This sympathetic account, the best work now available on the subject, locates the Peace Corps in the context of the activism of the 1960s. Others have criticized the Peace Corps for excessive idealism and naiveté, or as an agent of Cold War intervention, but Cobbs Hoffman makes a case for the agency’s “relative effectiveness” and its testimony to President Kennedy’s “global effect” (10). Introduced as an idea by Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign, the Peace Corps would counter the “ugly American” stereotype by placing fresh-faced American volunteers in the villages and hamlets of developing nations. There they could help spur political and economic growth and win hearts and minds.
As a product of the 1960s, the Peace Corps was part of a response, Cobbs Hoffman believes, to deeply held fears about a loss of individualism, the hovering threat of mass destruction, and revolutionary changes in relations between whites and people of color in postwar mass society. The theoretical context is light, however, and the author makes only a limited effort to locate her work in an emerging literature about international relations as intercultural relations. Although she acknowledges that the Peace Corps “owed its political existence to the cold war and to Kennedy’s belief that Washington needed to compete more effectively with Moscow for the allegiance of newly independent countries,” (90) Hoffman focuses more on agency history than geopolitics.
After establishing the Peace Corps by executive order, Kennedy appointed his brother-in-law, R. Sargent Shriver, as director at a volunteer’s [End Page 356] salary of $1 a year. Signing on such young liberals as Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford, Shriver set out on a world tour in an effort to produce some takers of the American offer. A breakthrough came with Ghana, the newly independent West African nation the president of which, Kwame Nkrumah, agreed to receive the young Americans as a means to educate his people. When India accepted the aid, the United States had received “the blessing of the leading unaligned nations in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,” thus assuring its mission (157).
Exploring diaries and letters, as well as government documents, Cobbs Hoffman relates stories about the individual volunteers who embodied the “all you need is love” 1960s mentality. Some of the stories are touching, like that of twenty-two-year-old Larry Radley who lived under difficult circumstances on his mission to a remote Colombian village before perishing in a plane crash. He was one of 227 Peace Corps volunteers who died from 1961 to 1997, mostly as a result of accidents. Readers get a sense of what it was like to serve in the Peace Corps, from the vigorous training regimen to the often grueling service and “culture shock” experienced in a host country.
By the mid-1960s, the Vietnam War shattered the idealistic vision that had inspired many of the early volunteers, leading to a sharp decline in applications. The number fell by more than half during Richard M. Nixon’s presidency, plummeted further in the late 1980s, and began a slow recovery only in the mid-1990s.
Cobb Hoffman concludes, “The Peace Corps demonstrates that constructive relations between nations of unequal strength and resources are possible, even during times of great international tension” (259). As a program that helped to spur development and enhance international understanding, the Peace Corps can be judged as a modest success story in the history of American foreign relations.