Who Established the Peace Corps?
The Peace Corps was established by President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961 and became a permanent United States government agency under The Department of State in the following September. Its aim, in the words of President Kennedy, was to create, “a pool of trained American men and women sent overseas by the United States government to help foreign countries meet their need power.”
Volunteers for the Peace Corps must be United States citizens and at least 18 years old. An accepted volunteer is assigned to a project requested by a foreign country and prepares for his or her task by studying for three months at a United States college or university. During this time he or she learns the language, history, politics and customs of the country to which he or she is to be sent. When they go overseas, they work directly with the inhabitants of the country, speaking their language, sharing their lives and receiving a living allowance comparable to that earned by the people among whom they are working.
The normal term of service is two years. In 1961 about 900 volunteers served in 16 different countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa and the number has risen steadily each year. Two years after its foundation the corps won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the 10,000 dollar prize which is the Asian equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize. This had never before been won by a non-Asian group.
Although the earliest volunteers were typically thought of as generalists, the Peace Corps had requests for technical personnel from the start. For example, geologists were among the first volunteers requested by Ghana, an early volunteer host. An article in Geotimes (a trade publication) in 1963, reviewed the program, with a follow-up history of Peace Corps geoscientists appearing in that publication in 2004. During the Nixon Administration the Peace Corps included foresters, computer scientists, and small business advisors among its volunteers.
In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed director Loret Miller Ruppe, who initiated business-related programs. For the first time, a significant number of conservative and Republican volunteers joined the Corps, as the organization continued to reflect the evolving political and social conditions in the United States. Funding cuts during the early 1980s reduced the number of volunteers to 5,380, its lowest level since the early years. Funding increased in 1985, when Congress began raising the number of volunteers, reaching 10,000 in 1992.
After the 2001 September 11 attacks, which alerted the U.S. to growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organization within five years as a part of the War on Terrorism. For the 2004 fiscal year, Congress increased the budget to US$325 million, US$30 million above that of 2003 but US$30 million below the President’s request.
As part of an economic stimulus package in 2008, President Barack Obama proposed to double the size of the Peace Corps. However, as of 2010, the amount requested was insufficient to reach this goal by 2011. In fact, the number of applicants to the Peace Corps has declined steadily from a high of 15,384 in 2009 to 10,091 in 2012. Congress raised the 2010 appropriation from the US$373 million requested by the President to US$400 million, and proposed bills would raise this further for 2011 and 2012.
According to former director Gaddi Vasquez, the Peace Corps is trying to recruit more diverse volunteers of different ages and make it look “more like America”. A Harvard International Review article from 2007 proposes to expand the Peace Corps, revisit its mission and equip it with new technology. In 1961 only 1% of volunteers were over 50, compared with 5% today. Ethnic minorities currently comprise 19% of volunteers. 35% of the U.S. population is Hispanic or non-White.