Establishing the Peace Corps, On Campus at Michigan, Post 8

On the Michigan campus, after hearing Kennedy, 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 Dailywas the future radical, Tom Hayden. The paper later won a journalism award for its coverage and support of the Peace Corps movement.) On campus, students began to circulate a petition urging the founding of a Peace Corps. This effort began to spread onto other campuses in the midwest and east.
     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. Jeffrey put the students in touch with the Kennedy camp.
     At first, they couldn’t reach anyone until they got to Ted Sorensen who liked the idea of a major speech on the subject and promised to tell Kennedy about the Ann Arbor petitions. By now the Michigan 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, as did a dozen other friends who later became early PCVs.
     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 had (incorrectly) 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 could claim it as his own.
     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 more important–at least to them–he wanted to meet with the couple and the other students taking the lead in the petition drive. This was six days before the general election.
     The Michigan students were told to drive to Toledo, Ohio, where they would meet up with Kennedy when he stopped on his way back to Washington. They could deliver their petition – this was the same petition that we had signed at other Michigan schools–in person.
     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.”
      So, as they say, ‘in a very real sense’ we can thank two graduate students at the University of Michigan, Judy and Alan Guskin, for making the Peace Corps a reality. And they, too, left the University of Michigan campus to become Peace Corps Volunteers in Thailand.

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