In 1961, President Kennedy started the Peace Corps from an ambitious idea and a Marshall redux of sorts, an all- American volunteer program with three simple goals: 1) to help people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The hope was to “stem the growth” of Communism in the Third World,” and “counter negative images of the ‘Ugly American’ and Yankee imperialism.”
In its 48 years, the Peace Corps has managed to do just that, sending 195,000 volunteers to help bring education, medical care, and agricultural, technological, and economic assistance to over 139 countries.
Through his powers vested by the Mutual Security Act of 1954, President Kennedy signed the program by executive order on March 1, 1961. By September of the same year, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act outlining the new organization’s function. Its first director was Kennedy brother-in-law and later McGovern running mate Sargent Shriver.
The launch was an an enormous success.
In its first year, the Corps had 750 volunteers. By 1963, that figure grew to 6,500, and by 1955, to 15,500.
Courtesy of NARA: President John F. Kennedy greets Peace Corps Volunteers on the White House South Lawn in 1962.
But a decade later, the program would find itself in peril.
According to a New York Times article dated January 1972, the Vietnam War dispirited the youth’s fervor for volunteerism, causing applications to drop by more than 20,000 by 1970.
In December 1971, Congress passed a bill that slashed the Peace Corps’ $82 million operating budget by $10 million, and plans were made to reduce it by half its force, cutting roughly 4,000 volunteers in 15 different countries.
Known as “Otto the terrible” for his fiery speeches against foreign aid, during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the colorful Louisiana Representative (and Chairman for the subcommittee on foreign aid) Otto Passman, spearheaded the legislation.
In a bit of irony, the resolution largely came about after Congressmen feared that foreign aid would be acquired by despotic regimes, and after despotic regimes feared that aid was being used to foment revolutionaries.
Being the quintessential realist, in 1972 RN saved the program by tailoring it to task some of the White House’s most urgent foreign policy needs. He also placed it underneath the national community service agency ACTION, alongside the anti-poverty initiative, VISTA.
ACTION director — and Nixon appointee — Joseph Blatchford was tasked to “streamline the program, trim its staff, and increase specialization of its volunteers in order to make them more appealing to skeptical foreign governments.”
But just after RN signed the $3.189 billion foreign aid appropriations bill for 1972, the Peace Corps’ fortunes were renewed: White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler announced that the President would transfer funds from other programs to allow it to continue operating at full strength, a total of $74.6 million for 1972.
Amidst a new enthusiasm for volunteerism demonstrated by a resurgence in applications, none of the 8,000 volunteers had to be removed from their posts.
Decades later, Kevin O’Donnell — Peace Corps director from 1971-1972 — praised the Nixon White House for saving the all volunteer force:
By the early 1970s when O’Donnell was Peace Corps Director, moves were afoot in Congress to cast a potentially fatal blow to the Peace Corps’ funding. One congressman from Louisiana, Otto Passman, unrelentingly attacked the entire concept of a Peace Corps and rallied as much support as possible for its demise.
During the interview in his Lakewood office, O’Donnell pulled out documents from the detailed case he made to Congress to save the Peace Corps. His charisma, passion and commitment are very much in evidence as he reflects on that time. “It was a pivotal time. Had Congressman Passman’s efforts succeeded, the Peace Corps would have had to recall thousands of volunteers, breaking contracts and commitments with communities and countries around the world.”
A piece of history rarely noted is that the Nixon administration was responsible for saving the Peace Corps at this crucial juncture. “Had the Nixon White House not intervened, transferring funds from other overseas programs to the Peace Corps, the Peace Corps could not have continued without serious repercussions. The effects would have been devastating. Thankfully, our case prevailed,” O’Donnell says with a satisfied smile.