Exactly sixty years ago this week, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to establish the Peace Corps on a temporary pilot basis. Six months later, on September 22, the U.S. Congress formally authorized the agency, which to date has sent more than 240,000 American volunteers to serve in 142 countries “to promote world peace and friendship.”
This legislative background informs the first part of A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps, a 2019 documentary film directed by Alana DeJoseph. Over the course of 100-plus minutes, the film chronicles the history of the agency, from its idealistic origins during the Cold War through multiple political shifts, controversies, and dramatic events in world affairs. The chronicle comes to life through what is the film’s greatest strength: its almost dizzying parade of interviewees—not only Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) and Peace Corps staff, but also scholars who have written about the agency, and community members and leaders in some of the diverse locations where PCVs have served worldwide.
Some of the film’s interviewees are well known, such as Maria Shriver (daughter of Sargent Shriver, the agency’s first director and President Kennedy’s brother-in-law); political figures (and RPCVs) Christopher Dodd, Joseph Kennedy III, and Donna Shalala; and Jimmy Carter, whose mother Lillian Carter and grandson Jason Carter were both RPCVs. But most are more ordinary, even if the stories they share are extraordinary in the sense of making a difference in communities around the world—whether to provide assistance in agriculture, economic development, education, environment, health, and more.
Admittedly, not all the stories in the film reflect well on the Peace Corps. There are references to investigations by ABC News, which revealed how the agency failed to protect PCVs who reported crimes or who were victims of sexual assault. Ironically, A Towering Task opens with an excerpt from another ABC News report (1965), in which Sargent Shriver answers the question, “Don’t young Americans have enough to do here at home without going overseas?” Shriver’s response is telling: “Whether working for civil rights or to combat disease and hunger here at home or abroad is irrelevant. The big thing is to be doing it someplace. These are the problems that are going to control the future.”
Of course, combating disease is very much of this particular moment. Facing the growing coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers for the first time ever, and is just now restarting operations in some countries.
At this pivotal moment in Peace Corps history, and to coincide with Peace Corps Week in 2021, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is making A Towering Task available to watch any time between now and 11:59 p.m. ET, Thursday, March 4. You may register on Eventbrite to watch the film at your own convenience, or you may join our watch party on Facebook, from 5 to 6:45 p.m. on March 4. The latter takes place immediately prior to a panel discussion envisioning the future of the agency, featuring Peace Corps acting director Carol Spahn, Rayna Green, Rahama Wright, and Alana DeJoseph, all RPCVs, at 7 p.m. ET on March 4. The program is presented in partnership with the Smithsonian Cultural Vitality Program, National Peace Corps Association, and Museum of the Peace Corps Experience.
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 2011, he curated the Folklife Festival program, Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Promoting World Peace and Friendship.