Thirty Days That Built The Peace Corps:Part Six

Meanwhile, back in Ann Arbor
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 Daily, by the way, was Tom Hayden. The paper later won a journalism award for its coverage and support of the Peace Corps movement.) Students began to circulate a petition urging the founding of a ‘Peace Corps,’ though it was not named as such.

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. She put the students in touch with the Kennedy camp. They couldn’t reach anyone until they got Ted Sorensen, who liked the idea of a major speech on the subject, and promised to tell Kennedy about the Ann Arbor petitions. By then the 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.

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 didn’t know this and they had 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.

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 he wanted to meet with them and the other students taking the lead in the petition drive. This was six days before the election.

In this Cow Palace speech, JFK outlined the concept of a ‘peace corps,’–using the name Peace Corps–for the first time. He said in his Cow Palace address: I therefore propose that our inadequate efforts in this area be supplemented by a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for 3 years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service [applause], well qualified through rigorous standards, well trained in the languages, skills, and customs they will need to know, and directed and paid by the ICA point 4 agencies……

This would be a volunteer corps, and volunteers would be sought among not only talented young men and women, but all Americans, of whatever age, who wished to serve the great Republic and serve the cause of freedom, men who have taught or engineers or doctors or nurses, who have reached the age of retirement, or who in the midst of their work wished to serve their country and freedom, should be given an opportunity and an agency in which their talents could serve our country around the globe.

The Michigan students were told to drive to Toledo and meet Kennedy when he stopped on his way back to Washington after the Cow Palace Speech and deliver their petition – this was the same petition that we had signed at other Michigan schools over those late fall months.

About this meeting with the Michigan students, 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, the Internet or e-mails, and Alan and Judy Guskin didn’t have copies of 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.”

What Alan and Judy, and the other college students, did on the campus of the University of Michigan, and campuses across the country, was give the ‘peace corps’ idea a spark. Now it was time for the new Kennedy Administration to build a fire.

[End of Part Six]

One Comment

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  • This is an interesting series, John. Much of this is new information for me.

    We were in The Gambia 1979 – 1981, a whiile ago, but certainly not considered among the early pioneers.

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