In an important victory for his Cold War foreign policy, President John F. Kennedy signs legislation establishing the Peace Corps as a permanent government agency. Kennedy believed that the Peace Corps could provide a new and unique weapon in the war against communism.
During the presidential campaign of 1960, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy promised to reinvigorate U.S. foreign policy. He charged that the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower had become stagnant and unimaginative in dealing with the communist threat, particularly in regards to the so-called Third World nations. Shortly after his inauguration in January 1961, Kennedy made good on his promise for a new and aggressive foreign policy. On March 1, 1961, he issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. As described by Kennedy, this new organization would be an “army” of civilian volunteers—teachers, engineers, agricultural scientists, etc.—who would be sent to underdeveloped nations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and elsewhere to assist the people of those regions.
Kennedy hoped that by improving the lives of people in less developed countries, they would become more resistant to the charms of communism and convinced of America’s sincerity and ability to help them. Many in Congress, however, were not convinced. The program carried a fairly hefty price tag. Though the participants were volunteers, they would need basic subsistence and, more important, tools and money to help the people they were sent to assist. Some members of Congress saw it as an expensive public relations ploy, foreign aid (which had never been popular with Congress or the American people) wrapped in a new ribbon. The program, however, actually turned out to have popular appeal. Stories about idealistic young Americans braving privation in foreign lands to help people grow better crops, build schools, or construct wells was good public relations material for the United States. In September 1961, Congress passed legislation establishing the Peace Corps on a permanent basis. A budget of $40 million for the next fiscal year was approved.
In the years after 1961, thousands of Peace Corps volunteers were sent around the world. Some faced indifference, some even faced danger. For the most part, however, the Peace Corps “army” proved to be a valuable, and relatively inexpensive, Cold War weapon for the United States. Most nations welcomed the idealistic volunteers, and their labor helped make better lives for hundreds of thousands of people. Though the Peace Corps is no longer viewed as a weapon against communism, its goal of improving lives remains intact.