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Foreign Affairs Anthology Series

Essays for the Presidency

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U.S. National Archives Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers, 1961.
Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: Essays for the Presidency
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Two Years of the Peace Corps

Oscar Wilde is said to have observed that America really was discovered by a dozen people before Columbus, but it was always successfully hushed up. I am tempted to feel that way about the Peace Corps; the idea of a national effort of this type had been proposed many times in past years. But in 1960 and 1961 for the first time the idea was joined with the power and the desire to implement it. On November 2, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy proposed a "peace corps" in a campaign speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Thirty thousand Americans wrote immediately to support the idea; thousands volunteered to join.

The early days of the Peace Corps were like the campaign days of 1960, but with no election in sight. My colleagues were volunteer workers and a few key officials loaned from other agencies. "I use not only all the brains I have, but all I can borrow," Woodrow Wilson said. So did we. Letters cascaded in from all over the country in what one writer described as "paper tornadoes at the Peace Corps." The elevators to our original two-room office disgorged constant sorties of interested persons, newspaper reporters, job seekers, academic figures and generous citizens offering advice. Everywhere, it seemed, were cameras, coils of cable and commentators with questions.

An organization, we know, gains life through hard decisions, so we hammered out basic policies in long, detailed discussions in which we sought to face up to the practical problems and reach specific solutions before we actually started operations. We knew that a few wrong judgments in the early hours of a new organization's life, especially a controversial government agency, can completely thwart its purposes—even as a margin of error of a thousandth of an inch in the launching of a rocket can send it thousands of miles off course. And we knew the Peace Corps would have only one chance to work. As with the parachute jumper, the chute had to open the

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