A changing Peace Corps for a changing world

The world is calling for more Peace Corps volunteers than the United States has to offer. Could there be any better news for the people in and out of government who groped their way toward a means of enlisting the energy and idealism of young Americans two decades ago?

The 20th anniversary celebrations have started with the October 1960 campaign speech in which presidential candidate John Kennedy floated the Peace Corps idea at the University of Michigan. It was obviously an idea whose time had come. Early that year a bill to study a possible "Point Four youth corps" was introduced by Rep. Henry Reuss, who had been impressed by the "sympathetic impact" made by four young American teachers setting up schools in Cambodian jungle villages. Sen. Richard Neuberger introduced a companiton bill in the Senate. In an other bill, introduced in June, Sen. Hubert Humphrey coined the phrase "youth peace corps."

And young America was ready for what its elders were saying. In retrospect, candidate Kennedy's words seem rather heavily adversarial, calling on young Americans to go out and counter the agents of communism. But the appeal was to selfless working for others as well as to patriotism. The Peace Corps was officially launched on a wave of enthusiasm.

Some Peace Corps volunteers and their governmental managers have not represented America as well as others. Some have invited satire. The enthusiasm remained among individuals, though the program almost faded from public view.

Now the alumni and alumnae add up to 80,000 Americans who have the kind of first-hand experience of another country that can foster essential international understanding on this small planet. You know the names of some -- Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who served in Ethiopia and has taken a particular senatorial interest in the third world; "Miss Lillian" Carter of Georgia, who went to India in her 60s, forerunner of the recent increase in recruits of grandparent age. Training and experience have become especially needed as the Peace Corps volunteers are called on to help people grow food more efficiently, increase their literacy, develop alternative sources of energy.

It is not so much an anticommunist effort now as a pro-third world effort. And with all sides warning of the importance to peace of hastening the development of the third world, the need for helping others to help themselves is urgent. Now it is not so much Americans telling a country what the Peace Corps can do for you; it is the representatives of countries coming up with define ideas of what skills -- plumber, carpenter, farmer -- their development requires. The Peace Corps may have plenty of volunteers on file but not with the requeste skills. In a recent year there were some 4,500 requests in comparison with the 3,300 to 3,500 volunteers the Peace Corps place overseas.

At the moment some 6,000 are serving in threescore countries. Not exactly the almost 15,000 of the peak year of 1967. But we are convinced the impulse to be of service remains in Americans. The Peace Corps is but one example -- though it began as something new under the sun -- of how this impulse shows itself in organized and individual ways.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.