The Beginning of the Peace Corps: President Kennedy Welcomes the First Volunteers

May 22, 1961

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The Beginning of the Peace Corps: President Kennedy Welcomes the First Volunteers
Typed Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 1447

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      John F. Kennedy had not been in office fifteen minutes 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. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Kennedy challenged in his Inaugural Address, “Ask what you can do for your country.” These words, when first heard 50 years ago, were positively electrifying. No president had ever summoned citizens, in peacetime, to sacrifice or commit to a larger vision. With that single sentence, Kennedy inspired people to new possibilities. Chief among them, was his creation, as soon as possible, of a Peace Corps – calling, as it did, upon 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. Young people, in particular, excitedly took up the challenge: thousands signed up to join. But if many were called, few would be chosen. First they had to take, and pass, a grueling 5 ½ hour written 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 (was it 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 just 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 may well 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.

      Less than two weeks later, the results were in: of the 3,540 Americans tested, only twenty-seven were chosen to start training for a world-wide assault on poverty, illiteracy and disease. That was the beginning –fifteen volunteers to a farm and village project in Columbia, twelve 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 those first heroic volunteers – and shows how important this extraordinary project was to the new President.

      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.
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