West Cascade Peace Corps Association
Peace Corps 50th
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The First Peace Corps

President John Kennedy in his first and only inaugural asked us to serve our country rather than take from it. But five months later when I signed on with the Peace Corps fresh out of college the times were changing, as Bob Dylan put it a few years later. I must confess that the appeal of the Peace Corps for many of us idealists at the time, was the opportunity to serve the world, not the country. It also helped that the country was picking up the tab.

Kennedy realized the value of the moment at hand. For twenty –two years, the length of my entire life at the time, this country had only known war, whether hot or cold, and the world had only known the Marine Corps, the Army Corps, or the Air Corps. To substitute the word peace for war and show the human face of America could only serve our country well. It would help burnish our tarnished image in the "third world". America at the time was seen as the new empire, an economic but still imperial successor to European colonialism. And Ghana was the opportunity. It had shed its colonial status as the British Gold Coast just the year before, the first completely independent country in Africa. And it had a Marxist “leader”, Kwame Nkrumah, who was at the time flirting with building stronger ties with the Soviet Union. Perfect opportunity for the young president!

The most profound lesson I learned from the Peace Corps was that acts of serving probably reward those who give more than those who receive. I taught French to French speaking Ghanaians living on the border of a French colony, and African history to, well, Africans. Who do you think learned more French or more about Africa?

We came armed with technology and not always relevant information, but with the capacity to command respect as citizens of the most powerful country in the world. We left with the wisdom that comes from experiencing unlimited generosity in the midst of poverty, the value of "primitive" rites of passage, and the convenience and posture benefits of carrying your books and your firewood on the top of your head. How relevant was bringing the latest and greatest boom box to my school when the workers building classrooms sang songs in chorus while they laid each course of bricks. So we gave some and we received and learned even more and I suspect received gifts of greater value. We served our country not just by serving others, but by becoming better individuals ourselves.

The promise of Peace evoked by the term Peace Corps was never realized. Just two years later, in the last year of his life, Kennedy himself made the fateful decision to send American military "advisors" to Vietnam. Ironically I suppose, I would find myself there three years later as a naval officer on a US ship in the Tonkin Gulf. But the fifty year experience for Americans, young and older alike, has provided us with a remarkable link to a wonderfully diverse world, helping us to discover our common humanity, our mutual courage and generosity in the face of adversity, and the persistence of music and art that transcends all language barriers. Fifty years ago, a World War II veteran and naval hero, the son of the US ambassador to England, and a man who tragically would never live to appreciate how the Peace Corps would inform our national character, had the wisdom to make this happen. Today we should all be grateful to him for that foresight.

Roger Hamilton
RPCV, Ghana I