Establishing the Peace Corps (page 3)
Establishing the Peace Corps
page 1, page 2, page 3, page 4
Kennedy’s Involvement
JFK’s first direct association with the Peace Corps came on February 21, 1960. He was on a college television show called “College News Conference” and someone asked about the “Point Four Youth Corps.” Kennedy said he didn’t know what the legislative proposal was. Afterwards, he told aide Richard Goodwin to research the idea. Goodwin, who was the Kennedy link with the “brain trust” at Harvard, wrote to Archibald Cox at the university’s law school about the idea.
    Then in April and May of 1960, when Kennedy was running against Humphrey for the nomination, the idea was discussed further. Humphrey introduced his bill for a “Peace Corps” in the Senate in June, but after Kennedy won the nomination in July, Humphrey transferred all his research files to Kennedy’s office. The Cow Palace speech made by Kennedy right before the election, which revealed his growing commitment to the “Peace Corps” concept, owed a great deal to Humphrey’s ideas.
     In early September, Kennedy asked both Congressman Reuss and a Professor Sam Hayes at the University of Michigan to prepare position papers on a national youth service program.
     On September 22nd, at the University of Nebraska, Lyndon Johnson, the Vice Presidential candidate, called for a “Volunteers for Peace and Humanity” program and got a great campus response. He called Kennedy that night and told him that such a volunteer program would be a “great political asset.”
     In October, during the debates with Nixon, Kennedy discussed the Third World, the Communist threat, and the need for new foreign policy initiatives, but never mentioned a “Youth Peace Corps.”

Then came Ann Arbor, Michigan.
On October 14, Kennedy flew into Michigan from New York, where he had just completed his third debate with Nixon. He had agreed to say a few words to the students at the university. Ten thousand students waited for him until 2 am, and they chanted his name as he climbed the steps of the student union building.
     Kennedy launched into an extemporaneous address. He challenged them, asking how many would be prepared to give years of their lives working in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
     The audience went wild. (I know, because at the time I was a new graduate student over in Kalamazoo. I was also working part time as a news reporter for WKLZ and had gone to cover the event.)
     According to Sargent Shriver, “No one is sure why Kennedy raised the question in the middle of the night at the university.” Possibly Kennedy thought of the Peace Corps at Michigan because someone reminded him that Professor Sam Hayes taught at the university’s International Studies Department. Samuel Hayes was an early advocate of the “Peace Corps idea,” and had earlier been asked by Kennedy to prepare position papers on the idea of a national volunteer organization.

1992 reprint available from Amazon (Buy this book)

      Harris Wofford thinks that Kennedy’s remarks were a counterattack to a criticism that Nixon had made during the debate earlier in the evening. Nixon had said that the Democrats were the “war party.” In his book, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, Wofford writes: “Stung by Nixon’s words, Kennedy may have remembered the idea of a Peace Corps and spoken as he did in order to counteract the image of a Democratic war party.”
     After that speech — the next day, in fact — Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and an advisor to Kennedy who would later become Kennedy's Ambassador to India, gave a long talk on the same theme. (A day later in Kalamazoo I was part of the press that interviewed Bowles, who was following after Kennedy on this tour through the Midwest. What I remember most about this event was that in responding to my question of what area of the world would be most interesting in the next decade, Bowles said Africa, where vast changes would occur because of the end of colonial rule.)

Meanwhile, back in Ann Arbor
On the Michigan campus, after hearing Bowles, two graduate students — Alan and Judy Guskin — wrote a letter to the editor of The Michigan Daily, the university newspaper, asking readers to join in working for a Peace Corps. (The editor of the Daily was Tom Hayden. The paper later won a journalism award for its coverage and support of the Peace Corps movement.) Students began to circulate a petition urging the founding of a Peace Corps.
     Then a Democratic National Committeewoman and UAW official, Mildred Jeffrey, learned about the students’ response from her daughter Sharon, who was studying at the university. She put the students in touch with the Kennedy camp. They couldn’t reach anyone until they got Ted Sorensen, who liked the idea of a major speech on the subject, and promised to tell Kennedy about the Ann Arbor petitions. By then the petition was also being circulated at other Big Ten universities and at colleges throughout Michigan — I signed at Western Michigan University where I was studying.
     In the Republican camp, Nixon was still being urged to embrace the Peace Corps idea. Two Michigan faculty members — Elise and Kenneth Boulding — who were critical of Kennedy’s cold war stances, pushed for the students to be nonpartisan with the idea. But when Nixon wouldn’t take up the plan, the Guskins turned to Kennedy in late October.
     Because Kennedy’s people didn’t know this and they had heard that Nixon was on the verge of proposing an overseas volunteer program for college graduates, they urged Kennedy to move out front with the idea before Nixon.
     On November 2, the Guskins were notified that at the Cow Palace that evening Kennedy was going to make a major address on the Peace Corps idea. And he wanted to meet with them and the other students taking the lead in the petition drive. This was six days before the election.
     The Michigan students were told to drive to Toledo and meet Kennedy when he stopped on his way back to Washington and deliver their petition — this was the same petition that we had signed at other Michigan schools.
     About this meeting, Wofford writes in his book: “Kennedy grinned at the long scroll of names, and sensed the students’ discomfort when he started to put the petition in his car. ‘You need them back, don’t you?’ he asked. He had guessed right; it was before the era of Xerox and they had not copied the names and addresses.”
     How important was this petition? How important were those students in the creation of the Peace Corps?
     In his book, Point of the Lance, Sargent Shriver concluded that the Peace Corps would probably “still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty. Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once more on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded that the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion.”

Home | Back Issues | Resources | Archives | Site Index | Search | About us | To contact us

Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers | PC writers by country of service

E-mail the with comments
or to be added to the new-issue notice list.
Copyright © 2008, (formerly RPCV Writers & Readers)
All rights reserved.