The Beginning of the Peace Corps

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | May 27, 2012

May 27, 2012
Add to History Board Share Print

When President Kennedy famously challenged Americans “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”, thousands of young Americans responded by signing up for the Peace Corps – established just six weeks into his presidency, on March 1, 1961, by executive order.  These young volunteers would, by living and working alongside native populations in undeveloped countries, spread peace and prosperity and encourage mutual understanding between Americans and other cultures. But if many were called, few were chosen. This exciting letter tells the story between the lines…

John F. Kennedy had not been in office an hour when he did something no other president had ever done: he asked Americans, in peacetime, to volunteer to serve their country for purely idealistic reasons. To this end, he immediately set out to create the Peace Corps. It called upon young Americans to fan out across the globe to live alongside the people of the Third World and bring them, without regard to ideology or propaganda, vitally needed skills in health care, agriculture and education. Thousands signed up to join. First, however, they had to take a grueling 5 ½ hour exam… Here the new President welcomes the 3,540 Americans who, on May 27th, 1961, in 340 cities across the nation, hunkered down to answer arduous questions designed to test their knowledge of English, foreign languages, American history and institutions, farming, health, and mechanical skills. They would be asked everything from what was the chief danger of a cut from a rusty nail (trachoma, hydrophobia, meningitis, encephalitis or, correctly, tetanus) to whether the relationship stated in the phrase “scales: justice” was more precise than “tray: waiter” (it was). The exam, as the President well understood, was the first of the daunting challenges facing members of the Peace Corps:

“I want to congratulate you for being among the first to volunteer for service in the Peace Corps. As you know, you are now eligible to take the Peace Corps Entrance Examination on May 27 or June 5. Nations in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa have already indicated their interest in having Peace Corps Volunteers serve with them…. I was gratified to learn of the many people who have applied to serve in the Peace Corps and of the wide range of skills you represent. I hope that those of you who are chosen will carry your mission to these lands in such a way as to demonstrate the desire of Americans from all walks of life to be of service. The success or failure of the Peace Corps maywell be determined by how well our first Volunteers live up to these high ideals… I wish you the best of good fortune in your Peace Corps tests.”

The first members of the Peace Corps to serve overseas depart for Ghana in August 1961
The first members of the Peace Corps to serve overseas depart for Ghana in August 1961. (AP)

Less than two weeks later, the results were in: of the 3,540 tested, 27 Americans were chosen to start training for a world-wide assault on poverty, illiteracy and disease. That was the beginning – 15 volunteers to a farm and village project in Columbia, 12 for a road survey and building project in Tanganyika. A half century later, despite the rigors of selection and training, hundreds of thousands of Americans have signed up to serve in the Peace Corps – for two years, without pay – in 139 different countries. An enormously popular program, the Peace Corps has proven to be one of the enduring legacies of Kennedy’s presidency. This historic letter welcomes the those first heroic volunteers – and that it was so carefully drafted, as evidenced here, shows how important this extraordinary project was to the new President.

JOHN F. KENNEDY. 1917-1963. The 35th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, May 22, 1961. To the very first Peace Corps Volunteers. With a draft corrected in autograph; a copy of the letter; two unsigned carbon drafts; and a carbon memo dated May 17, 1962, from Deirdre Henderson, assistant to Mr. [Harris] Wofford, to Mr. Patterson.

Manuscripts Related To This Article