In August 1963, Gene and Susan Paslov were Peace Corps volunteers in training at Georgetown University. Volunteers were warned by their supervisors not to attend the March on Washington, a major event in the history of the civil rights movement.
The Paslovs ignored the instruction and attended anyway, hearing some of the oratorical highlights of the 20th century, from Martin King’s now-familiar “Dream” speech to Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over.”
“Susan and I made our way to the speakers’ platform by the Lincoln Memorial and found some shade among those holding CIO and AF of L signs,” according to Paslov, later Nevada’s superintendent of schools. “It was a sea of humanity that had a calming effect on a nation caught in the midst of racial turmoil.”
Why warn Peace Corps volunteers away from this historic event? It’s a measure of how much things have changed that the Kennedy administration was so nervous about the march—troops were stationed outside the city—and anxious to keep those in one of its signature programs away from an event that had many detractors. And it was a mark of a forceful generation that the Paslovs, now of Carson City, made their own decision.
That generational daring probably helped lead the Paslovs and many other early volunteers into the new Peace Corps, which turned 50 years old this month.
In a campus speech at Ann Arbor on Oct. 14, 1960, Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts asked the students in his audience, “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?”
The positive response from the students—hundreds signed a petition supporting the idea—led Kennedy, the Democratic presidential nominee, to get a little more specific in a Nov. 2 San Francisco appearance where he called for “a peace corps of talented men and women” to aid what large powers liked to call “underdeveloped” nations. Six days later, Kennedy was elected president.
JFK lifted the idea from several lawmakers—U.S. Rep. Henry Reuss of Wisconsin and Sens. Richard Neuberger of Oregon and Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. Reuss proposed the idea in 1947 after he encountered four U.S. teachers setting up a school in Cambodia. Reuss and Neuberger actually got a pilot program approved by Congress. But the idea had not advanced much beyond that.
After Kennedy floated the idea in his presidential campaign, British reporter Alistair Cooke wrote that the candidate “was staggered at the mail he got” and tens of thousands of potential young volunteers had added their names to petitions calling for creation of the Corps. Thirty-nine days after he was sworn in as president, he created the Peace Corps by temporary executive order pending legislative authorization from Congress.
“Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy,” Kennedy said. “There will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”
Given how widely popular and non-controversial the Corps is now, the initial reaction by many politicians and commentators may be a surprise.
U.S. Rep. H.R. Gross called the Corps “a haven for draft dodgers” and said that since Africa would likely provide “principal roosting places” for the Corps, volunteers “may have to use sign language or smoke signals to communicate with the inhabitants.”
Red baiting columnist George Sokolsky said applicants to the Corps should be screened to make sure communists and homosexuals did not infiltrate. “Up to this writing,” Sokolsky wrote—the Peace Corps was in its twelfth day—“the Peace Corps has not declared an ideological position. It seems to be an activist effort, but experience has shown that action without an idea, without a motive, without an inspiration usually becomes futile. A movement without a banner, a slogan and a song, an idea and a hope—cannot get anywhere.”
Actually, inspiration was one thing the Corps did not lack. In fact, there was criticism that some volunteers needed less idealism and more skills. Critics seemingly wanted the well-intentioned screened along with the commies and gays. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News columnist Inez Robb wrote, “The Corps, once the ground rules are spelled out, will find its primary task is to weed out, from the thousands of applicants, the adventurers to whom the next pasture is always greener, the neurotics, the cloudy romantics and escapists who just want to put distance between themselves and home and mother.”
Others prized the idealism of the volunteers as a tonic against U.S. belligerence in the world. In November 1965, during the early months of escalation to war in Vietnam, journalist I.F. Stone wrote of the early rising rebel youth movement, “A substantial portion of our press is off like a lynch mob in full hue and cry against the student rebels. … This majority of the rebel minority is seeking the right to opt for national service, in the slums, in the South, in the Peace Corps. They ask that those who object to the war in Vietnam be allowed to serve on these other fronts. … This idealistic youth is the same youth already serving in Peace Corps abroad and poverty programs at home. They are the seed corn of a better future.”
In one way, the Corps was outrageous arrogance—a rich nation setting out to fix other nations. “What do you think of the idea of our Peace Corps?” JFK asked Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru praised the Peace Corps as a good way for privileged young Americans to learn from Indian villagers. “Whether or not Nehru was joking, and he almost certainly was not, Kennedy was not amused,” reporter Richard Reeves wrote.
But in fact, Nehru was perceptive, as Reeves later learned: “I was given some money by public television to collect old film of volunteers, then track them down and film them returning to the villages and nameless places they had been and see how life had changed because of their smarts and efforts. Well, in most cases, they had changed nothing—except themselves. … [W]e had produced a cadre of Americans who were, in a way, in the Peace Corps for life, working as world-wise teachers, community activists, health workers, diplomats, staffers of non-governmental organizations, newspaper reporters. … I doubt there are many Peace Corps alumni clubs on Wall Street.” But then Kennedy’s motive had always been to help the United States—in his Ann Arbor speech he spoke of “your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country.”
The Corps faced many obstacles to its survival over the years. President Nixon tried to end its visibility by burying it in a large volunteer agency called ACTION. President after president reduced funding. President Obama is now proposing a 10 percent funding increase, but it faces substantial opposition in the U.S. House. At its height in 1966, there were 15,000 volunteers. In January, Reeves wrote, “There still is a Peace Corps. Membership is about 8,000, but it is a shadow of its former self and its former promise.”
Some of the nations Kennedy mentioned in his various statements on the Peace Corps no longer exist. Tanganyika, one of the first two nations served, is now Tanzania. But the motivation of the volunteers has not changed much. “I didn’t know what I was going to do” after college, said Reno’s Grant Nejedlo, who served in Ecuador where he met his wife, RN&R staffer Kat Kerlin, also a volunteer. “After graduating in English literature, I wanted to get out and work hard in agriculture, and there was something that kind of appealed to me about rural projects with indigenous people.”
Looking back, he said, “I definitely gained a lot more than I gave. I walked away from that experience feeling that I learned a lot about myself and the world and hopefully contributed something.”