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November 19, 2013

Peace Corps Among President Kennedy's Lasting Achievements

by Jim Malone

Friday, November 22, will mark 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  The anniversary has sparked discussion and reflection about Kennedy’s achievements while in office and his presidential legacy. 

One of the president's more notable accomplishments was creation of the Peace Corps, a volunteer force of mainly young Americans who have served in developing nations for decades. 

On January 20, 1961, Kennedy said, “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.”

The president’s call to service during his inaugural address set the stage for one of his lasting achievements - the creation of the Peace Corps.

The concept was the result of a late-night campaign stop by then-candidate Kennedy in October of 1960 at the University of Michigan.

Young Americans quickly embraced the idea of delaying their own careers to work in developing countries.

Creating the Peace Corps was one of the new president’s top priorities.

“Putting that together was one of the great experiences of my own life.  And Kennedy wanted action," said Sen. Harris Wofford, a former Kennedy advisor. "He wanted us to move and we had the plan of the Peace Corps within the first six weeks.”

Kennedy hosted the first group of volunteers at the White House before they left for Africa.

“The fact that you are willing to do this for our country and in the larger sense, as the name suggests, for the cause of peace and understanding, I think should make all Americans proud and make them appreciative,” he said.

Those early volunteers entered the Peace Corps with a sense of adventure and determination, and among them was Barbara Kamara.

“Going to Liberia as a Peace Corps volunteer was a life-changing experience for me," she said. " I learned that I could just endure, that you start something and no matter what the challenges were, to do it.  I could keep doing it until it was completed.”

50 years later, what remains is a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“When I look back on the great things that Peace Corps volunteers did, the many lives they impacted," said Kamara. "I mean, the vice president of Liberia today gives tribute to his Peace Corps teacher for contributing to his ability to serve in that position as vice president.”

For most volunteers, Peace Corps was a life-changing experience.

“When I think back on President Kennedy and creating the Peace Corps, I would say it is probably one of the most significant things that he did as president," Kamara added.  "Would I recommend the Peace Corps to other people?  Absolutely.  If I had my way, I think every young person who is in high school should have an international experience.”

The creation of the Peace Corps remains an important part of John Kennedy’s legacy, says Harris Wofford.

“Around the world, people thought, here is the America we’ve been believing in or hoping for, young, optimistic, can-do," he said. "That’s the America that we’ve read about, we’ve thought about, we’ve hoped for, and here he was bringing it about.”

Since 1961, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps in 139 host countries around the world.