JFK'S Cow Palace Speech: What Did Kennedy Say?

In a comment on the site the other day, my good friend Dick Irish wrote about the goals of the Peace Corps, saying, rightly, ” In 1961, the Cold War war was a freakin’ obsession in America. To push PC legislation through Congress, it was necessary to integrate intensive training of new recruits in the Theory and Practice, dare I write it[?], of Marxism-Leninism. In my PC training group we absorbed three hours per week on the subject. Thus could Shriver and Moyers go to the Hill and intimate that Volunteers – once in place overseas – would be personal bulwarks against the Red Menace.”

Not being an scholar, but hanging around them, I thought it might be best to go back to what academics are fond of calling, ‘original sources’ so I dug up JFK’s Cow Palace Speech. This was a speech given a week before the election in the old Cow Palace Auditorium in San Francisco, on the night of November 2, 1960. It was written by Ted Sorenson and JFK and entitled, “Staffing A Foreign Policy For Peace.” It was Kennedy’s last major speech before the election and in it he proposed his ‘Peace Corps.’

The speech is only 6 pages long, single spaced, less than 3000 words and focuses on three points: Nixon, our diplomats, and Kennedy’s proposal for a Peace Corps. One page, the last, outlines in broad terms the new Peace Corps agency that he has envisioned.

As this is the presidential campaign, and this is a ‘foreign policy’ speech, JFK goes after Nixon. Kennedy says in part: “A program for peace can be no better than those who implement it…..Mr. Nixon showed his inability to grasp this basic fact….The policies may be decided at the top–but they are planned and executed here, and accepted or rejected abroad, at a somewhat lower level.”

Kennedy then shows how ill-equipped out foreign service is, pointing out that the Lenin Institute for Political Warfare exports each year hundreds of agents to disrupt free institutions in the uncommitted world. Kennedy says, “A friend of mine visiting the Soviet Union last year met a young Russian couple studying Swahili and African customs at the Moscow Institute of Languages. They were not language teachers–he was a sanitation engineer and she was a nurse. And they were being prepared to live among African nations a missionaries for communism.”

Kennedy drew attention to Tom Dooley in Laos. He also mentioned The Ugly American.

Kennedy goes onto say, “I have often been impressed with the caliber of men and women in the Foreign Service. But I have also been depressed by the grounds of selecting the non-career ambassadors who are placed in charge of these career servants. Many have been ill-chosen, ill-equipped, and ill-briefed.”

Next, JFK does a chapter-and-verse. “In 1958, it was reported that our Ambassador to Moscow was the only U.S. Ambassador to a Communist country who spoke the language of the country to which he was assigned. Only two of the nine ambassadors to Arabic-speaking countries spoke Arabic. In 8 of the 12 non-English-speaking NATO countries, our ambassadors lacked a workable knowledge of the main language spoke there.” 

Again he returns to the recent news,  pointing out that in the papers it was reported, “a group of Russian geologists, electrical engineers, architects, and farming and fishing experts arrived in Ghana today to give technical advice.”

Finally, he sums up, “Think of the wonders skilled Americans personnel could work, building goodwill, building the peace. There is not enough money in all America to relieve the misery of the underdeveloped world in a giant endless soup kitchen. But there is enough know-how and enough knowledgeable people to help those nations help themselves.

“I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for 3 years as an alternative to peacetime selective service–well qualified through rigorous standards; well trained in the language, skills, and customs they will need to know; and directed and paid by the ICA point 4 agencies. We cannot discontinue training our men as soldiers of war–but we also need them as ‘ambassadors of peace.”

Then in the next paragraph, Kennedy adds: “This would be a volunteer corps–and volunteers would be sought among talented young women as well-and from every race and walk of life. Fort this nation is full of young people eager to serve the cause of peace in the most useful way.”

Kennedy then mentioned the reception he had received at the University of Michigan, and how the students themselves had “proposed a new organization to promote such an effort.”

In his last paragraph, another famous quote. “These proposals offer no quick and easy solution to the problems of peace. But they are essential tools. ‘Give me a fulcrum, ‘Archimedes is reported to have said,  ‘and a place to stand and I will move the world.’ The tools I have suggested can be our fulcrum–it is here we take our stand–let us move the world down the road to peace.”

Yes, the Peace Corps was a response to a number of issues: What political influence Russia was attempting in the developing world, and what our diplomats weren’t doing overseas, living as they were in American ghettos. Kennedy was also ‘onto’ the failures of the State Department. He knew that the right way to live in the developing world was the way  Tom Dooley was living in Laos.

JFK was wrong in other ways. It was clearly the ‘young’ that Kennedy was trying to influence, but our group to Ethiopia in the fall of ’62 had more than a few ‘older’ PCVs. It was true for other  groups as well.  He was wrong about ‘women.’  Women in the Peace Corps was an after-thought in Kennedy’s first major address about the Peace Corps, but today 64% of all PCVs are women.

Where we that ‘fulcrum that would change the world?”

I’d say yes, but in this limited way. Peace Corps Directors in the last few decades always comment that when meeting delegations from Peace Corps countries, at some point the president or secretary of state, minister of education or health, etc., will  pause and add proudly, “I was taught by a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

So, for what that’s worth…we did move ‘peace’ a little way down the road.


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  • Question: Just what was the relationship between Peace Corps and the draft? If I remember correctly, at my group’s staging in 1971 we were told that Peace Corps would not keep us out of the draft if we were otherwise qualified. At the time I had a 1Y deferment that was fairly permanent, plus my lottery number was over 300 so I wasn’t too concerned. But we were warned that no matter how remote our posting, the draft still could come and get us. What’s the story there?

  • Thank you, John, for that analysis. I’d like to add to your following comment:

    “Women in the Peace Corps was an after-thought in Kennedy’s first major address about the Peace Corps.”

    As a young woman in 1963, I was absolutely aware that Peace Corps was equalitarian and that women were to be treated equally with men.
    Indeed, it was one of the reasons I joined. Thus was not true of all government agencies. Also, age and/or disability was not necessarily a barrier to service as a Volunteer.

  • Reilly–As for the draft. You were not ‘normally’ taken out of the Peace Corps while you were overseas, though I have heard cases of PCVs being called up while in the Peace Corps. You were subjected to being drafted when you returned home and many did serve, and went to Vietnam as well. The Peace Corps kept you out of the army for two years. Period.

  • In my case, I had a northern Alabama draft board …… at the time I went into the PC (Liberia 64), I had never participated in the “getting a lottery number” process …. I was given a deferment from the process by my draft board …….. got out of the PC 3 1/2 years later in 67, three weeks before my 26th birthday (the draft deadline then), was correctly hopeful that would have been enough time to “escape” the process.

  • Oh no !!! ( but it was the 60’s) from the speech “supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for 3 years as an alternative to peacetime selective service…”

    So much for young men, without young women the PC wouldn’t have survived to 50!

  • Addition to Dick Irish’s comment “To push PC legislation through Congress, it was necessary to integrate intensive training of new recruits in the Theory and Practice, dare I write it[?], of Marxism-Leninism. …”

    This translated to the Colombia I training program , whereby trainees role played and practiced with my post PC service M.A. thesis advisor , Chuck Vetter ( R.I.P.) from USIA (US Information Service) dialogues when and if we met a Communist during our assignment.

  • I was greeted on my return home from Peace Corps Service by the “little old lady in tennis shoes” at my draft board. I told her I was going to graduate school until my entry into the Foreign Service, both of which normally provided a deferment. She replied, “oh no you´re not, we´re gonna draft you before then:” She added, “you just don´t want to serve your flag.” I replied, “What did you think I was doing?” She then dropped the bomb, “Nobody told you to go off in the Peace Corps.” The handwriting began to magically appear on the wall above her head, “Peace Corps Equals Draft Dodge:” I was subsequently drafted but a few days later I got a letter from Selective Service saying, “Your draft notice is hereby rescinded.” I had beat the little old lady but four years later I was dodging bombs in Vietnam.

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