather, volunteers would be sent only to countries that requested assistance.

He first floated the idea during his presidential campaign. During his 1960 speech at Cow Palace in San Francisco, Kennedy challenged Americans to consider dedicating two years of their lives to service abroad. In response to the idea, he received more than 25,000 letters.

Just two months into his presidency in 1961, Kennedy signed an executive order to form the Peace Corps on a trial basis. By the end of the year, more than 600 volunteers had been sent abroad.

At the heart of this radical idea was collaboration: “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,” he said in his inaugural address.

A quarter-of-a-million Americans have served in the Peace Corps since its start 60 years ago, the most famous of whom may be Lillian Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter. In 1966, she traveled to India at the age of 68 and assisted patients with leprosy.

Today, volunteers are involved with projects in agriculture, community economic development, education, environmental conservation, health and youth development. The program operates in more than 60 countries on five continents, though most volunteers serve in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story