Remarks at the Reception Marking the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps
Secretary of State
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
This page contains an item that cannot be displayed on mobile devices.
UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Thank you, Aaron. And thanks to all of the volunteers past and present for answering the call to service. I’m honored to be part of the Peace Corps’s golden anniversary and to celebrate all its contributions to the world.
I’d also like to add my welcome to the members of the Kennedy and Shriver families joining us today. Your families have set the standard of public service in our country for many years, and we appreciate your ongoing dedication.
I’m delighted to welcome our distinguished ambassadors representing Peace Corps host countries, including the ambassadors from Ghana and Tanzania, the first countries to host volunteers 50 years ago. The Peace Corps would never have gotten off the ground if other nations hadn’t thought it was a good and worthwhile venture, so thank you all for taking this journey with the United States.
And welcome to the members of the Congress, the former Peace Corps directors, and my colleagues from the State Department and throughout the Obama Administration. Thank you for all the time and involvement you have put into making the Peace Corps a signature achievement of American outreach and service to the world.
As you all know, and as Aaron mentioned, Secretary Clinton is traveling, and unfortunately, she could not join us today. I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that she’d far rather be here than where she is at the moment. (Laughter.) But she asked me to share this special message with you:
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Via videotape) I am delighted to send my very best wishes as you celebrate the more than 200,000 Americans who have answered the call to service first issued by President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver in 1961.
For 50 years, Peace Corps volunteers have been our ambassadors to the world. They’re often the first American in their host community and the first American that many have ever met. They share their generosity, creativity and skills in ways that change lives and deepen understanding across cultures.
I have seen first-hand the enthusiasm and commitment of our volunteers around the world. I will never forget meeting volunteer Muriel Johnston in Morocco, who at age 86 reminds all of us to dream big and follow our hearts. Many of my colleagues as the State Department and at USAID began their careers in the Peace Corps, and it gave them the foundation to bridge cultural divides and inspired them to think about what we can accomplish together so around the world countless individuals have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and live up to their potential because a Peace Corps volunteer changed their lives.
The world has moved on since 1961, but the agency’s mission to promote world peace and friendship is timeless. On behalf of the State Department and USAID, I would like to thank all Peace Corps volunteers past, present, and future for your commitment to peace and friendship. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)
UNDER SECRETARY MCHALE: Secretary Clinton’s remarks reminded me of another famous Secretary of State. In 1961 Dean Rusk predicted – and I quote – “If the Peace Corps can let other peoples find out what this country is all about, we shall be surprised to discover how many allies America has all over the world.” Fifty years later, we can see just how accurate Secretary Rusk’s prediction was and how important it remains today.
In the era of internet connections and mobile communications, citizen diplomacy has taken on a new level of significance. America’s best ambassadors no longer wear three-piece suits, and I often say that even if every member of our missions overseas did nothing but public diplomacy all day, it would not be nearly enough. We need an avalanche of unique American voices speaking about their beliefs and representing our country abroad.
Our Peace Corps volunteers are those fulltime citizen diplomats. Even dressed in sandals or covered in mud, they have shown the best of America day in and day out to the people of almost 140 nations. Instead of Blackberries, they carry seeds and schoolbooks and soccer balls. They live and work outside embassy compounds and alongside the people they serve.
As Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, I focus on strengthening the indispensible people-to-people connections that the Peace Corps helped pioneer, the simple conversations that grow into friendships and become lifelong bonds, bonds that cross continents and cultures to help us discover how much more unites us than divides us, bonds that allow us to explore differences openly and learn something new about ourselves and about each other.
It’s telling that Peace Corps volunteers don’t refer to themselves as former anything. They are simply returned. As is so often the case, Peace Corps volunteers commit to making a difference for others and in turn find themselves forever changed.
As Secretary Clinton mentioned, we have over 400 returned Peace Corps volunteers working in positions throughout the State Department, from entry level officers all the way up to ambassadors. They are a testament to the spark of service and the global awareness the Peace Corps ignites in its volunteers. From the beginning, we have recognized the two-way power of the Peace Corps to build acceptance and understanding between people. The first two Peace Corps goals emphasize American service and promoting understanding abroad, but the third recognizes the crucial role the Peace Corps plays in promoting a better understanding of other cultures at home. America is enriched each time a new idea or a different tradition touches us. So returned volunteers aren’t finished when they cross our borders.
You are responsible for sharing your experiences and new understandings with your local communities. And as the ripples of friendship spread outward from Peace Corps volunteers and host communities, they bring about big changes: big changes in the families where girls as well as boys grow up glowing with confidence and empowered to be leaders; big changes in the schools where skilled teachers shape generations of eager students long after the Peace Corps volunteer who helped train them returns to the United States; big changes in the communities across America that embrace their returning sons and daughters as well as new families in Indonesia or Ukraine or Ecuador.
For 50 years, the Peace Corps has strengthened our nation and forged connections with the formerly far places of the world. Imagine what another 50 years will bring both for us and our partner countries. In February of 1961, a young woman named Jackie Marie Cipiti was one of thousands of energized youth who wrote a letter to President Kennedy. Jackie was preparing to graduate from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She was eager to know more about President Kennedy’s proposed Youth Corps and to find out how she could serve. She wrote, and I quote, “We as Americans, but more than Americans, as people of a world community, must think big. And these thoughts must be accompanied by small actions – small actions which are as building bricks, placed one upon the other, until the idea becomes a reality.” Well, for over half a century, Peace Corps volunteers just like Jackie have been building their big ideas into a better reality for us all – brick by brick, classroom by classroom, village by village, in countries all over the world.
Our world today changes from moment to moment. People can make and break connections with the click of a mouse. But the Peace Corps remains an unshakable emblem of America’s enduring friendship with the world and of our shared commitment to work towards a brighter future for us all. So with Secretary Clinton, and on behalf of everyone at the State Department, I want to thank the Peace Corps and more than 200,000 American volunteers for 50 years of service. Your work has touched the lives of millions of people around the world. You make a difference every day. And I wish the Peace Corps many more decades of good work.
And now I’d like to invite Director Williams, back along with Tim Shriver, to honor the man who turned President Kennedy’s big idea into an even bigger reality, Sargent Shriver. Thank you very much. (Applause.)