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A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps

“Helping other nations build the strength to meet their own problems, to satisfy their own aspirations, to surmount their own dangers. The problems in achieving this goal are towering and unprecedented. The response must be towering and unprecedented.”

President John F. Kennedy

The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, published in 1958, demonstrated how Americans working abroad failed to integrate with local communities allowing Russians, who did in fact integrate, to spread Communism. President John F. Kennedy read the book and was spurred to action. His goal was to have Americans volunteer to combat hunger, fight for civil rights and promote world peace by working within the communities they were helping. On September 22nd, 1961, Congress voted to make the Peace Corps a permanent agency.

“To help young Americans understand the rest of the world is vital to American leadership. How can you lead a world you don’t understand?”

Photo courtesy of First Run Features

Directed by Alana DeJoseph and narrated by Annette Bening, A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a soup to nuts exploration of the history of this government sponsored volunteer program from 1961 to present day. Viewers learn how the agency has evolved over several presidential administrations with notable high and low points. The documentary features extensive interviews with Peace Corps staff, former volunteers and experts. Notable talking heads include former president Jimmy Carter, Maria Shriver, U.S. representative Joe Kennedy III and former Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. There is plenty of archival footage and photographs of those early days of the Peace Corps. The phrase “A Towering Task” is reference to a document that Sargent Shriver, who was assigned by JFK to put his idea into action, and his task force wrote laying out the plans for the Peace Corps.

Perhaps the documentary’s most significant impact will have is through the voice of the volunteers. The story of Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic today (helping develop an ecotourism business) and during the revolution in the 1960s is very inspiring. My mother’s family lived through that revolution and received help from Peace Corps volunteers. I was particularly moved by one Dominican woman’s account of how a volunteer brought her rice and beans when she would have otherwise starved.

At first I felt the documentary might whitewash the history of the Peace Corps. However, it does explore some of the issues that have plagued the agency including its reputation as a haven for draft dodgers as well as the inaction on the part of higher ups to address sexual assault. It also discusses whistleblower Kate Puzey, a volunteer murdered in Benin. The film addresses the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa but was made before the current Coronavirus pandemic in which the Peace Corps, for the first time in its history, pulled all of its volunteers from service. 

A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a comprehensive look at the history of an agency born out of both patriotism and altruism in an effort to good for mankind.

A Towering Task will have a virtual theatrical release on May 22nd. Visit the First Run Features website for more information.

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