The earliest pop-culture Peace Corps reference?

The Peace Corps is a household name. You can ask almost anyone in America if they’ve heard of it, and they’ll probably answer in the affirmative. I’ve always wondered how this small federal agency could have such a huge impact on American culture, but I think it comes down to three basic factors:

  1. It’s exotic. Although many have heard of the Peace Corps, most don’t know exactly what it’s all about. There seems to be a romantic stereotype that Peace Corps volunteers are sent to some tropical village to live in a mud hut and teach the natives animal husbandry or some such skill. (The reality these days is that volunteers are more likely to end up in a city teaching computer literacy, but the stereotype lives on.)
  2. It’s old. Established in 1961, America has had plenty of time to learn about the Peace Corps, and nearly 200,000 returned volunteers have had ample opportunity to spread the word around. In fact, the Peace Corps has been around long enough that it’s even had its own postage stamp.

    Peace Corps stamp

  3. Hollywood loves it. I suspect this factor has had the single greatest impact on making the Peace Corps a household name. I’ve lost count of how many references to it I’ve seen on TV and in movies, each one helping to cement a place for the Peace Corps in American culture. My favorite is this segment from the movie Airplane!.

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Filmed in 1978, I had thought that Airplane! was perhaps the earliest pop-culture reference to the Peace Corps. Last week, when I happened to rent The Pink Panther from GreenCine, I discovered I was wrong.

Playing a supporting role in the film was Robert Wagner, better known to today’s audiences as Number Two from the Austin Powers series.

Number Two

In the scene below, note how Wagner casually mentions the Peace Corps. Moments later, David Niven enters and also drops the Peace Corps name as if it were common knowledge.

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What shocked me about this scene was the date: The Pink Panther was filmed in 1963, just two years after the Peace Corps was established! It could very well be the first reference to the Peace Corps—ever—in mainstream popular culture. Perhaps even more surprising is how nonchalantly the Peace Corps is mentioned, as if everyone knows what it is.

So, contrary to what I had assumed, the longevity of the Peace Corps may have had little to do with its status as a household name. Judging by this clip, it became well-known almost as soon as it was created.

3 Responses to “The earliest pop-culture Peace Corps reference?”

  1. Mel Siegel says:

    You express surprise that by 1963 the Peace Corps (launched early 1961) was already well known. My recollection is that Peace Corps was well known before the first volunteers were selected for training. When I signed on in Spring 1962 I don’t recall having to explain to anyone what it was — everybody knew. This may in part be because in addition to getting a lot of publicity in the press, the top guys — from Sarge Shriver down — were out on college campuses recruiting and doing the one- on-one interviews. I was interviewed by Franklin Williams, one of Shriver’s two or three “right hand men”, who had been something like Attorney General of California, and later became Ambassador to Ghana. Remember — well, sorry, most of you don’t — in those days people high up in the government weren’t as aloof and isolated as they are now. Everybody except the President usually flew commercial and often used these opportunities to chat with real people in real settings. Even when Gerald Ford was in the White House, his wife Betty flew commercial — I sat a couple of seats behind her on one flight. To my surprise, I recently sat two seats from John Kerry, who pulled a salad out of his briefcase — there was no food on the flight — carried his own luggage, and held the swinging door for people behind him who were struggling with their luggage. Anybody notice we got the wrong guy?

  2. Sheila M. O'Callaghan says:

    Dear Trevor,

    A I am a volunteer for Travel Television. I am working on a clip to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the peace corp. I loved your movie references. Is it possible to send me a QT file of your movie clips?

    Thanks,

    Sheila O’Callaghan

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