To talk about the Peace Corps, we must deal with a big slice of history. Most people can’t remember that far back, so here’s a short journey down memory lane, circa 1961.
The View from Camelot
In March of 1961, President John Kennedy made a televised speech announcing the creation of a volunteer program known as the Peace Corps. Kennedy’s Executive Order was backed up by Congress with the Peace Corp Act . The stated mission was to create better, mutual understanding between Americans and other countries by promoting educational and economic development. JFK proposed that an adventurous, well educated group of young Americans would provide valuable technical assistance to less developed countries. Meanwhile, these clean scrubbed college graduates would also serve as “missionaries of Democracy”.
Kennedy aspired to project an image that upgraded the international perceptions of “Yankee Imperialism”. This accurate mistrust of the expansive American empire was exemplified during the Presidency of James Polk. He provoked the Mexican American War of 1846, which was an embodiment of Manifest Destiny. The USA acquired vast tracts of new territory in the West via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Here’s a link to a previous article.
Changing the Image of the “Ugly American”
The aggressive nature of the USA was not unnoticed by the rest of the world. The instincts of the early settlers had been demonstrated by the ultimate subjugation of the Native tribes. Other examples, like the assimilation of the Hawaiian Islands and the appointment of puppet governments in strategic Third World countries tended to stain the national reputation. It was tough to get Kennedy’s idealistic balloon off the ground. The first excursion for the Peace Corps to Africa was targeted for controversy. Nigerian college students protested that the volunteers were international spies on a mission of colonialism. The world wide media exposed the squalor and miserable living conditions endured by Peace Corps volunteers as they shared in the lifestyle of the locals.
Keeping the Peace Corps Reputation out of the mud
Over the years, many incidents were down played in order to protect the image of the corps.
Here is only a small sampling:
In 1976, volunteer, Deborah Gardner, was murdered by a fellow worker who never served time because his insanity plea.
In 2009, former volunteer, Casey Frazee founded the First Response Action group which provides an advocacy for victims of physical and sexual violence. Frazee and many others came back from their tours of duty with memories that would last forever, good or bad.
A year later, reports of Peace Corps mishaps surfaced indicating that many hundreds of young American women had been raped on duty within the previous decade.
The Corps has had it’s Ups and Downs
Over the long view, the Peace Corp reached a height of 139 countries during it’s heyday. These days, the number is down to only about 68 countries. Like many others, the volunteers hope to avoid the unemployment lines. There is a four year waiting period when former volunteers must not be recruited by the intelligence agencies. Laws also specify that they must never be stationed as an intelligence asset within the country where they served the Peace Corps. It’s been important to convey that the Peace Corps is not part of the vast covert intelligence operations of the military industrial complex.
The Peace Corps Recruited into War
After the terrible events of 9/11 at the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the Peace Corps as a weapon in the War on Terror. This sentiment was reinforced by Barrack Obama with budgetary increases. The public image of the situation has led to a steady decline in applications.
Returning to the Roots
The Peace Corps have struggled to preserve their image and aspired to the high minded ideas that were expressed at the conception. Still, it becomes clear that the agency is long overdue for an audit and an extensive Spring cleaning. Perhaps the time has finally come to prune away the overgrowth. The Peace Corps is a perfect example of the twisted garden that the USA has cultivated.