Peace Corps becomes law (1961)

On September 22, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps Act, securing the long-term continuation of an ideal inspired nearly a year before by candidate Kennedy.  Since then, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have volunteered to serve the developing nations of the world in 141 countries.

The idea for the Peace Corps was just that—an idea—spoken by John Kennedy during a campaign visit to the University of Michigan on October 14, 1960.  Kennedy had arrived late in Ann Arbor, but to not disappoint a crowd of 10,000 Michigan students waiting to hear him, he agreed to speak at 2 AM for a few minutes.  During those remarks, he posed the idea of young Americans volunteering abroad:

“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 in the 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.”

Peace Corps volunteers in the Marshall Islands, 1968 (photo by the Trust Territory of the Pacific)

Almost immediately, Michigan students and other began volunteering to do just what Kennedy had asked—even though no program existed.  The idea was so popular, however, with polls showing 71% approval rate, that Kennedy began using it as a core part of his final drive to win the election.

And as soon as he was elected, he assigned R. Sargent Shriver to get the project started.  With Shriver’s encouragement, President Kennedy signed an executive order on March 1, 1961, establishing a temporary Peace Corps (March 1 is often considered the birthday of the Peace Corps).  Congress passed bills to establish it permanently, with its own appropriation, and President Kennedy signed the act into law on September 22, 1961.  The simple two-page law established an idealistic purpose for the agency:

“…the purpose of this Act to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help people of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other people on the part of the American people.”

The Peace Corps has remained popular with young Americans. These are being sworn in in Madagascar (photo by US Embassy to Madagascar)

Since then, the Peace Corps has remained a stalwart part of America’s international development aid and diplomacy.  According to official Peace Corps statistics, as of September 30, 2016, more than 225,000 Americans have served in 141 countries.  Today, about two-thirds are women; 30% are minorities.  The average age of volunteers is currently 28, and 7% are older than 50.  Nearly half (47%) of Peace Corps volunteers work in Africa, targeting the part of the world in most need of improved nutrition, health care and education.  The second biggest target is Latin America, with 19% of all volunteers.

The Peace Corps program understands the essential connection between poverty, public health and the environment—the idea of sustainability as defined by Gro Harlem Brundtland and now used throughout the world.  Consequently, 9% of Peace Corps volunteers work in environmental and conservation areas, including environmental education and awareness, protected area management and natural resource conservation.  Another 7% work in agriculture.

References:

National Archives Catalog.  Act of September 22, 1961 (Peace Corps Act), Public Law 87-293, 75 STAT 612, Which Established a Peace Corp to Help the People of Interested Countries and Areas in Meeting Their Needs for Skilled Manpower.  Available at:  https://catalog.archives.gov/id/299874.  Accessed September 22, 2017.

Peace Corps.  Environmental.  Available at:  http://files.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/learn/whatvol/onesheets/onesheets_environment.pdf.  Accessed September 22, 2017.

Peace Corps.  Fast facts.  Available at:  https://www.peacecorps.gov/news/fast-facts/.  Accessed September 22, 2017.

Peace Corps.  The Founding Moment.  Available at:  https://www.peacecorps.gov/about/history/founding-moment/.  Accessed September 22, 2017.

Wofford, Harris.  2011.  Big, Bold and Fast:  A little Peace Corps history on its 50th Anniversary.  Obama White House Archives.  Available at:  https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/03/01/big-bold-and-fast-little-peace-corps-history-its-50th-anniversary.  Accessed September 22, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

January 1
NEPA Enacted (1970)
January 2
Bob Marshall Born (1901)
January 3
Canaveral National Seashore Created (1975)
January 4
The Real James Bond Born (1900)
January 5
National Bird Day
January 6
Wild Kingdom First Airs (1963)
January 7
Gerald Durrell Born (1925)
January 8
Alfred Russel Wallace Born (1823)
January 9
Muir Woods National Monument Created (1908)
January 10
National Houseplant Appreciation Day
January 11
Aldo Leopold Born (1887)
January 12
National Trust of England Established (1895)
January 13
MaVynee Betsch, the Beach Lady, Born (1935)
January 14
Martin Holdgate Born (1931)
January 15
British Museum Opened (1795)
January 16
Dian Fossey Born (1932)
January 17
Benjamin Franklin, America’s First Environmentalist, Born (1706)
January 18
White Sands National Monument Created (1933)
January 19
Yul Choi, Korean Environmentalist, Born (1949)
January 19
Acadia National Park Established (1929)
January 20
Penguin Appreciation Day
January 21
The Wilderness Society Founded (1935)
January 22
Iraq Sabotages Kuwaiti Oil Fields (1991)
January 23
Sweden Bans CFCs in Aerosols (1978)
January 24
Baden-Powell Publishes “Scouting for Boys” (1908)
January 25
Badlands National Park Established (1939)
January 26
Benjamin Franklin Disses the Bald Eagle (1784)
January 27
National Geographic Society Incorporated (1888)
January 28
Bermuda Petrel, Thought Extinct for 300 Years, Re-discovered (1951)
January 29
Edward Abbey, author of “Desert Solitaire,” Born (1927)
January 30
England Claims Antarctica (1820)
January 31
Stewart Udall, Secretary of Interior, Born (1920)
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