Thirty Days That Built The Peace Corps:Part Four

Then came Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On October 14, Kennedy flew into Michigan from New York, where he had just completed his third debate with Nixon. He had agreed to say a few words to the students at the university. Ten thousand students waited for him until 2 am, and they chanted his name as he climbed the steps of the student union building.

Kennedy launched into an extemporaneous address. He challenged them, asking how many would be prepared to give years of their lives working in Asia, Africa and Latin America?

The audience went wild. (I know, because at the time I was a new graduate student over in Kalamazoo. I was also working part time as a news reporter for WKLZ and had gone to cover the event.)

According to Sargent Shriver, “No one is sure why Kennedy raised the question in the middle of the night at the university.” Possibly Kennedy thought of the Peace Corps at Michigan because someone reminded him that Professor Sam Hayes taught at the university’s International Studies Department. Samuel Hayes was an early advocate of the “Peace Corps idea,” and had earlier been asked by Kennedy to prepare position papers on the idea of a national volunteer organization.

Harris Wofford thinks that Kennedy’s remarks were a counterattack to a criticism that Nixon had made during the debate earlier in the evening. Nixon had said that the Democrats were the “war party.” In his book, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, Wofford writes: “Stung by Nixon’s words, Kennedy may have remembered the idea of a Peace Corps and spoken as he did in order to counteract the image of a Democratic war party.”

After that speech – the next day, in fact – Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and an advisor to Kennedy who would later become Kennedy’s Ambassador to India, gave a long talk on the same theme. (A day later in Kalamazoo I was part of the press that interviewed Bowles, who was following after Kennedy on this tour through the Midwest. What I remember most about this event was that in responding to my question of what area of the world would be most interesting in the next decade, Bowles said Africa, where vast changes would occur because of the end of colonial rule.)

[End of Part Four]


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  • John: Thanks for the memories…. I remember attending the Bowles speech, but not what he said. The best memory of that time was skipping class to go hear Kennedy speak downtown and shaking his hand. Three years later I’m in Africa and he is gone.

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