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President John F Kennedy sent out an 'army' of everyday US citizens to every corner of the globe - the Peace Corps. His big idea was to counter the idea of the 'ugly American' and in some way stem the spread of communism. Bridget Kendall goes to the United States to meet former Peace Corps volunteers and evaluate their role as America's 'missionaries of democracy'. And to hear, in their own words, their incredible tales.
Up to a point, JFK's concept was to fill skills and training gaps in developing countries, similar UK's VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas). Beyond that was an explicit mission to open America up to the world, to learn about foreign peoples and customs, and bring that knowledge back to out-of-touch Americans. After 50 years, 200,000 volunteers have returned home from far-flung regions of the world with stories of moving successes, naive failures, amusing cultural faux-pas and fascinating historical snapshots from the remote.
For many, the intensity of a double culture shock inspired them to put pen to paper. Life in a remote African village or Micronesian island followed, after two years service, by a return to the what became the equally strange land of home in the United States. For some, including novelist Paul Theroux, the experience kick-started a career.
Today, the US president has once again turned to the Peace Corps. Does it still represent America's pursuit of moral leadership on a global scale? Has it lived up to its purpose and principles? Is it a genuinely altruistic organisation or, as critics argue, simply self-interested soft power at work? And, in the face of new challenges, especially America's reputation in the Arab World, where does the Peace Corps go from here?
Producer: Dominic Byrne
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4.