Peace Corps Act of 1961

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Peace Corps Act of 1961

Lawrence Schlam

In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy stated, with regard to those impoverished and in need abroad, "we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves." On March 1, 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order No. 10924, establishing the Peace Corps as an agency in the U.S. Department of State, and later that same year Congress adopted the Peace Corps Act (P.L. 87-293):

to promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people.

These commitments, coupled with the goal of facilitating mutual understanding between the United States and developing and underdeveloped countries, were the underlying themes of the actand of President Kennedy's efforts to create a global community. The Peace Corps Act also encourages other countries, countries interested in hosting volunteers, to develop and participate in international and domestic voluntary service programs and activities of their own.


The president, under the Peace Corps Act, is authorized to "carry out programs in furtherance of the purposes." He is also authorized to "appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, a Director of the Peace Corps and a Deputy Director of the Peace Corps." To ensure that the Peace Corps best serves American foreign policy, the Secretary of State is responsible for continuous supervision and general direction of programs authorized by the act.

The Peace Corps Act also creates a Peace Corps National Advisory Council consisting of fifteen voting members, at least seven of whom are required to be former volunteers, who the president appoints with the advice and consent of the Senate. The council, legislatively established in a 1985 amendment to the act, advises, consults, and conducts onsite inspections to evaluate the accomplishments of the Peace Corps. The council also assesses the potential capabilities and the future role of the Peace Corps and makes recommendations to the president.

Since its inception, more than 168,000 people have served as volunteers in the Peace Corps and its programs, beginning in only six countries in 1961, and having reached a total of 136 nations by the twenty-first century. Current Peace Corps activities involve projects in agriculture, environment, health, education, business, community development, as well as some areas of special concern, such as HIV and AIDS education and prevention, as well as computer skills training courses to assist developing nations in acquiring competent workers to help those nations become economically self-sufficient.

The Peace Corps strives to maintain, at any given time, a volunteer corps of at least 10,000 individuals. "Volunteer leaders," who receive benefits similar to those of volunteers, are responsible for managerial and supervisory duties. Qualified citizens and nationals of the United States are eligible to enroll in the Peace Corps and must undergo a security investigation. In addition, volunteers assigned to a particular country must be able to speak that language with reasonable proficiency.

The law provides these volunteers with living, travel, and leave allowances, as well as housing, clothing and health care in order to perform effectively. They also receive a monthly readjustment allowance and vocational counseling upon returning to the United States. In 2001, $298 million was allotted to the Peace Corps, with this figure rising to $365 million in 2003.


Amendments to the Peace Corps Act have generally only involved matters of administration and execution, leaving unaltered the fundamental policies behind the act. Some policy changes, however, have occurred in response to changing domestic and international political climates. For example, in a 1978 amendment, Congress, repudiating the Cold War philosophy, struck a provision of the act that required Peace Corps training to include "the philosophy, tactics and menace of communism."

The same amendment also explicitly requires the Peace Corps to recognize the significant role of women in today's society, and mandates that special attention be given to projects which integrate women into the national economies of developing countries. Another group given special attention by the Peace Corps Act is disabled persons. Under the act, the Peace Corps must assist the disabled population to become involved in the economies of developing countries, which will in turn improve the status of disabled persons and assist the development effort.

Litigation relating to the Peace Corps has often involved alleged civil rights violations on the part of the agency's administration in the selection and termination of Peace Corps volunteers and employees. Issues related to the act have also arisen in federal prosecutions under the Military Selective Service Act of 1967 of Peace Corps volunteers refusing to submit to induction into the military.

In general, the Peace Corps has made a significant positive contribution toward creating good will for America throughout the world.

See also: Domestic Volunteer Services Act of 1973 (VISTA).


Cobbs Hoffman, Elizabeth. All You Need Is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Rice, Gerard T. The Bold Experiment: JFK's Peace Corps. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Applying for "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love"

Step 1: Complete the written application, which asks for detailed information about your work and volunteer experience, education, and hobbies. Step 2: Provide references from an employer, a volunteer supervisor, and a friend. Step 3: Interview with a recruiter, either in person or by telephone. The recruiter will assess your flexibility, adaptability, cultural awareness, motivation, and commitment. Step 4: Successful candidates will be "nominated" for entry into the Peace Corps. Step 5: Pass a medical screening. Step 6: Pass a legal screening. Your eligibility may be affected by previous arrests or convictions, bankruptcy, financial obligations, past association with U.S. intelligence agencies, or current military obligations. Your personal data and fingerprints will be submitted to the FBI for a background check. Step 7: Your placement officer will make a final match between your skills and needs in the field. Step 8: An invitation packet will be mailed to you that includes the description of your assignment, passport and visa applications, and a volunteer handbook. You have ten days to decide whether to accept. Step 9: Meet your fellow trainees, complete your pre-departure orientation, and head out into the world to make a difference.

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Peace Corps Act of 1961

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