I applaud Chris Honore’s piece [PCW 5/08] on President Kennedy’s 1962 Charter Day speech at UC Berkeley.
I was there in the football stadium among more than 90,000 that day, and his speech was a major reason I joined the Peace Corps. (It can be heard via the JFK Library recording.) I remember that bright, sunlit morning well that was so full of optimism about the future. California’s then Governor Edmund Brown introduced President Kennedy in the hopes it would boost Governor Brown’s reelection campaign. Alas, Brown lost to Ronald Reagan. And it was Governor Reagan who precipitated Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964, by ignoring Berkeley’s students and firing the very popular Chancellor Clark Kerr for defending them! So much for freedom of expression!
What struck me that day was not so much that Kennedy wanted to debunk “the theory that American power is unlimited, or that the American mission is to remake the world in the American image”, but Kennedy’s call for world peace . . .. “Beyond the drumfire of daily crisis, therefore, there is arising the outlines of a robust and vital world community, founded on nations secure in their own independence, and united by their allegiance to world peace.” I volunteered for the Peace Corps in 1963 on the day of Kennedy’s assassination, and like so many others it was because I was against the Vietnam War and wanted to make peace, not war. The movement for world peace was a major reason Berkeley’s students were part of the anti-war movement. The peace movement was helped by campus visitors of that time, such as William Lederer and Eugene Burdick lecturing about their book, The Ugly American, and Journalist Edgar Snow’s revelations about the Dulles brothers’ religious fundamentalism (communists were a Godless people), and how little we understood Vietnamese aspirations for independence!
I now believe the pendulum is swinging away from the good vs. evil pessimism that is behind the neo-cons’ call for a U.S. world hegemony and back to the “can do” spirit of cooperation so exemplified by the Peace Corps.