By Andrew Glass, March 1, 2016, published in Politico


On this day in 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. In September, the Democratic-led Congress backed Kennedy’s initiative by providing $40 million — about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars — as an initial annual appropriation.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy had suggested that the United States should create a new “army.” This force would be made up of civilians who would volunteer their time and skills to help underdeveloped nations raise their living standards.

In a message to Congress, Kennedy wrote that the people of these nations are “struggling for economic and social progress.” “Our own freedom,” he continued, “and the future of freedom around the world, depend, in a very real sense, on their ability to build growing and independent nations where men can live in dignity, liberated from the bonds of hunger, ignorance and poverty.”

At the time, post-colonial conflicts were breaking out in Africa and Southeast Asia. The administration warned the lawmakers that some of them — in Laos, the Congo and elsewhere— could become Cold War battlefields.

During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Americans — particularly young people — served in dozens of nations in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Peace Corps volunteers helped build sewer and water systems; constructed and taught in schools and assisted in developing new crops and agricultural methods to raise productivity.

At first, Congress was dubious. Rep. H.R. Gross (R-Iowa) branded the concept a “utopian brainstorm” that would aggravate the federal deficit.

In response, Rep. Marguerite Stitt Church (R-Ill.) — who had traveled widely in sub-Saharan Africa — entered the well of the House to recount her trips abroad where she had seen foreign-aid dollars misspent and misdirected in the battle for the developing world.

Here is something that is aimed right, Church said, “which is American, which is sacrificial — and which, above all, can somehow carry at the human level, to the people of the world, what they need to know; what it is to be free; what it is to have a next step and be able to take it; what it is to have something to look forward to, in an increase of human dignity and confidence.”

Rep. Catherine May (R-Wash.) recalled that Church’s remarks proved critical in persuading some reluctant Republicans to support the measure. “You quite literally could see people who had been uncertain or perhaps who had already decided to vote against the Peace Corps sit there, listen to her very quietly and start to rethink,” she said, before the House approved the bill in a 288-97 vote.

Read the original article here.