This week, Foreign Policy magazine started a feature on its web site called Decline Watch where it asks readers to give examples of American decline. This coming week, the Peace Corps is commemorating its 50th anniversary. Heading back to the heady times at the beginning of the Peace Corps, it’s apparent that we would be unable to pull off that kind of inspiring government initiative today.
A brief review. President Kennedy actually floated the idea of a Peace Corps type organization during the Presidential campaign. He officially started it by Executive Order on March 1, 1961, ordering the State Department to use existing funds to set up a pilot program. Within three months, the Peace Corps had 11,000 applications. By June, training had begun for programs in two countries: Colombia and Tanganyika (Tanzania, now.) By August, the first volunteers had arrived overseas, in Ghana. It wasn’t until September 22 that Congress actually approved legislation to establish and fund the Peace Corps. By December, there were 500 volunteers in nine countries.
It’s not hard to imagine what would happen in 2011 were such a program conceived. What would a timeline look like for such an idea today, with the built-in delays in Congressional obstruction, in interagency bureaucratic wrangling, in media criticism. Imagine a President trying to set up anything under Executive Order, or a government bureaucracy finding funds in its own budget to launch a new program. Or a Congress acting in 6 months to establish a program that quickly. Granted that JFK enjoyed greater majorities in both houses of Congress than President Obama has had. Still, it’s hard to imagine that we could put the same kind of “boots on the ground” within six months for any government initiative now.
The Peace Corps has always been bigger than its actual statistics. It’s been an idea that captivated many, early on and enduring. It’s left an imprint on the 139 countries which had seen Westerners as colonizers only, as militarists or as imperialists making a profit off of their resources. Further, it’s left an imprint on the 200,000 volunteers who have offered two years of service, making them, their families and neighbors more worldly aware. A recent survey said over 90% of former volunteers rated their experience as excellent or very good.
I am one of them. So is my wife!