Kennedy and the Peace Corps: Idealism on the Ground

By on December 16th, 2010

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Kennedy and the Peace Corps: Idealism on the Ground

by Lester Graham
December 16, 2010

Note: This feature on the unique Michigan roots of the Peace Corps was produced and written by Lester Graham as an audio project for Michigan Radio, WUOM in Ann Arbor. At Dome’s request, he prepared this print version. You can hear the audio report at Michigan Radio Documentaries: Kennedy and the Peace Corps.

In March 2011, the Peace Corps officially celebrates 50 years of existence. But without college students in Michigan, the Peace Corps might have been nothing more than a passing thought.

While a candidate for president, John F. Kennedy made a late night stop at the University of Michigan. He challenged students to think about representing America abroad, using their newly learned skills to help people in undeveloped nations. It’s a challenge he’d made before at other college campuses. Michigan students took the challenge seriously.

John F. Kennedy had a privileged upbringing. Marnee Devine, a cousin of JFK who lives in Ann Arbor, says she can remember Jack and his older brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr., were always going on trips abroad. By the time he became a member of Congress, John F. Kennedy was fairly well traveled.

In 1951, the 34-year-old congressman from Massachusetts had just returned from a tour of Asia and the Middle East. Kennedy was disgusted with what he found at some of the U.S. embassies. In a speech, he criticized members of the Foreign Service who he felt were not representing the United States very well. He said U.S. representatives abroad “were unconscious of the fact that their role was not tennis and cocktails, but the interpretation to a foreign country of the meaning of American life.”

Shortly after the speech he made his first appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. A regular member of the panel, Lawrence Spivek, asked, “Did you find a great many of our representatives playing tennis all the time and drinking cocktails?”

Congressman Kennedy replied that he thought a lot of foreign service workers were doing an excellent job under difficult conditions, but he conceded, “On the other hand, I think too many of our representatives are — I used the words ‘playing tennis and cocktails.’ I think, but more basically, that quotation would continue in not knowing the countries in which they are accredited and knowing very little of the people, very little of the language and the custom, not really representing what we would like to feel are the representative American types in the Foreign Service.”

Kennedy told the panel he felt something ought to be done about that.

Just nine years later in 1960, John Kennedy was a second-term U.S. senator and the Democratic nominee for president.

Kennedy’s campaign captured the imagination of young people. His “New Frontier” campaign theme called for a change from the staid — some would say stale — Eisenhower administration.

President Dwight Eisenhower was, of course, supporting his own vice-president, Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate.

The Nixon-Kennedy debates were televised and broadcast on radio. They reached more people than any presidential debates had before.

It’s hard to imagine the underlying tension of the Cold War throughout the 1950s. Commentators, books, magazine articles by the hundreds speculated about how the world might be turned into ashes through nuclear war.

The world was basically divided into three parts: the U.S. and its allies, Communist countries and the so-called Third World, the developing nations. America did not want those nations to become Marxist.

Nixon and Kennedy had agreed to a series of television and radio debates. The fourth debate was on foreign policy. Richard Nixon spoke first.

“There is one issue that stands out above all the rest; one in which every American is concerned, regardless of what group he may be a member and regardless of where he may live. And that issue very simply stated is this: How can we keep the peace; keep it without surrender? How can we extend freedom; extend it without war?”

The Eisenhower administration’s policy had been to help friendly countries with military aid and to give them money. Critics of the policy felt too often that aid went to prop up Third World dictators and other authoritarian regimes. Richard Nixon thought the only way America would keep peace in the world and keep Communism from spreading was through strength.

Nixon went on to say, “Although we are today, as Senator Kennedy has admitted, the strongest nation in the world militarily, we must increase our strength; increase it so that we will always have enough strength that regardless of what our potential opponents have, if they should launch a surprise attack we will be able to destroy their war-making capabilities. They must know, in other words, that it is national suicide if they begin anything. We need this kind of strength because we’re the guardians of the peace.”

There is no doubt Kennedy also believed a strong American military was key to deterring Communist domination. But in Kennedy’s view, America was falling short in how it treated the nations of the Third World.

He responded to Nixon’s comment by saying, “I believe that the world is changing fast and I don’t think this administration has shown the foresight, has shown the knowledge, has been identified with the great fight which these people are waging to be free, to get a better standard of living, to live better. The average income in some of those countries is $25 a year. The Communists say, ‘Come with us; look what we’ve done.’ And we’ve been, on the whole, uninterested.”

Kennedy felt part of America’s foreign policy should be about putting our best foot forward. In explaining his position, he echoed his concerns first expressed on Meet the Press nine years earlier, saying the U.S. should, “Throughout the world appoint the best people we can get, ambassadors who can speak the language, not merely people who made a political contribution, but who can speak the language, bring students here; let them see what kind of country we have. Mr. Nixon said that we should not regard them as pawns in the Cold War, we should identify ourselves with them. If that were true, why didn’t we identify ourselves with the people of Africa?”

As African nations had declared independence from colonial powers, the U.S. under the Eisenhower administration sometimes had been slow to recognize the new emerging governments.

Between the debates, the candidates crisscrossed the country by plane and by train, campaigning to be the next president of the United States. The polls indicated it was a close race with just weeks remaining before the election.

In mid-October, immediately after the third Nixon-Kennedy debate, held in New York, Sen. Kennedy flew to Michigan. He planned to sleep that night in the Student Union at the University of Michigan and campaign by rail the next day. It would be a nine-city, whistle-stop tour through Michigan. Winning the industrial state meant a lot of electoral votes.

It was late when his plane landed on October 14th. But Sen. Kennedy found a crowd of 3,000 or more to greet him at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti. It was a quarter ’til two in the morning by the time he got to the University of Michigan, where he was to sleep.

Alan Guskin was among the students waiting for the candidate.

“He found 10,000 students waiting for him at 2 a.m. when he arrived after much delay. I was one of the 10,000 students there and heard him talk and that was very exciting.”

At the time, Guskin was working on his social psychology doctorate at Michigan. His wife, Judith, a grad student, was also there.

“Many of us had watched that debate before coming out to wait for him. When he arrived, there was great excitement. He was clearly tired. There’s no question about it. He said, ‘I came here to go to sleep.’ And we all said, ‘Oh, no!’ You know, we were afraid that he wouldn’t speak at all to us.”

Before Kennedy went outside to speak to the crowd, a few students approached him. They had a letter for the candidate. Tom Hayden, who later was to become an iconic activist of the 1960s, was then the editor of the campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily. Hayden says he and some of his friends had been watching a TV show about nuclear war a few nights before. They put together a letter for Kennedy and Nixon, calling for, among other things, disarmament. But it was another point in that letter that caught the candidate’s eye…alternative service…a way to serve the country without being drafted into the military.

Hayden remembers, “He opened the envelope, read the letter and said, ‘I’ll speak to one of these points tonight,’ put the letter back in his pocket and went out and spoke.”

Kennedy started with an abbreviated version of his typical stump speech, but he unexpectedly asked the students a question.

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year 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 a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”

In the days after the speech, Hayden says Kennedy campaign staffers were on the phone, “asking the people in Ann Arbor what the hell this proposal was and could somebody send some information about what he had endorsed.”

In an interview just a few weeks before he died, long-time Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen said the challenge to the students wasn’t planned, but it fit in nicely with Kennedy’s New Frontier campaign.

“And Kennedy spoke not of a specific organization with a specific name, but with the general idea which was consistent with the whole theme of his campaign, which was public service and young people dedicating their energies and talents,” Sorensen said.

No one knew it then, but in just a few weeks that challenge would have a name, the Peace Corps.

Alan and Judy Guskin, like a lot of students at the University of Michigan, were excited about Sen. Kennedy campaigning at their school. They listened, not quite sure what to do about the challenge he made or why he had chosen that moment to make it.

“Nobody knows exactly why he was inspired to point to the crowd and challenge us. He knew that we were students, that we had certain skills, that we had certain backgrounds, and he challenged us to use our knowledge, our skills in the third world,” Judith Guskin said.

Longtime Michigan resident Phil Power was a student and night reporter for the Michigan Daily in 1960. He says at the moment, not many knew what to think about the challenge.

“It was almost in a parenthesis. The idea came, he flicked it out and then it went away. People said ‘Okay, he gave a speech. It’s an interesting idea. It’s late. Let’s go have a beer and let’s go to bed.’”

And that could have been the end of it.

But a few days later an advisor to the Kennedy campaign made a stop on the campus. Alan and Judith Guskin went to hear him. Chester Bowles was a foreign policy advisor to the Kennedy campaign. Alan says someone in the audience asked Bowles about John F. Kennedy’s challenge to go overseas to serve in the undeveloped world.

“And he then talked about his son and daughter-in-law serving in Africa. And it really stimulated a lot of us,” Alan Guskin said.

Judith Guskin recalls, “Here was someone who had been ambassador to India, who knew about foreign affairs, who had a son, Sam, and a daughter-in-law, Sally, working in a village in Africa, and he was very proud of them and he felt they were doing meaningful work. And that’s what really, I think, made the difference for us. We said, ‘Okay, why not? This is real.’”

The Guskins went to dinner and took out a napkin on which they wrote a letter to the Michigan Daily, urging people to sign up for what Kennedy had proposed.

The couple called on fellow students to take up Kennedy’s challenge and to meet with them to determine how a program for youth to help overseas would work. They took the note they first wrote down on a napkin…to the editor of the Michigan Daily, Tom Hayden, and told him, “You’ve got to publish this.”

Judith Guskin recalls an 18-year-old Hayden tilting his chair back “because it made him look more like the editor, I think.” They told him, “Here’s a letter we want you to publish.” She remembers he said, “‘Why should I?’ or, you know, ‘You can’t tell me what to publish.’” But, after reading their letter, he became enthusiastic.

Hayden says he doesn’t remember that moment all that well, but he remembers committing to the idea, saying, “They drew me into a decision where I committed the resources of the paper to editorializing in favor of their proposal…And on they went to make history.”

The response to the Guskins’ letter to the editor and the buzz from the Kennedy speech on campus was overwhelming. The phone began ringing off the hook in the Guskins’ apartment.

As a reporter for the Daily, Phil Power attended and covered a lot of the meetings the Guskins organized.

“A little organization called Americans Committed for—to—World Responsibility, which is kind of a high flying name for a bunch of kids who were sitting around drinking too much coffee and too much beer, too late at night,” Power said.

Hundreds of students at the University of Michigan got involved. So did some of the faculty. And they started putting together a plan of how college grads could go abroad, could, through a government program, take their skills and knowledge to people in other countries. Students from other campuses heard about the effort through their campus newspapers.

Power says that for a decade there had been young people starving for something more than just trudging through life pursuing a career.

“Remember, this was in the 1950s, which was the time of the man in the grey flannel suit. And a lot of young people were passive about political or social action. The country had come through World War II, come through the Korean War, Dwight Eisenhower was the president, the cold war was going and policy issues were denominated to some degree in military terms. And from a standpoint of enthusiastic, passionate, involved young people, there was very little there for us in the national conversation.”

No one involved in dreaming up what would become the Peace Corps would claim this was an original idea. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey had tried to get such a program passed in Congress. Other politicians had proposed similar programs. Religious groups such as the Mennonites had their own programs in place. And private organizations had varying degrees of success in getting students overseas to a life of service among the villages and big cities in Third World countries.

As a teenager, Douglas Kelley, who now lives in Ann Arbor, had been inspired by a program put together by Eleanor Roosevelt. It encouraged young people to think about service to others. In 1951 as a college student he helped create the International Development Placement Association to place people in jobs alongside organizations and governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America. He says getting money to operate was always a struggle, and he remembers pleading his case to a program officer in the Ford Foundation.

“He listened to what I had to say and then he shook his head and said ‘there just aren’t enough young Americans that want to do that kind of thing.’ Those words are emblazoned on my brain and I will never forget them because nine years later, John F. Kennedy was willing to gamble on the altruism of Americans in a way that the foundation official was unwilling to take the chance,” Kelley said.

One of the Kennedy campaign organizers in Michigan was a United Auto Workers official, Millie Jeffrey. Her daughter was involved in the effort at the University of Michigan. Millie Jeffrey became the liaison between the students and the Kennedy campaign, and only a couple of weeks after the candidate spoke to the students, he made a decision.

Judith Guskin said she answered when Millie Jeffrey called her at home, “and she said, ‘Judy, he’s coming out for it and he wants to meet you.’ At which point I sat down, took a deep breath, and asked her to repeat what she had just said,” Judith said, laughing.

Just a few days before the election, Kennedy was to give a speech that mentioned the University of Michigan group and use the term “Peace Corps” for the first time. Ted Sorensen is reported to be the author of that Kennedy speech.

“He was making a speech on peace in San Francisco and he included in that speech a change in U.S. foreign policy philosophy and approach to emphasize international organizations and international law, number one; to emphasize disarmament and arms control with a specific agency in the U.S. government for that purpose, number two; and the whole idea of a Peace Corps spelled out with some specifics, but nothing like the details that would come along later. That was the third major subject of that speech.”

The next morning while Kennedy was flying from San Francisco to Toledo, Ohio, the Guskins gathered a small group of students and took a couple of cars to the Toledo airport to meet with Sen. Kennedy and present the hundreds of petitions of people who had committed to their plan.

Alan Guskin says it was history that most of the news media missed. “There was no press there except for the Michigan Daily, kind of interesting. Always been surprised at that. Every time I think of that. So, why wouldn’t you have press there? It was a really political thing. It was the last few days of the campaign. It was, it turns out, a very important part of those last few days. It’s the only program, I was told, he committed himself to publicly during the campaign in a powerful way and yet didn’t invite the press there. Kind of interesting. He just wanted to see us.”

Election day in 1960 was November 8, and late into the night the race was close. When John F. Kennedy emerged the next day as president-designate, his New Frontier was about to dawn.

On inauguration day, January 20, 1961, President Kennedy summed up in a few simple words how he envisioned America would keep the peace and extend freedom. And it would require the people of the United States to get involved.

“I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

The Kennedy administration hit the ground running. Scott Stossel wrote the authorized biography of Sargent Shriver, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the man Kennedy wanted to pull together a plan to create the Peace Corps.

“Shriver had been in Washington with his family and all the aides who’d worked on the campaign for the festivities surrounding the inauguration. He’d just flown back to Chicago, where he was living. And the phone ran and Eunice, his wife, who was the president’s sister, answered. And it was Jack Kennedy on the line, and Jack and Eunice talked for a bit and then Eunice said, ‘Sarge, the president wants to talk to you.’ And he said, ‘Sarge, I want you to come back and help me start this Peace Corps.’ So, it was right away,” Stossel said.

In a month, on February 22, Shriver sent a memo to President Kennedy outlining a plan to establish the Peace Corps. The last line says, “If you decide to go ahead on these, we can be in business Monday morning.”

“It was astonishingly fast. And it was the combination of sort of the energy of the Kennedy administration with the super-charged, dynamic energy of Shriver himself. And he didn’t really understand how the bureaucracy worked and how red tape worked, which worked to his advantage because he just would shred it or go around any bureaucratic impediments. I don’t think that could happen today, the speed with which they put it into action,” Stossel noted.

Kennedy aide Sorensen was involved in setting up the Peace Corps. He said the White House knew it would be a tough sell on Capitol Hill.

“Congress is Congress. It’s easy to criticize any new idea. And the people on the right thought it would be a boondoggle. They don’t like foreign aid. They don’t like spending money to help those in the developing world. Those on the left were fearful it would become a front or cover for the CIA.”

So, Sorensen said, President Kennedy bypassed Congress in the short-term…

“He didn’t want to wait for Congress to debate the issue. And so, I think it was March 1, which considering the fact that he entered office only on noon January 20, was pretty fast. On March 1 he issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps, so while Congress debated we could be setting it up.”

The president hoped to have up to one thousand volunteers in the field by the end of 1961.

“None of the men and women will be paid a salary. They will live at the same level as the citizens of the country which they are sent to. Doing the same work, eating the same food, speaking the same language,” President Kennedy said.

As Sargent Shriver began to put together his team, he included a young aide to Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers. Moyers has said if the vice presidency is the most boring job in the country, then Moyers had the second-most boring job.

“I finagled my way out of his clutches with the reluctant approval of John F. Kennedy and joined the Peace Corps organizing group in March of 1961 because I wanted to be where this action was. I wanted to be where something new was being born. I wanted to be part of what was going to embody the New Frontier. There was a new frontier in this country, the civil rights movement, but there was also a new frontier in the world, which the Peace Corps represented. And I was drawn to that.”

Bill Moyers admits that taking an idea put together by university students and turning it into a world-wide program…was idealistic…not the kind of thing that Washington establishment looked on kindly…but it worked.

photo“The early 1960s was a time when it became permissible to be idealistic. Cynicism wasn’t an acceptable value in the early 1960s. And incarnated in John F. Kennedy was this notion that it was all right, it was approved that you could be idealistic and people wouldn’t laugh at you. To volunteer for the Peace Corps in the early 1960s was to be Don Quixote and Galahad cast in one volunteer. It was romantic. It was that we were celebrities. The Peace Corps was the newest celebrity in the New Frontier. It was exciting. There was a lot of attention to it. The slogan that we created at the Peace Corps that was on every college campus was ‘What in the world are you doing?’ And that became the great compelling lure of the Peace Corps: go out in the world and do something,” Moyers said.

But getting Congress to make the Peace Corps permanent would take more than idealism. Shriver biographer Stossel says it turned out that Sargent Shriver did better on Capitol Hill than anyone expected.

“Shriver just absolutely assaulted Capitol Hill. And he and his deputy, Bill Moyers, lived on Capitol Hill. They’d have meetings, breakfast meetings with one congressman, lunch meetings with another, dinner meetings with a third, meetings in between all those meals. And then he’d just sort of stroll the halls of the Congress late into the night and see who was still around. And if he saw an open door, he’d walk in and buttonhole whoever was in there and basically preach about the virtues of the Peace Corps. They ended up passing the legislation by an overwhelming amount. And a lot of the congressmen he spoke to said, ‘You know, I wasn’t really sold on the program, but I was sold on Shriver. This guy was such a good salesman and such a charming guy and so clearly believed in what he was selling that I couldn’t say no.’”

Members of Congress weren’t the only ones who couldn’t say “no” to the Peace Corps. The intelligence community saw the Peace Corps as a golden opportunity. If they could get operatives into some of these countries in the guise of do-gooder kids, they could learn a lot.

Shriver avoided taking advantage of his family ties to the president, but when he suspected the Peace Corps was being infiltrated by the intelligence community, he felt he had to call his brother-in-law.

JFK: Hello.
Shriver: Hello, Jack?
JFK: Yeah, Sarge.
Shriver: Hi, how are you?
JFK: Good. Fine. Fine.
Shriver: I’m sorry to bother you . . .
JFK: Not a bit.
Shriver: …but I’m getting rather suspicious over here that, uh, despite your instructions that, uh, some of our friends over in the Central Intelligence Agency might think that they’re smarter than anybody else and that they are trying to stick fellows into the Peace Corps.
JFK: Yeah. Yeah.
Shriver: And John McCone has told me on two occasions, and Dulles of course did, that they never would do that.
JFK: Right. Right.
Shriver: They sent out messages and the rest of it.
JFK: Right.
Shriver: But, uh, we’ve got a group in training now that looks suspicious, and I’d like, uh, to follow whatever you recommend, but I sure in hell want these guys, uh…
JFK: Well, would you call Dick Helms?
Shriver: Dick Helms?
JFK: Yeah. He’s the operations officer over there under…And just say to him that you’ve talked to me and that I don’t want anybody in there.
Shriver: Okay.
JFK: And if they are there, let’s get them out now before we have it. And if there is any problem about it, that Dick Helms ought to call the president about it. That…
Shriver: Okay.
JFK: …this is very…we are very, very anxious that there be no, uh, we don’t want to discredit this whole idea.
Shriver: Okay. Fine.
JFK: And, uh, they…Christ, they’re not gonna find out that much intelligence.
Shriver: That’s right.

At that point, the president changed the topic, going back to that concern he’d had since being a young member of Congress.

JFK: Now, the other thing is, I notice with these people coming back, can we do anything about seeing if we can get some of them to go into the Foreign Service?
Shriver: Yes. The Foreign Service has already changed their, uh, examination schedules, and the kind of exams they give, and the, uh, places that they are going to be given, and done everything that they think they can this year to facilitate Peace Corps guys getting into the Foreign Service, and . . .
JFK: Yeah.
Shriver: …USIA has done the same thing, and AID is trying to do something.
JFK: Yeah. Yeah.
Shriver: Uh, I think we’ll have to find out by one trial run to see whether it’s successful.
JFK: Okay. Well, I just wanted to be sure. Uh, let me know if there’s anything we can do, but these are the guys I’d like to get into the Foreign Service.
Shriver: Okay. Fine.
JFK: Okay.
Shriver: Thanks.
JFK: ’bye Sarge.

It’s notable that Kennedy was still concerned about getting people who can speak the language and understand different cultures into the Foreign Service to replace the “tennis and cocktails” crowd.

Back in Michigan, Alan and Judy Guskin were ecstatic that the president was making the Peace Corps a priority. Eventually they went to work for the Peace Corps in Washington. At first the new government organization didn’t realize it had just hired the very students who had proposed the program to Kennedy.

After a stint as selection officers, the Guskins decided that was all fine and good, but that original idea of going overseas and helping people was the real goal. And so they signed up as volunteers to go to Thailand. That landed them back at the University of Michigan. The Peace Corps training was to take place there.

They learned to speak the language; they learned about the culture. They became the kind of Americans Kennedy wanted to represent the U.S. in foreign lands.

“We were Kennedy’s children. That’s what the Peace Corps was called. We were President Kennedy’s children. And so, when we arrived in-country we were just wined and dined. In the first seven days we were wined and dined by four or five ministers in the Thai government. So, it was an incredible experience,” Alan Guskin said.

The Guskins were not the only ones to get the call from the Peace Corps. Douglas Kelley, the man who’d help found one of the prototypes to the Corps, the International Development Placement Association, received a telegram from Shriver that said in part, “If you want to work for Peace Corps, come to Washington Monday for an interview…” — the same day Shriver would give President Kennedy the plan for the new program. Kelley says he’d just received scholarships to attend Harvard and wasn’t able to go to work immediately.

“But a year later, having finished the course work at Harvard, I did go to work under Shriver and Bill Moyers, as Peace Corps community relations director,” Kelley said.

But Kelley, just like the Guskins, eventually realized he wanted to do the work of a volunteer on the ground. In the small print of the Peace Corps regulations, volunteers could take their children…and so Kelley, his wife and their two small boys trained to go to Cameroon.

The Peace Corps as envisioned by college students had been realized by a young president who felt the United States had to do more than be strong militarily. It had to show the world Americans were willing to work and live among the people of the world, helping in whatever way they could. Even with other foreign policy stumbles, such as the bumbled Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Kennedy could point to the Peace Corps as the better example of America’s willingness to work with the people of other countries.

It was the representation of America President Kennedy had hoped to see…and did before he was taken from the nation.

Almost all Americans alive on November 22, 1963, remember where they were when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. Peace Corps volunteers scattered around the globe might not have heard the news that day, but the impact was universal.

Alan and Judith Guskin were in Thailand.

“The next day, Kennedy’s picture was in many prominent places on campus. There was black ribbon on the railings. And my students came up to me with tears in their eyes, saying how sorry they felt about what had happened. It was an amazing experience for me to have so many of the students and faculty feeling so strongly about this. And later I learned in small villages all throughout the country, people cried,” Judith recalls.

Peace Corps volunteers reported for years later they found in mud huts in the most remote areas of the world, photos of John Kennedy hanging on the wall.

In William Manchester’s book Death of a President, he describes the scene at the White House on the day President Kennedy was to be buried. Dignitaries of the world heard Emperor Haile Selassie declare that Ethiopia needed no new Kennedy monument because the president’s memory was enshrined forever in the work of the Peace Corps.

Sorensen said in three short years, Kennedy left a lasting legacy of working toward peace, civil rights, space exploration…but he had a special fondness for the Peace Corps.

“Well, I can just tell you that John F. Kennedy himself loved the Peace Corps and loved those volunteers. Sometimes groups of Peace Corps volunteers before they shipped out would come and meet with the president in the rose garden behind the White House. And he loved talking to them, meeting them, wishing them well. And he was very proud that the Peace Corps was as well received as it was by foreign governments. He was very proud that it had a record of goodwill and good works. So, I think as proud as he would be of the other parts of his legacy, I’m sure he would be happy to see the Peace Corps rank right up there.”

The Peace Corps had gone from a candidate’s idealistic, abstract thought — an ad-libbed line in a speech to students on a chilly night at the University of Michigan — to volunteers on the ground in countries around the world in just a few months. The first deputy director of the Peace Corps, Moyers, says it was a moment in history that combined the right leader, the right atmosphere in the country and young people willing to take up the challenge.

“You had a young, idealistic president who understood the world and he made the speech that touched — who knows when the seed becomes a blossom that becomes a flower? And it happened that night, not from the speech alone, not because Kennedy was charismatic, but because there were gathered in front of him as he spoke some people whose hearts and souls and minds were the fertile ground on which that seed fell,” Moyers said.

Some 200,000 people have volunteered their time and skills to countries abroad through the Peace Corps. Judith Guskin and Alan Guskin say they — like many others who served — feel the Peace Corps changed lives.

“And I think the Peace Corps means more to the world and to Americans than the students taught, the schools built, the clinics set up. It represents the value of service and the value of working as Americans side-by-side with host nationals, not as the expert with all the answers. The Peace Corps gave a different image of America. We learned the languages and the cultures of the people. And we respected the differences that we learned about. It changed us. It made us better human beings. And I believe it changed many of the people we worked with as well,” Judith Guskin said.

Her former husband, Alan Guskin, added, “It’s been the most fantastic people-to-people program ever created. It’s just amazing the impact it’s had on leaders, people who are now leaders in all walks of life in their countries. And it’s had enormous impact on people in the United States…every one of them was profoundly changed by what happened to them in the Peace Corps.”

Lester Graham leads Michigan Watch, the investigative unit of Michigan Radio.

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Gus Breymann

I’ve been lucky to preview the one-hour video produced by the University of Michigan this year titled “A Passing of the Torch.” Like Lester Graham’s article, the video portrays the early days of the Peace Corps beautifully and reveals facts that have not been known widely until now, even among those of us who were with the agency in its formative years. Especially touching in the video are the accounts of volunteers who were overseas the day JFK was assassinated, and how they and their in-country hosts reacted. The phone conversation between JFK and Sargent Shriver regarding the imperative to… Read more »

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