While campaigning for president, John F. Kennedy proposed a new federal agency to send civilian volunteers to work with people in developing countries and improve their way of life. In the shadow of the Cold War, President Kennedy intended the Peace Corps to win peoples' hearts and minds by matching friendly faces and helping hands with the democratic ideals of freedom and equality.

Inspiration and Motivation

Kennedy believed improving the lives of impoverished people in developing countries would enable these vulnerable populations to resist the appeals of communism. The Soviet Union sent teachers, engineers and doctors abroad to provide needed services and spread Marxist values. Meanwhile, Soviet propaganda painted a picture of an exploitative U.S. that was the enemy of all people. Kennedy felt that sending Americans to help build schools and dig wells in small villages could effectively counter that image.

Positive Public Relations

In practice, early Peace Corps volunteers often were used more as junior diplomats, receiving training in democracy and American values as well as education on the philosophy and tactics of communist powers they were competing against. Meanwhile, stories about enthusiastic young people helping villagers build schools and grow better crops painted a rosy picture of American democracy. This image helped soften the American reputation abroad of military aggression and abusive business practices. The goodwill spread by the volunteers, coupled with the relatively low cost of the program, made the Peace Corps an effective Cold War weapon.