What Did Kennedy Say Anyway at U of M?

Picking on this old bone of the early days of the Peace Corps and “how the Peace Corps came about,” I called the Kennedy Library to get exactly what Kennedy said at 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, on the steps of the Michigan Union at the University of Michigan. What he said did not launch a thousand ships, but so far, it has launched 185,000 Americans.

Here is a transcript of Kennedy’s extemporaneous remarks.

“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians, or engineers–how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country I think will depend the answer [to] whether a free society can compete. I think it can. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we’ve ever made in the past.

“And therefore I’m delighted to come to Michigan, this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can’t possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength. So I come here tonight to get to bed. But I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort…

“May I just say in conclusion that this college, this university, is not maintained by its alumni, by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantages in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it, and therefore I do not come here tonight asking for your support in this campaign. I come here tonight asking for your support for this country over the next decade. Thank you.”


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  • It is a kind of nebulous question Kennedy asked that later refined itself under Sarge to become the Peace Corps. And though it was nebulous, it’s clear that he felt this was a proper question to ask and it resonated with his listeners and it plugs into the better angels of our nature and oh that we would ask more such questions today.

  • The day will long be remembered…but it was the energy and dedication of others such as Sarge and of course Harris Wolfford…they gave what we now have…and 50 more years for our childern´s children! And don´t forget the 186,000 that made all of this possible!
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama
    RPCV Colombia

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