Peace Corps

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The Peace Corps is an independent United States federal agency. The Peace Corps was established by Executive Order 10924 on March 1, 1961, and authorized by Congress on September 22, 1961, with passage of the Peace Corps Act (Public Law 87-293). The Peace Corps Act declares the purpose of the Peace Corps to be:

“to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.”[1]

Purpose and function

Countries currently and formerly served by Peace Corps volunteers. Those in dark blue currently have, or are preparing to accept volunteers. Those in light blue were served but no longer have volunteers in the country. Countries that have been indefinitely suspended are light blue.

The Peace Corps works in over 70 countries around the world. Peace Corps volunteers work with governments, schools, non-profit organizations, non-government organizations, and entrepreneurs in the areas of education, health, HIV/AIDS, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.

The program officially has three goals:

  • To help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained workers
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans

The Peace Corps works by first announcing its availability to foreign governments. These governments determine areas in which the organization can be involved. The organization then matches the requested assignments to its pool of applicants and sends those volunteers with the appropriate skills to the countries that first made the requests.


John F. Kennedy greets volunteers on August 28, 1961.

Following the end of the Second World War, various members of the United States Congress proposed bills to establish volunteer organizations in Developing Countries. In 1952 Senator Brien McMahon (D-Connecticut) proposed an "army" of young Americans to act as "missionaries of democracy." Privately funded nonreligious organizations began sending volunteers overseas during the 1950s.

Only in 1959, however, did the proposal for a national program of service abroad first receive serious attention in Washington when Congressman Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin advanced the ideas of a “Point Four Youth Corps.” In 1960, he and Senator Richard L. Neuberger of Oregon introduced identical measures calling for a nongovernmental study of the “advisability and practicability” of such a venture. Both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed the idea of a study, the latter writing the Reuss proposal into the Mutual Security legislation then pending before it. In this form it became law in June 1960. In August the Mutual Security Appropriations Act was enacted, making available $10,000 for the study, and in November ICA contracted with the Maurice Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Burkey of Colorado State University Research Foundation to make the study.[2]

John F. Kennedy first announced his own idea for such an organization during the 1960 presidential campaign at a late-night speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14. During a later speech in San Francisco, California on November 1, he dubbed this proposed organization the "Peace Corps." Critics of the program (including Kennedy's opponent, Richard M. Nixon) claimed the program would be nothing but a haven for draft dodgers. Others doubted whether college-age volunteers had the necessary skills. The idea was popular among college students, however, and Kennedy continued to pursue it, asking respected academics such as Max Millikan and Chester Bowles to help him outline the organization and its goals. During his inaugural address, Kennedy again promised to create the program: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."[3]

Establishment and authorization

Executive Order 10924

On March 1, 1961, Kennedy signed an Executive Order 10924 that officially started the Peace Corps. Concerned with the growing tide of revolutionary sentiment in the Third World, Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the notions of the "Ugly American" and "Yankee imperialism," especially in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa and Asia. [4]

On March 4, Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to be the program's first director. Shriver was tasked with fleshing out the organization, which he did with the help of Warren W. Wiggins and others. Shriver and his think tank outlined the three major goals of the Peace Corps and decided the number of volunteers they needed to recruit. The program began recruiting volunteers the following July.

Until about 1967, applicants to the Peace Corps had to pass a placement test that tested "general aptitude" (knowledge of various skills needed for Peace Corps assignments) and language aptitude. After an address from Kennedy, who was introduced by Rev. Russell Fuller of Memorial Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, on August 28, 1961, the first group of volunteers left for Ghana and Tanzania. The program was formally authorized by Congress on September 22, 1961, and within two years over 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers were serving in 44 countries. This number would jump to 15,000 in June of 1966, the largest number in the organization's history.

Early stumble

The organization experienced major controversy in its first year of operation. On October 13, 1961, a postcard was written by a volunteer named Margery Jane Michelmore in Nigeria to a friend in the U.S. She described her situation in Nigeria as "squalor and [of] absolutely primitive living conditions." [5] However, this postcard never made it out of the country. The Ibadan University College Students Union demanded deportation and accused the volunteers of being “agents of imperialism” and “members of America’s international spy ring.”[5] Soon the international press picked up the story and this led several people in the U.S. administration to question the future of the program as a whole. Nigerian students protested the program, and the American volunteers sequestered themselves and refused to eat unless they could eat with the Nigerian students. After several days, the Nigerian students agreed to open a dialogue with the Americans.

Independent status

1965 in-country identification card

The effect of the Peace Corps at this time was minimal. By 1966, more than 15,000 volunteers were working in the field, the largest number in the Peace Corps' history. In July 1971, President Richard Nixon, an opponent of the program, brought the Peace Corps under the umbrella agency ACTION. President Jimmy Carter, an advocate of the program, said that his mother, who had served as a nurse in the program when she was 70 years old, had "one of the most glorious experiences of her life" in the Peace Corps.[6] In 1979, he declared it fully autonomous in an executive order. This independent status would be further secured when Congress passed legislation in 1981 to make the organization an independent federal agency.

Programs diversified

Trainees swear in as volunteers in Mauritania, September 2007.

At this time, the Peace Corps began branching out past its traditional concerns of education- and agriculture-related projects. In 1982, President Reagan appointee director Loret Miller Ruppe initiated several new business-related programs. For the first time, a large number of conservative and Republican volunteers joined the contingent of overseas volunteers, and the organization continued to reflect the evolving political and social conditions in the United States.

Funding cuts during the early 1980s dropped the number of volunteers to 5,380, its lowest level since the organization's early years. Funding began to increase in 1985, and Congress passed an initiative to raise the number of volunteers to 10,000 by 1992.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks alerted the nation to growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East, President George W. Bush pledged to double the size of the organization within five years as a part of the War on Terrorism. For the 2004 fiscal year, Congress passed a budget of $325 million, $30 million above that of 2003 but $30 million below the President's request.

The Peace Corps intended to double the number of volunteers it sent abroad by 2007 in accordance with President Bush's request in 2002. According to Joseph Kennedy, "The American reputation has taken a hit in the last couple of years. The need for the Peace Corps couldn't be more urgent. The Peace Corps shows what is best in America, the generosity of spirit." The Peace Corps is trying to get more diverse volunteers of different ages. This is important so that the Peace Corps can look, according to former director Gaddi Vasquez, "more like America." An article published by the Harvard International Review in 2006 argues that the time has come not only to expand the Peace Corps but also to revisit its mission and equip it with new technology to transform it into a twenty-first-century engine for peace through the global sharing of knowledge.

In 1961 only one percent of volunteers were over 50, compared with six percent today. Peace Corps spokesperson Gretchen Learman states, "Age is no barrier to joining the Peace Corps. In many cases, it's an asset, since senior volunteers bring so much knowledge to their work."[7] Married couples are welcome and can work together.

Peace Corps Response

Peace Corps Response, formerly named the Crisis Corps, was created by Peace Corps Director Mark Gearan in 1996.[8] On November 19, 2007 Peace Corps Director Ronald Tschetter announced that Crisis Corps will be changing its name to Peace Corps Response.

This change was the result of an ongoing effort by the Peace Corps to better define the work of its volunteers. The change to Peace Corps Response allowed Peace Corps to broaden their approach to their five programming areas to include projects that do not necessarily rise to the level of a "crisis."

The program sends former Peace Corps volunteers to foreign countries to take on short-term, high-impact assignments that typically range from three to six months in duration.

Peace Corps Response volunteers generally receive the same allowances and benefits as their Peace Corps counterparts, including round-trip transportation, living and readjustment allowances, and medical care. Minimum qualifications for Crisis Corps volunteers include completion of at least one year of Peace Corps service, excluding training, in addition to medical and legal clearances.[9]

Directors of the Peace Corps

Director service dates appointed by Notes
1 R. Sargent Shriver 1961–1966 Kennedy Three days after President Kennedy signed an Executive Order establishing the Peace Corps, Shriver became its first director. Deployment was rapid: volunteers arrived in five countries during 1961. In just under six years, Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 volunteers.
2 Jack Vaughn 1966–1969 Johnson Vaughn took steps to improve Peace Corps marketing, programming, and volunteer support as large numbers of former volunteers joined the Peace Corps staff. He also promoted volunteer assignments in conservation, natural resource management, and community development.
3 Joseph Blatchford 1969–1971 Nixon Blatchford served as head of the new ACTION agency, which encompassed U.S. domestic and foreign volunteer service programs including the Peace Corps. He created the Office of Returned Volunteers to help volunteers serve in their communities at home, and initiated New Directions, a program emphasizing volunteer skills.
4 Kevin O'Donnell 1971–1972 Nixon O'Donnell's appointment was the first for a former Peace Corps country director (Korea, 1966–70). He worked tirelessly to save the Peace Corps from budget cuts, and believed strongly in a non-career Peace Corps. He resigned as director six years after first joining the Peace Corps.
5 Donald Hess 1972–1973 Nixon Hess initiated training of volunteers in the host country where they would eventually serve. With this came the greater utilization of host country nationals in the training programs. The training provided more realistic preparation, and costs dropped for the agency. Hess also sought to end the down-sizing of the Peace Corps.
6 Nicholas Craw 1973–1974 Nixon Craw sought to increase the number of volunteers in the field and to stabilize the agency's future. He introduced a goal-setting measurement plan, the Country Management Plan, which gave a firm foundation for increased congressional support and for improved resource allocation across Peace Corps' 69 countries.
7 John Dellenback 1975–1977 Ford Dellenback worked to make the best possible health care available to volunteers. He also placed great emphasis on recruiting generalists. He believed in taking committed applicants without specific development skills and providing concentrated training to prepare them for service.
8 Carolyn R. Payton 1977–1978 Carter Payton was the first female director and the first African American. As director, she believed strongly in reflecting America's diversity in the corps of volunteers and worked tirelessly to convince young people that Peace Corps service would enrich their lives.
9 Richard F. Celeste 1979–1981 Carter Celeste focused on the role of women in development and was successful in involving women and minorities in the agency, particularly for staff positions. He invested heavily in training, including the development of a worldwide core curriculum, so that all volunteers had a common context in which to work.
10 Loret Miller Ruppe 1981–1989 Reagan Ruppe was the longest-serving director and a champion of women in development. She launched the Competitive Enterprise Development program to promote business-oriented projects. She also established the Caribbean Basin Initiative, the Initiative for Central America and the African Food Systems Initiative to help address regional challenges. Ruppe was highly regarded by volunteers for her tireless energy and enthusiasm.
11 Paul Coverdell 1989–1991 G.H.W. Bush Coverdell established two programs with a domestic focus. World Wise Schools enabled U.S. students to correspond with volunteers serving overseas in an effort to promote international awareness and cross-cultural understanding. Fellows/USA assisted Returned Peace Corps volunteers in pursuing graduate studies while serving local communities in the U.S.
12 Elaine Chao 1991–1992 G.H.W. Bush Chao was the first Asian American to serve as director. She expanded Peace Corps' presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia by establishing the first Peace Corps programs in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and other newly independent countries.
13 Carol Bellamy 1993–1995 Clinton Bellamy was the first RPCV (Returned Peace Corps volunteer) (Guatemala 1963–65) to be director. She reinvigorated relations with Returned Peace Corps volunteers and launched the first Peace Corps web site.
14 Mark D. Gearan 1995–1999 Clinton Gearan established the Crisis Corps, a program that allows Returned peace Corps volunteers to help overseas communities recover from natural disasters and humanitarian crises. He supported expanding the corps of volunteers and opened new volunteer programs in South Africa, Jordan, Bangladesh and Mozambique.
15 Mark L. Schneider 1999–2001 Clinton Schneider was the second RPCV (El Salvador, 1966–68) to head the agency. He launched an initiative to increase volunteers' participation in helping prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, and also sought volunteers to work on information technology projects to enhance development of overseas communities.
16 Gaddi Vasquez 2002–2006 G.W. Bush Gaddi H. Vasquez was the first Hispanic American to serve as director. His focus as director was to revitalize the Peace Corps through a comprehensive outreach and recruitment program focused on attracting a diverse group of volunteers and staff.
17 Ron Tschetter September 2006 – 2008 G.W. Bush The third RPCV to head the agency, Tschetter served in India in the mid 1960s. Confirmed by the Senate September 13, 2006 and sworn in on September 26, 2006. He launched an initiative known as the "50 and Over," to increase the participation of older men and women.
18 Aaron S. Williams August 2009 – September 2012 Obama Aaron S. Williams became director on August 24, 2009. Mr. Williams is the fourth director to have served as a volunteer. Williams cited personal and family considerations as the reason for his stepping down as Peace Corps Director on September 17, 2012.
19 Carrie Hessler-Radelet September 2012 – 2017 Obama Carrie Hessler-Radelet became acting Director of the Peace Corps in September 2012. Previously, Hessler-Radelet served as deputy director of the Peace Corps from June 23, 2010, until her appointment as acting Director. From 1981 to 1983, she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa with her husband, Steve. She was confirmed as Director on June 5, 2014.
20 Jody Olsen February 2018 – January 2021 Trump Jody Olsen was confirmed Director of the Peace Corps on February 27, 2018. Olsen previously served the Peace Corps as Acting Director in 2009, Deputy Director from 2002 to 2009, Chief of Staff from 1989 to 1992, Regional Director, North Africa Near East, Asia, Pacific from 1981 to 1984, and Country Director in Togo from 1979 to 1981. Olsen also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia from 1966 to 1968.
21 Carol Spahn January 2023 – present Biden Carol Spahn previously served in acting capacity in this position from January to November 2021. She was then appointed CEO of the Peace Corps and served from November 2021 to November 2022, later being nominated to director in April 2022. Spahn also served as Chief of Operations for Eastern and Southern Africa, Country Director for Malawi, and a volunteer in Romania.


Peace Corps in the Media


Hundreds of Returned Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their countries of service[11] Five books that are among the most notable for capturing the positive and the negative of the Peace Corps experience are the following:

  • Published in 1969, Moritz Thomsen's Living Poor recounts the author's service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. Tom Miller wrote that Thomsen was "one of the great American expatriate writers of the 20th century." "And as an expat, he was free to judge us all, an undertaking he finessed with acute observations, self-deprecation, and a flavorful frame of reference that ranged from a Tchaikovsky symphony to a Sealy Posturpedic mattress."[12]
  • Alan Weiss' 1968 account of Peace Corps training, High Risk, High Gain, has been called "perhaps the most obscure, least known, and most unread" of all the great books written about the Peace Corps experience. Trainees in those days were classified by risk and by gain and Weiss discovered in his training days that he had been classified as High Risk/High Gain, a potential "Supervolunteer" or a potential "crash and burn." Weiss' book is funny, outrageous, and sad but also valuable because it captures the “craziness” of those early years at the Peace Corps.[13]
  • George Packer's The Village of Waiting (1988) is "one of the most wrenchingly honest books ever written by a white person about Africa, a bracing antidote to romantic authenticity myths and exotic horror stories alike," wrote Matt Steinglass. Isak Dinesen, Packer notes, wrote of waking in the Kenyan highlands and thinking, "Here I am, where I ought to be." Packer himself woke up sweating, hungry, "mildly at ease, or mildly anxious. But never where I ought to be."[14]
  • For a history of the Peace Corps' early days, Coates Redmond's Come as You Are is considered to be one of the finest and most entertaining recountings of the birth of the Peace Corps and how it was literally thrown together in a matter of weeks.
  • Tom Bissell served as a Peace Corps volunteer for a few months in Uzbekistan in 1996 before he "early terminated." However, Bissell felt he had really failed the people he joined the Peace Corps to help, so he returned to Uzbekistan in 2001 to write Chasing the Sea about the Aral Sea. However, "the secret, personal point of the journey was revisiting this failure of mine, to try to make something up to the country and people I’d abandoned," says Bissell. "My ambitions were actually pretty modest. I wanted to write a book that everyone who traveled to Central Asia would want to read, and I wanted to write a book that everyone who joins the Peace Corps has pressed upon them," Bissell said. [15]

Documentary Films

The Peace Corps has been the subject of the following documentary films:

  • Jimi Sir is a documentary portrait of Peace Corps volunteer James Parks' experiences as a high school science, math and English teacher during the last 10 weeks of his service in Nepal. James speaks Nepali fluently and brings you into a culture where there are no roads, vehicles, electricity, plumbing, telephone or radio. Jimi Sir has been called the best movie ever made about the Peace Corps experience.[16]
  • The 2006 movie Death of Two Sons, directed by Micah Schaffer juxtaposes the deaths of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean in America who was gunned down by four New York City policemen with 41 bullets and Peace Corps volunteer Jesse Thyne who lived with Amadou's family in Guinea and died in a car crash there. The two men never met, but their destinies intertwine in this unique documentary.[17]


  1. Peace Corps: Establishment and Organization The United States Government Manual. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  2. Maurice L. Albertson, Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birky, New Frontiers for American Youth: Perspective on the Peace Corps(Colorado State University, 1961).
  3. President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address (1961) Milestone Documents. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  4. Executive Order 10924: Establishment of the Peace Corps. (1961) Milestone Documents. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The infamous Peace Corps postcard Peace Corps Writers. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  6. Carter praises mission of nurses The Associated Press (February 24, 2005). Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  7. Korky Vann, Peace Corps actively seeking, encouraging older volunteers Baltimore Sun (October 1, 2006). Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  8. Peace Corps Response: Program history Peace Corps. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  9. Peace Corps Response Peace Corps. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  10. Past Directors Peace Corps. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  11. 971 Peace Corps Volunteer writers by country Peace Corps Writers. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  12. Tom Miller, Under the Skin of a Locale Tucson Weekly (June 16, 2005). Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  13. "High Risk/High Gain: A Freewheeling Account of Peace Corps Training" by Alan Weiss Peace Corps Writers. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  14. "Destination: Togo" by Matt Steinglass Salon (June 15, 2006). Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  15. About "Chasing the Sea" Random House. Retrieved August 10, 2023.
  16. Claude von Roesgen, Jimi Sir an American Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (CustomFlix, 2010).
  17. Death of Two Sons (2006) IMDb. Retrieved August 10, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Albertson, Maurice L., Andrew E. Rice, and Pauline E. Birky. New Frontiers for American Youth: Perspective on the Peace Corps. Colorado State University, 1961. ASIN B0007H5XSK
  • Banerjee, Dillon. So You Want to Join the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2000. ISBN 9781417726134
  • Hellstrom, Travis. The Peace Corps Volunteer's Handbook: A Personal Field Guide to Making the Most of Your Peace Corps Experience. Hatherleigh Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1578266456
  • Meisler, Stanley. When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. Beacon Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0807050514
  • Roesgen, Claude von. Jimi Sir an American Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. CustomFlix, 2010. ASIN B000EJXVKI
  • Thomsen, Moritz. Living Poor: a Peace Corps Chronicle. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. ISBN 9780295969282

External links

All links retrieved August 8, 2023.


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