On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issues Executive Order #10924, establishing the Peace Corps as a new agency within the Department of State. The same day, he sent a message to Congress asking for permanent funding for the agency, which would send trained American men and women to foreign nations to assist in development efforts. The Peace Corps captured the imagination of the U.S. public, and during the week after its creation thousands of letters poured into Washington from young Americans hoping to volunteer.
The immediate precursor of the Peace Corps—the Point Four Youth Corps—was proposed by Representative Henry Reuss of Wisconsin in the late 1950s. Senator Kennedy learned of the Reuss proposal during his 1960 presidential campaign and, sensing growing public enthusiasm for the idea, decided to add it to his platform.
In early October 1960, he sent a message to the Young Democrats that called for the establishment of a “Youth Peace Corps,” and on October 14 he first publicly spoke of the Peace Corps idea at an early morning speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The night before, he had engaged Vice President Richard Nixon in the third presidential debate and was surprised to find an estimated 10,000 students waiting up to hear him speak when he arrived at the university at 2 a.m. The assembled students heard the future president issue a challenge: How many of them, he asked, would be willing to serve their country and the cause of freedom by living and working in the developing world for years at a time?
The Peace Corps proposal gained momentum in the final days of Kennedy’s campaign, and on November 8 he was narrowly elected the 35th president of the United States. On January 20, 1961, in his famous inaugural address, he promised aid to the poor of the world. “To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery,” he said, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.” He also appealed to Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
After March 1, thousands of young Americans answered this call to duty by volunteering for the Peace Corps. The agency, which was headed by Kennedy’s brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, eventually chose some 750 volunteers to serve in 13 nations in 1961. In August, Kennedy hosted a White House ceremony to honor the some of the first Peace Corps volunteers. The 51 Americans who later landed in Accra, Ghana, for two years of service immediately made a favorable impression on their hosts when they gathered on the airport tarmac to sing the Ghanaian national anthem in Twi, the local language.
On September 22, 1961, Kennedy signed congressional legislation creating a permanent Peace Corps that would “promote world peace and friendship” through three goals: (1) to help the peoples of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; (2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and (3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
By the end of 1963, 7,000 volunteers were in the field, serving in 44 countries. In 1966, Peace Corps enrollment peaked, with more than 15,000 volunteers in 52 countries. Budget cuts later reduced the number of Peace Corps volunteers, but today more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers are serving in over 60 countries.
The Peace Corps also became the model for the domestic national service programs VISTA (1965) and AmeriCorps (1993), and inspired the creation of the Foster Grandparent Program (1965), RSVP (1969), and the Senior Companion Program (1974), now known as AmeriCorps Seniors.