Peace Corps Writers
September 2000
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October 14, 1960
OCTOBER 14TH, is what many of us consider the “official” anniversary of the beginning of the Peace Corps. On that date in 1960, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy flew to Michigan from New York, where he had just completed a third presidential debate with the Republican nominee, Richard Nixon. Kennedy agreed to say a few words, late as it was — after 2 A.M. — to over 10,000 students who had gathered at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.
     Speaking extemporaneously, he threw out challenges to the students: How many would be prepared to give years of their lives working in Asia, Africa and Latin America? How many would serve as teachers, doctors, and engineers? He spoke of the need for them to make a personal contribution, of the greater effort to be made and of the value of sacrifice. “On your willingness,” he said, “not merely to serve one or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether we as a free society can compete.”
     “No one is sure why Kennedy raised the question in the middle of the night at the University of Michigan,” wrote Sargent Shriver in later years. Possibly Kennedy thought of the Peace Corps at Michigan because someone reminded him that Professor Samuel Hayes taught at the University’s International Studies Department. Hayes, in a report which he had submitted to Kennedy in September, had argued a case for American volunteers working in the Third World. Other staff members felt that Kennedy’s remarks were a counterattack to a criticism that Nixon had made during the debate earlier in the evening. Noting that the United States had become involved in foreign wars under Wilson, FDR, and Truman, Nixon had described the Democrats as the “war party.” Harris Wofford, a member of the Kennedy campaign team, and later one of the architects of the Peace Corps, later wrote, “Stung by Nixon’s word, 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.”
     Kennedy did not actually mention a “Peace Corps” or “volunteer” at Michigan, but his remarks clearly embodied the spirit of the idea. For him, Ann Arbor was a turning point.

The Cow Palace speech
Three weeks later, on November 2, 1960, Kennedy was in California and gave a major address at the Cow Palace auditorium in San Francisco. Nearly forty thousand people jammed the hall to hear a speech crafted by Theodore Sorensen, Richard Goodwin, and Archibald Cox. The speech was called, “Staffing a Foreign Policy for Peace.”
     Pinpointing weaknesses in vital areas of U.S. foreign policy, Kennedy warned that the United States would have to pay the price for its neglect of the newly independent countries of the Third World. He pointed to the paucity of American technicians at work with the peoples of the developing countries. He noted that Asia had more Soviet than American technicians and that a similar trend was becoming apparent in Africa. Stressing the impact that skilled Americans might have in the Third World, “building goodwill, building the peace,” he proposed a new government organization to accomplish this task, a Peace Corps.
     President Eisenhower at the time ridiculed the Peace Corps as a “juvenile experiment.” Nixon said the agency would be a form of “draft evasion,” and Senator Barry Goldwater remarked that the Peace Corps would be the advance work for a group of beatniks.
     And then the Daughters of the American Revolution at their 70th Continental Congress warned against a “yearly drain” of “brains and brawn . . . for the benefit of backward, underdeveloped countries.” Worse still, as they saw it, in the Peace Corps young Americans would be “living under abnormal conditions . . . and not with fellow-compatriots in barracks, as is customary in the armed forces.” With Volunteers thus “separated from the moral and disciplinary influences of their homeland,” the DAR saw only dire and “serious consequences.”
     Well, the Daughters got it partly right.

Later analysis
Nevertheless, three years after the “experiment” began, a Time Magazine cover story concluded that the Peace Corps was “the greatest single success the Kennedy administration has produced.”
     After Kennedy’s death, Theodore C. Sorensen, special counsel to President Kennedy, would say that the Peace Corps was the only new idea to emerge from the 1960 campaign. (From 1995 to 1997, Sorensen’s daughter, Juliet, would serve as a health Volunteer in Morocco.) Harris Wofford in his book, Of Kennedys & Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, would write, “Of all the social inventions of the sixties, the Peace Corps has been the most successful. It is John Kennedy’s most affirmative legacy.”
     In a talk given at the 35th Anniversary Celebration of the Peace Corps in 1996, Theodore C. Sorensen said, “John F. Kennedy often invoked the old saying that ‘success has a hundred fathers and failure is an orphan.’ He would be the first to acknowledge that the Peace Corps, one of his proudest achievements, had a hundred fathers: a bill by Hubert Humphrey, a speech by James Gavin, an article by Milton Shapp, the example of the Mormons and a dozen other religious organizations, a petition from Michigan University student responding to his impromptu midnight challenge, and dozens of others.”
     Today we don’t know really who first conceived of the idea of a Peace Corps, but it was John F. Kennedy who gave it birth, and all of us who served gave it life. So, in many ways, like Kennedy, it is also our greatest achievement.
     Happy 40th Birthday Everyone!

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