From the time of its inception in 1961, the Peace Corps has served as a powerful symbol of American values. At a time when popular faith, both at home and abroad, in the value of American ideals and the possibility of their translation into official policy was being shaken to its core by the moral ambiguity of Cold War policy and the cultural misunderstanding generated by competition for the hearts and minds of the people of the recently decolonized states in the Third World, the Peace Corps demonstrated the willingness of Americans to work at the grassroots level in order to help underdeveloped nations meet their needs. In doing this, the Peace Corps aimed to help interested countries fulfill their needs for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans among the people of nations hosting Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), and to foster a better understanding of other cultures among Americans at home. Although the efforts of PCVs to achieve specific project goals, especially those dealing with development, frequently met with frustration, PCVs often realized the latter two objectives. Much of the organization's legacy stems from this realization.
In addition to its stated objectives, however, the Peace Corps was, and continues to be, rich in symbolic meaning for Americans. Historian Elizabeth Cobbs-Hoffman argues that despite its status as an official government entity, the Peace Corps symbolizes an ideal form of American altruism divorced from the mandate of direct political and economic benefit to the United States yet imbued with the best attributes of its national character. (1) Americans, having traditionally defined themselves in terms of ideals, were in desperate need of such an image at the time of the organization's establishment. The Peace Corps can thus be understood as having affected not only the ways that people in other cultures view Americans and the ways that Americans view people in other cultures, but also the lens through which Americans view themselves, their government, and their culture. While the economic and strategic considerations of the Cold War increasingly prompted U.S. policy-makers to take an expansionistic line in global affairs, the Peace Corps aimed to display a different aspect of America's might-its moral character.
In the period after World War II, the United States emerged as the preeminent economic and military power in the world and the only state capable of leading global reconstruction and filling the vacuum resulting from the destruction of the world's established power structure. The sense of rebirth that accompanied the perceived opportunity to recreate the world for the benefit of all mankind complemented American conceptions of a morally-guided national policy. In his inaugural address in 1948, President Truman publicly expressed the conviction that the United States should take a leading role in meeting the exigencies of the impoverished Third World. In what would become known as the Point Four Program, the Truman administration proposed that America undertake to provide assistance to underdeveloped peoples so that they might realize "their aspirations for a better life." (2) The Point Four Program eventually evolved into what is now the Agency for International Development (AID).Other initiatives such as the Council on World Tensions and the Oxford Conference on Tensions in Development, which was held in 1961 and involved participants from countries in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, demonstrated the emphasis on the need to "create understanding of the partnership among nations required for development." (3)
While the West shared the responsibility for aiding the development of Third World countries, many believed that the United States would assume an appropriately disproportionate share of this responsibility. The overriding idea that American predominance in global affairs would precipitate the triumph of universal human values, however, generated expectations unparalleled in the nation's history. …