JFK's Wordsmith…Ted Sorensen

[On the 35th anniversary of the Peace Corps, in March of 1996, Mark Gearan, then Director of the agency, had the wisdom to stage three days of celebration for the agency in Washington, D.C. One event was at the Mayflower Hotel–where the agency was hatched in a suite of hotel rooms–was a dinner and speeches by key figures in the creation of the agency and in the administration.

Coming to that event that evening where many of the ‘cast of characters’ who first brought the Peace Corps into being, including Warren Wiggins. Harris Wofford was there that night and spoke; Sarge Shriver spoke, as did PCV Congressman Sam Farr, former Director Loret Miller Ruppe, and a good friend of Mark Gearan, the Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine K. Albright. Also speaking was Theodore C. Sorensen, speechwriter and special council to President John F. Kennedy. Sorensen wrote most of JFK’s speeches, including the one JFK gave at the Cow Palace in San Francisco that mentioned the name “peace corps’ for the first time.

That night in D.C. Sorensen delivered, what I believe to be, his last speech on the Peace Corps. I have retyped it into this blog this evening as I think we all need to read it once more, to be impressed by Sorensen’s prose and sentiment, and also his wonderful personal connection to the Peace Corps. Today, the White House announced that Ted Sorensen passed away at the age of 82.] 

The Honorable Theodore C. Sorensen

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 M. Gavin, an article by Milton Shapp, the example of the Mormons and a dozen other religious organizations, a petition from Michigan University students responding to his impromptu midnight challenge, and dozens of others.

This child first took breath, I’m proud to say, a few days before the Presidential election of 1960 in a campaign speech in which I had a hand, a speech on world peace in San Francisco on the night of November 2, when nominee Kennedy called for a “Peace Corps of talented…men and women, willing and able to serve their country” as teachers or engineers or doctors or nurses in developing nationsaround the globe. This proposal entered the official national agenda in his first State of the Union Address as President on January 30, 1961, when he called for the “formation of a National Peace Corps, enlisting the services of all those…who have indicated their desire to contribute their skills, their efforts, and a part of their lives…to help foreign lands meet their urgent needs for trained personnel.”

Thirty-five years ago today, less than four months after he first launched the idea in San Francisco, it became a reality. On the same day that he sent to Congress proposed legislation to establish a permanent independent agency, President Kennedy–unwilling to wait for Congress to act–exercised his own initiative an authority, as he did on many occasions, and established the Peace Corps by Executive Order, thereby, enabling it to be organized, fully operational and in the field by the time that bill passed six months later.

He wanted to get it underway before its detractors gained ground. And there were detractors. Many in the opposition party opposed it. Many liberals demeaned it. Many conservatives dismissed it. Many Communist governments denounced it. The Agency for International Development wanted to control it, the CIA wanted to use it. Leaders in some neutral nations, even those most in need to help, heaped ridicule upon it.

But John Kennedy and Sargent Shriver persisted. They persuaded. They prevailed. The legislation and appropriation passed the Congress, and each year of his Presidency the number of Volunteers increased; the number of countries served increased; and the President’s pride in his creation, in these ambassadors of American idealism, increased beyond all measure. He took every opportunity to meet with returning Volunteers and to sing their praises to others. Tragically, his time for pride and pleasure in this epitome of the “New Frontier” spirit–like his time in office–was all too short. After his death, Peace Corps members in some countries were called “Kennedy’s children.” And I feel that all of you, all one hundred and forth thousand of you, are truly Kennedy’s children. 

But the Peace Corps’ real history lies not in the story of its birth but in the story of its life, not in the archives of the White House or Capitol Hill but in the deeds of its Volunteers, in their fulfillment of President Kennedy’s original mandate. Tonight, history asks not why or how the Peace Corps was established, but whether it has succeeded, and whether its founder’s expectations have been realized. I know no better way of answering those questions then to compare the words of my favorite President with the words of my favorite Peace Corps Volunteer, to compare the hopes of the original dreamer with the experience of one who is living out that dream today.

“We will only send abroad Americans,” said President Kennedy “who have a real job to do–and who are qualified to do that job.” They would, he had made clear on that November night in San Francisco, be “well qualified through rigorous standards, and well trained in the languages, skills and customs they will need to know…not only talented young men and women but Americans of whatever age who wish to serve the great republic and serve the cause of freedom.”

Last July, my favorite Volunteer described her sixty fellow trainees in Morocco: “They are friendly, smart, funny and, of course, adventurous, with a real sense of solidarity and extraordinarily diverse backgrounds and skills. The majority are twenty-somethings, but there are a couple of thirty-somethings, fifty and sixty-somethings, as well as a seventy-something. There is also a blind Volunteer–talk about courageous!”

Later that same month, she wrote: “It is so exciting to put my knowledge of Arabic to real use. Training is very intense–four hours of language and two hours of technical training every day, six days a week for ten weeks. My job will consist largely of counseling rural Moroccan women on maternal and child health, including family planning, a job that I not only care about but that I think I can accomplish.” And in November, she wrote from her site: “Yesterday, I vaccinated babies all morning. Earlier today, I gave my presentation on diarrhea and oral dehydration, and the conversation evolved into a discussion of nutrition. This afternoon I have a presentation about the merits of breast feeding. I really felt I was doing my job.”

“I am convinced,” said John Kennedy in San Francisco, “that our men and women in this country of ours are anxious to respond to public service, are dedicated to freedom, and are able to join in a worldwide struggle against poverty and disease and ignorance.”

In this spirit, my favorite Volunteer wrote last August: “Life here is hard by American standards–there is no electricity or running water. The health center is insufficiently supplied and a large number of women give birth at home, without ever receiving prenatal care.” And last September, she wrote: “An eleven-year-old girl, Aziza, stops by my house a couple of times a week. Today, her mother wanted me to come for lunch. I observed how sickly her one-year old sister looked, and the mother informed me that the little girl had diarrhea. I returned to the house after work with packets of oral rehydration salt.”

“Life in the Peace Corps,” said President Kennedy on March 1, 1961, “will not be easy. Men and women will be expected to work and live along-side the nationals of the country in which they are stationed–doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.”

Last July, my favorite Volunteer wrote about “the wind from the Sahara, a scorchingly hot, dry wind that blows constantly, rendering daily life like life under a blow dryer!” The following month, spending a week with a local family as part of her training, she wrote: “The family I live with is great. The father is a farmer of sheep and olive  trees, and full of questions about the U.S.A. The mother has shown me how to bake bread in a pan over a fire, and how to milk their cow and has said that she will cry when I leave tomorrow.” Then, in November, she wrote: “Winter arrived in the desert. There is a chill which not even the warmth of the ever-present sun can dispel. In a house that is virtually the great outdoors, many layers of clothing are a must. The desert climate is harsh, no matter what he season might be.” And still later that month she wrote: “The weather is cold, but people are fortified by harira, a thick soup, for both breakfast and dinner, with couscous or tajine, a stew, at lunch, and multiple cups of tea and coffee. In the past five days, I have eaten meals in seven different homes.”

“But if the life will not be easy,” said my favorite President on March 1, 1961, “it will be rich and satisfying. For every American who participates in the Peace Corps will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”

True to his prediction, my favorite Volunteer wrote as early as August about a presentation she had made on family planning that she felt had been a great success. “About ten women gathered and they were full of questions and very interested. I really felt like I was doing my job, and that this was why I was here.” In September, on site at last, she wrote: “I don’t believe how much I have learned in a week! I have weighted new-borns, visited homes of women and gave the oral polio vaccine to hundreds of babies.” After a brief Thanksgiving break, she wrote last November: “I’m glad to be back in Tinzouline. I now feel what two months ago seemed nearly impossible: that this is my home.” And in January, after bringing her services to a nearby village, she wrote that it had “neither running water nor electricity, but its inhabitants are generous and friendly. I arrived not knowing a soul but left feeling as if I had many new friends.” One month ago today, she wrote about her observance of Ramadan, about her fluency in Arabic, about the meals she shared at sundown with so many families, concluding once again: “In short, I feel at home….(signed) Your loving daughter, Juliet.”

I am proud of my daughter. I am proud of my small part in the establishment of the Peace Corps. I am proud of this and other legacies left by the President I loved and served, John F. Kennedy. And I am reminded that his speech in San Francisco concluded with one of his favorite perorations, invoking Archimedes’ words in explaining the principle of the lever: “Give me a fulcrum, and I will move the world.”

[One last note. Juliet Sorensen was recruited out of the New York Regional Office. Her recruiter was Matt Losak (Losotho 1985-88).] Today, Juliet is married and living in Chicago and working as a lawyer. She is also involved in working with the Chicago area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Matt Losak lives in the Washington, D.C., and is involved with the PCVs of D.C. Both of these PCVs continue to be fulcrums for the Peace Corps.]


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  • Thank you John for sharing great memories! And thank you Ted, you made a difference for all of us and our families! Bob
    Bob Arias
    RPCV Colombia 1964-66

  • However brilliant Ted Sorenson was, he was equally kind and humble and always willing to help whenever he was asked to do something for the Peace Corps. I was there to hear him that night. It was like touching history.

  • As we head into an election overshadowed by an economy crippled by myopic greed, I hope against hope that the common sense President Kennedy and Ted Soreson so often called on has not deserted America. With Sorenson permanent departure goes another soldier for sanity, but what a legacy he leaves. Thank you, John, for capturing and recalling for us a part of that legacy, one which, as Maureen Orth so aptly described it, makes all RPCVs threads in a special history.

    Vic Cox
    Brazil 1964-66

  • Many thanks, John Thoughtful and useful, as always.

    As I read Ted’s NY Times obit last night, I reacted as did you — recalling his vivid speech at The Mayflower that night, after which I thanked and congratulated him.

    At Ann Arbor two weeks, I felt sad that Ted was not there to join Harris Wofford, Jack Vaughn, Alan and Judy Guskin, and leaders of today’s Peace Corps and Peace Corps Community in commemorating the 50th anniversary of JFK’s first challenge from the steps of the University of Michigan’s Union on Oct. 14, 1960.

    [P.S. A picky typo in para. 1: not John, but James M. Gavin (in WWII a brilliant Army general; in 1960 President of the Cambridge-based technology and management consulting firm, Arthur D.Little, Inc.; and later JFK’s Ambassador to France).]

  • Ted Sorenson was my neighbor for a while in Ridgefield, CT. I told him I once worked for his boss, too. He kept thanking me for introducing myself, and also kept thanking me for my service.

    I feel really sad.

  • My husband John and I recalled that speech at the Mayflower when we saw the news.
    The way Ted talked about his daughter Juliet moved us all and brought a few tears. He was so incredibly proud of her service and it came through so clearly in his voice. We all could just picture her there in Morocco and I am sure she treasures her time there as a high point in her relationship with her father…can you just imagine the letters he must have written to her.
    His exit was on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps ? Job well done Ted…Thank you for your inspiring words
    In Peace
    Congressman John Garamendi and Patti and family

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