“All this will not be finished, but let us begin.” (John F. Kennedy)
For nearly 60 years, Americans have volunteered to go to other countries to build communities and form bonds through the Peace Corps. A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps, directed by Alana DeJoseph, herself a Returned Peace Corp Volunteer, traces the history of this American institution from its beginnings before John Kennedy was elected President to today.
The birth of the Peace Corps takes place in the midst of the Cold War. The best-selling book The Ugly American caught the attention of then-Senator Kennedy who bought copies for all Senators. It pointed out that we were not gaining the respect of other peoples. At a late-night campaign stop at a university, Kennedy asked the crowd, “How willing are you…” to go somewhere and serve others? Within weeks, there were thousands who were saying they would volunteer. Within a few weeks of his inauguration, Kennedy formed the Peace Corps and delegated his brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver to implement it. With in a few years there were over 10,000 volunteers serving around the world.
The film includes archival footage, interviews with current volunteers and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, staff members, journalists, and community leaders from around the world. They relate some of the challenges that were faced, including being in areas where US armed forces intervened. Often the Peace Corps workers who had established trust were of great value in caring for the people amidst the turmoil.
The purpose of the Peace Corps was stated to be to promote world peace and friendship. Functionally its goals were to bring technological assistance to other countries, to allow foreign communities to know Americans, and to bring back knowledge of other cultures. Those core concepts haven’t changed over the years, but the world around it has. The Cold War is no more, but there are new challenges that the Peace Corps strives to address. At one point that included teaching capitalism in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The film relates the political ups and downs the Peace Corps has faced as well as the generational changes of attitudes about public service. The size of the program is much smaller than it was in the 1960s, yet it continues to work dealing with issues such as climate change and mass migration. (Although, currently all Peace Corps volunteers have been recalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The values of the Peace Corps, as expressed in this film, allow us to consider at the personal and communal level what it means to live as neighbors. Certainly few of us have the abilities or the inclination to go to different cultures to share knowledge, skills, and lives. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot live out these values in our own communities. And as we watch the film we may also want to think about what the existence of the Peace Corps says about our nation. There have been administrations that would have happily done away with the Peace Corps, as well as administrations that sought to expand it. Perhaps this current pandemic induced hiatus could be a death knell for this program, but what a loss that would be for the world and for America.
The film is available on Virtual Cinema through local theaters