The Peace Corps in Retrospect

Today’s post comes from Joshua Cain, an archives technician at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

The Peace Corps has had a large impact on my life. I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Belize from 2007 to 2009. I didn’t know much about the agency before I applied except that it involved living abroad for two years and helping people—two things that I wanted to do after I finished my undergraduate degree. And I loved it! It was an amazing, life-changing experience. 

Skipping ahead to the summer of 2016, I started thinking about my thesis topic for my MA program. I wanted to focus on the role of the United States in international development. Of course, the Peace Corps came to mind. I was quite amazed at how little I knew of its history. I studied a lot of secondary and primary sources about the beginnings of the Peace Corps. It was fascinating to learn how much I related to the volunteer stories from the early 1960s.

A few months back, I was completing a pull request and noticed some boxes that contained Record Group 490: Records of the Peace Corps. The historian and Peace Corps Volunteer in me was quite excited! It felt like winning the primary source lottery. I wanted to know more about the Peace Corps records held at the National Archives. Naturally, I turned to the National Archives Catalog, where I located a wonderful 10-minute video called The Peace Corps in Retrospect.

The Peace Corps in Retrospect. (National Archives Identifier 6829613)

The video contains 15 public service announcements (PSA) for the Peace Corps that date from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. I found two of them to be very relatable.

The first PSA has JFK explaining that volunteers in the Peace Corps will “be serving a larger cause: the cause of freedom and the cause of a peaceful world.” Those words struck at the heart of one reason why I wanted to join—helping others. The PSA focuses on the goal of working together to build something better not only for us now but for future generations. 

My second-favorite PSA is one that many of us can relate to. A college-age student enters a party of family friends who all congratulate him on his recent graduation. He is overwhelmed, thinking about what he will do in the future, and faces questions like “What’re you going to do now, son? I mean with your life.” That existential dread of thinking about your future is overwhelming. I’ve been there! Who hasn’t? The PSA ends with a voice-over stating, “There’s time enough to start a good career, but first find out something about life. If you don’t, you may never learn that money isn’t the only thing in it.” 

Now, this could easily be an advertisement for a travel company trying to sell you a quality backpack for your trip around Europe, Asia, or anywhere else on the planet. But I could still relate to that. Fortunately, it was more relatable, given that it was connected to the Peace Corps. This is what good history is about. History is supposed to relate to the present and make us feel connected to the past. This video did just that for me.   

To learn more about the history of the Peace Corps read, “A Call to Public Service: the Peace Corps.”

4 thoughts on “The Peace Corps in Retrospect

  1. The video compilation of PSAs is fascinating – such a window into history! – and the accompanying article was accessibly and entertainingly written. I would love to read more articles like this. Well done, National Archives!

  2. This was amazing to see. During the early 1970s, the Peace Corps, in an effort to recruit trades people, decided to take in families as volunteers My dad, Glen Lancaster, was an auto mechanics teacher with the Pittsburgh (PA) Public Schools. He and my mom, Emma, decided to volunteer the family. We initially were to be sent to Ceylon in 1971 but a civil war broke out. We then were assigned to Jamaica. We were part of Peace Corps Jamaica Group 12 (August 1971-August 1973). There were 4 families in that group. My family and one other family made it through the two year commitment. I was in 10th & 11th grade and my sister was in 8th & 9th grades. A younger brother was in preschool. The Peace Corps had a tremendous impact on us. I became an inner city Special Education teacher with the Pittsburgh Public Schools. My sister is a psychologist and my brother , a medical doctor.

    The Public Service Announcement, “I gave (country) a piece of my mind” includes my dad, Glen Lancaster. I hadn’t seen that PSA since 1975. Glen died in 1995. The PSA was filmed in the Fall of 1974, if I remember correctly. They flew Glen to New York City to film his segment. My family was also in an PSA for ACTION filmed in Jamaica in the Fall of 1971. It was titled “A Growing Movement” and aired in 1972.

    1. Thank you for sharing that story, Donald! That’s so fascinating! I had no idea that families were allowed to serve. I’m glad to hear the Peace Corps had such an impact not only on your father but your whole family.

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