When the books close one day on the “American Experiment,” I hope history will remember us more for our great ideas and accomplishments than for the Manhattan Project or the thousands of cubic miles of landfills that we left behind.
Hopefully, people will still be benefitting from some of our most worthy contributions to world culture, like the Internet, rock and roll, and Andy Griffith reruns.
Another of America’s best ideas began 50 years ago this week with the debut of the Peace Corps, which was created on March 1, 1961, during the first six weeks of JFK’s administration.
Kennedy first proposed his idea for an agency of American volunteers who promoted peace through labor in undeveloped countries while campaigning for the presidency in 1960. Many critics knocked the idea, including Kennedy’s presidential opponent Richard Nixon, who felt that it would simply be “a haven for draft dodgers.”
Over the past 50 years, over 200,000 Americans have served as Peace Corps volunteers in over 140 countries, including the mother of President Jimmy Carter.
I signed up for the Peace Corps a decade ago and was selected to spend two years teaching English in Kazakhstan. I ended up not going, as a nasty little thing called 9/11 happened at about the same time. This made me think that being stationed in a ‘Stan at the request of the U.S. government was probably not the smartest career move.
I ended up staying stateside and joining Warner Bros., where I met my beautiful wife Kimi, so everything worked out for the best. I still hope to serve in this or a similar organization at some point later in life, but only with my wife at my side.
Just as the “myth of America” sometimes doesn’t jive with the “reality of America,” the Peace Corps has not always lived up to its ideals, and has been accused of being a governmental tool used to advance the American agenda more than to aide the host countries.
This kind of thing often happens whenever bureaucrats get involved. But on a personal level, I have rarely met anyone who ever volunteered who wasn’t positively enhanced by the experience or who didn’t feel that they had made a worthy contribution.
I hope that when America is remembered by future generations, that the discussion won’t focus simply on our addiction to Big Macs, or the dozens of dirty little wars we fought to keep the oil flowing, or why we were too busy to cool down the atmosphere because Dancing With the Stars was on.
Maybe if we get our collective ca-ca together, we’ll be remembered for helping start a worldwide trend of global volunteerism. If so, the American Experiment may ultimately be deemed a successful one.