The Cold War Logic of the Peace Corps

A former first lady's notion for competing with the Soviets: give young Americans a chance to spend two years in an underdeveloped country, offering help and spreading goodwill toward the West
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Although Eleanor Roosevelt initially opposed Kennedy's candidacy, JFK selected the former first lady to chair the newly created President's Commission on the Status of Women. (Frank C. Curtain/AP)

During his 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy proposed “a peace corps of talented young men and women” who could serve in developing countries. The idea wasn’t new; in 1957, then-Senator Hubert Humphrey had introduced a bill for such a plan. But as president, Kennedy could act on his own. He created the Peace Corps by signing an executive order on March 1, 1961, and appointed his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to run it. The agency became the emblem of the Kennedy administration’s youthful idealism.

Living in the White House for more than three terms had taught Franklin D. Roosevelt’s widow a thing or two about framing a political argument, which proved useful during her later career as an advocate for human rights. Her line of reasoning for sending ambassadors of democracy abroad relied less on gauzy idealism than on hardheaded Cold War strategy: the Soviets were inculcating their youth with Marxist ideology and sending them abroad, so America had to compete.

On January 4, 1961, the New York Herald Tribune carried … a news item from Russia. It described the new propaganda drive which is in line with the world communist manifesto recently published. This manifesto declared “the United States is the bulwark of world reaction and the enemy of all the peoples on the globe.”

Writers, lecturers, and agitators are being trained in special schools to spread this propaganda wherever they can. How many Americans read that news item? How many of them glanced at it and shrugged or laughed and dismissed it from their minds? How many of them were aware of the slow and relentless effect of Soviet propaganda among the uncommitted nations of the world and its effect on our standing among many peoples? I don’t know, but I am sure that there were not enough. Not nearly enough. We are facing the greatest challenge our way of life has ever had to meet without any clear understanding of the facts …

On my first visit to Russia I had watched the training of small babies. On my second trip, I studied the older children, their conditioning, their discipline, their docility, their complete absorption in the communist system. Every child learns his Marxism backwards and forwards. By the time he leaves school, he is prepared to take not only his skills but his political ideas with him, wherever he may be sent, to whatever part of the world …

Today, we are one of the oldest governments in existence; ours has been the position for leadership, for setting the pattern for behavior. And yet we are supinely putting ourselves in the position of leaving the leadership to the Russians, of following their ideas rather than our own …

When I visited Morocco in 1958 I had my first opportunity to see for myself the difficulties that arise in the transition stage between colonialism and independence. The troubles that Morocco was encountering were, it seemed to me, fairly typical of the basic difficulties of all young nations in transition.

As the French withdrew from Morocco, taking their nationals along, the … Moroccans themselves were not yet prepared to replace the doctors, the teachers, the civil-service employees with their own men. It may be decades before they are ready to do so. Where, then, are the necessary people to come from? …

Today, this is happening again, in the Congo with the withdrawal of the Belgians. The time for colonization has gone forever, but some intermediate transition system is essential if chaos is not to follow …

Russia has trained its young people to go out into the world, to carry their services and skills to backward and underdeveloped countries, to replace the missing doctors and teachers, the scientists and technicians; above all, to fill the vacant civil-service jobs, prepared not only by training for the job itself, but by learning the language, by a complete briefing in the customs, habits, traditions, and trend of thought of the people, to understand them and deal with them. Where the young Russians go, of course, they take with them their Marxist training, thinking, and system.

And our young Americans? Are they being prepared to take their faith in democracy to the world along with their skills? Are they learning the language and the customs and the history of these new peoples? …

Here, I believe, we have fallen down badly …

What can we do to prepare young people to carry the American dream to the world in the best possible way? What I would like to say is this:

Today, our government and the governments of most of the world are primarily concerned—obsessed—by one idea: defense. But what is real defense, and how is it obtained? A certain amount of military defense is necessary. But there comes a point where you must consider what can be done on an economic and cultural basis …

Instead of calling up all young men for compulsory military service, why should it not be possible to offer a counterproposal along these lines:

If you do not want to spend two years of compulsory military training, here is an alternative which is open to you. Whether you finish college or high school, you may decide what country you would like to spend two years in …

These two-year volunteers could be doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists, mechanics, and administrators …

If many of our young people have lost the excitement of the early settlers, who had a country to explore and develop, it is because no one remembers to tell them that the world has never been so challenging, so exciting; the fields of adventure and new fields to conquer have never been so limitless. There is still unfinished business at home, but there is the most tremendous adventure in bringing the peoples of the world to an understanding of the American dream.

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