A Call to Public Service: the Peace Corps

This May we celebrate both Public Service Recognition Week and the centennial of the birth of a President closely associated with public service: John F. Kennedy.   

In Kennedy’s first inaugural address, in 1961, he made his famous call to public service by asking Americans “to ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Less than six weeks later, on March 1, he issued an executive order establishing a the Peace Corps as a pilot program within the Department of State.

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Executive Order 10924 in which President John F. Kennedy establishes the Peace Corps, March 1, 1961. (National Archives Identifier 300010)

Kennedy envisioned the Peace Corps as a pool of trained American volunteers who would go overseas to help foreign countries meet their needs for skilled manpower.

In his signing statement, Kennedy argued the program was “proof that we have, in this country, an immense reservoir of such men and women—anxious to sacrifice their energies and time and toil to the cause of world peace and human progress.”

Later that year, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act, making the program permanent Its mission is to advance these three goals:

  • Help the people of interested countries and areas meet their needs for trained workers
  • Help promote a better understanding of Americans in countries where volunteers served
  • Help promote a better understanding of peoples of other nations on the part of Americans

In the five decades since its establishment, more than 225,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in 141 countries, mostly in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Volunteers work in to help local communities further education, health, the environment, youth and economic development, and agriculture.

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Roger Rhatton, age 24, a Peace Corps volunteer from Bay Village, Ohio, and students in Tanganyika (now part of the nation of Tanzania), Africa, 1965. (National Archives Identifier 593669)

Throughout 2017, the National Archives in Washington, DC, will feature programming in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth. Commemorative events include special exhibit displays, family programs, and teacher and student outreach.

From April 28 through October 11, 2017, “Advancing Peace and Understanding: Creating the Peace Corps,” will be on display in the Public Vaults gallery of the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.

Learn more about President John F. Kennedy and his 100th birthday celebration from the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

And visit the National Archives Public Service Recognition Week website to learn more about how we are celebrating the call to public service.

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President Kennedy meets the first Peace Corps Volunteers in the Rose Garden at the White House, August 28, 1961. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Local Identifier KN-C18661)

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