I rise today to introduce the Peace Corps Improvement and Expansion Act of 2009.
For 48 years, the Peace Corps has stood as a uniquely American institution. What other great nation would send its youth abroad, not to extend its power, not to intimidate its adversaries, not to kill and be killed, but to build, to dig, to teach, to empower – and to ask nothing in return?
And for 48 years, those young men and women – hundreds of thousands of them, myself included – have returned stronger, wiser, and inspired – prepared to live uniquely American lives of service and accomplishment.
For half a century, the Peace Corps has shaped not just these American lives, but the identity of all Americans: who we are as a people, and what we hope to achieve in the world.
Today, I rise to offer this legislation for one simple reason: I want the Peace Corps to continue playing that role for another 48 years to come. But before we consider how the Peace Corps can grow going forward, it’s worth remembering how it became what it is today.
Like most groundbreaking ideas, the Peace Corps might not have survived a board meeting or a subcommittee hearing when it was first proposed.
It was a wild notion, so breathtakingly outrageous that it could only have been born out of idealism, youthful energy, and, perhaps the key element, too much caffeine.
The Peace Corps, you see, was born at two in the morning.
It was October 14, 1960, and Senator John F. Kennedy was running hours late for a campaign stop at the University of Michigan.
He assumed that most of the crowd would have gone home, but when he arrived at the student union, he found ten thousand students waiting outside in the frigid dark to hear him speak.
We can all sympathize with Senator Kennedy: having endured months of late nights, uncomfortable beds, and bad food, he must have been sorely tempted to offer a perfunctory thank you to the Michigan students, recite a stump speech from memory, and send them home.
But something besides a chill was in the air that night in Ann Arbor. Floodlit and shivering, the crowd began to chant his name as he climbed the steps to the student union, and Senator Kennedy realized that this was special. He realized he owed them more.
So he challenged them.
“How many of you,” he asked, “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?”
I believe that challenge is the Peace Corps’s founding document. It didn’t begin with a white paper or a TV ad. It began with a question.
In the days that followed the Kennedy rally at the student union, Michigan students drafted a petition, circulating it to colleges across the state and just a couple of weeks later presenting several scrolls to JFK containing thousands upon thousands of names. Thirty thousand additional letters flooded into Kennedy headquarters.
So, it’s fair to say that the answer to that question – are you willing to serve your country by serving the world? – was an overwhelming “yes.”
Kennedy’s top advisors were already working on those issues. After all, they decided, if we don’t start doing our part for the developing world, the Communists will. At a time much like today, when our nation faced conflicts with people who knew as little of America as we knew of them, this case for a Peace Corps could be made not only in the lofty rhetoric of idealism, but in the cold, hard language of realpolitik.
The notion that service could be part of our foreign policy – indeed, that it could be a powerful weapon in the Cold War – was a truly radical idea. It suggested that there could be more measures of strength than caliber or tonnage. It argued that the world needed to see our ideals not just in ink, but incarnate in the young man or woman with dirty hands working under a hot, foreign sun. It said that you could only hate America if you didn’t know America.
The skeptics quickly descended upon Kennedy and his bold call to action. Richard Nixon called it “a haven for draft-dodgers.” Former President Eisenhower called it “a juvenile experiment.”
And even those old foreign policy hands who supported Kennedy’s plan thought it was a fine idea – as long as it was kept small. Academic and State Department officials agreed: proceed with caution, start with just a few hundred volunteers, don’t create a fiasco, don’t let this little experiment get out of hand. If they’d gotten their way, the Peace Could might not exist today.
But just as a late-night burst of exuberance gave birth to the Peace Corps, a similar bolt of sleepless inspiration kept it alive.
Holed up in a hotel room in downtown Washington with a few typewriters and a stack of blank paper, two Kennedy aides, Sargent Shriver and Harris Wofford – comprising the entirety of the Peace Corps staff – had been tasked with figuring out how to put this outrageous idea into practice.
The one thing they knew, Shriver later told us, was that the cautious, conventional approach currently in vogue wouldn’t work. America would only have one chance to get it right.
So it was that Sargent Shriver happened to be at the office at three in the morning, reading a short paper by a State Department employee named Warren Wiggins.
Wiggins called his paper “The Towering Task,” a reference to JFK’s first State of the Union address, where the young President said, “The problems…are towering and unprecedented – and the response must be towering and unprecedented as well.”
Wiggins called for a towering and unprecedented Peace Corps. He wrote: “One hundred youths engaged in agricultural work of some sort in Brazil might pass by unnoticed, except for the problems involved, but 5,000 American youths helping to build Brasilia might warrant the full attention and support of the President of Brazil himself.” Where a handful of kids might present a nuisance to a foreign ambassador, an army of motivated young Americans could make a real difference. And besides, wasn’t it a moment for great ambition?
At three in the morning, Sargent Shriver read Wiggins’s conclusion: The Peace Corps needed to begin with a “quantum jump,” and it needed to begin immediately, by executive order, with as many as 5,000 to 10,000 volunteers right away.
By nine that same morning, Warren Wiggins himself was sitting alongside Shriver in that hotel room, drafting a report for the President. Within a month, President Kennedy had created the Peace Corps by executive order. Within two years, more than 7,000 young Americans were serving abroad. And that number had more than doubled by 1966.
One of those young Americans was a 22-year-old English major from Providence College who arrived in the small village of Monción in the Dominican Republic. That young man spoke barely any Spanish. He had no idea what he was doing, and he certainly didn’t have a clue that, more than 40 years later, he’d be standing on the floor of the United States Senate, explaining that the Peace Corps gave him the richest two years of his life.
I owe those two years, and the impact they had on all my years since, to John F. Kennedy’s 2 a.m. question and the Warren Wiggins paper that Sargent Shriver read at 3 a.m.
From the story of the Peace Corps, and my own story, we can learn three things.
First: the Peace Corps works. Besides simple labor and good will, every American we send abroad brings with him or her another chance to make America known to a world that often fears and suspects us. And every American who returns from that service comes home as a citizen who strengthens us with firsthand knowledge of the world.
As Sargent Shriver said, “Peace Corps Volunteers come home to the USA realizing that there are billions-yes, billions-of human beings not enraptured by our pretensions, or our practices, or even our standards of conduct.”
Second: size matters. The perils of a small, timid Peace Corps are just as clear today as they were in 1961. Just as then, advocates of a stripped-down mission make the same arguments: sending untrained, untested students only aggravates our host countries and raises the chance of a mishap-so let’s send a few experts instead. And just as in 1961, our response is fundamentally the same, and still fundamentally correct: of course we need volunteers of the highest quality. But we need the highest quantities, too.
Third: size comes at a cost. The bigger any organism grows, the slower it gets. The Peace Corps that charted its course in a hotel room with a staff of two now enjoys a staff of over a hundred and a fine office building close to the White House. But even the most groundbreaking ideas must all make, in good time, what the philosopher Gramsci called “the long march through the institutions.” And where President Kennedy once predicted that, within a few decades, our nation would have more than one million returned volunteers, today fewer than 200,000 have had the opportunity to serve.
And so, Mr. President, the legislation I offer today is designed to help the Peace Corps not only grow – and I have joined the many voices calling for it to grow dramatically – but also reform.
To those who know and love the Peace Corps, reform is an uncomfortable subject. After all, we don’t want to destroy what has made this institution so remarkable and unique. There wouldn’t be a Peace Corps if JFK had stuck to the script in Ann Arbor. There wouldn’t be a Peace Corps if thousands of students, acting on their own initiative, hadn’t caught his attention with their movement. There might not be a Peace Corps if Sargent Shriver had listened to the respectable voices of caution.
The Peace Corps is unlike any other organ of our government because of its uniquely grassroots origin. And we can’t treat it like any other organ of our government.
So the Peace Corps Improvement and Expansion Act of 2009 does not include a list of mandates. It does not micromanage.
Instead, it asks those who have written this remarkable success story – from the Director to managers and country directors to current and returned volunteers – to serve once more by undertaking a thorough assessment of the Peace Corps and developing a comprehensive strategic plan for reforming and revitalizing the organization.
Just as JFK’s question to those Michigan students sparked the Peace Corps, asking questions will strengthen it. How can volunteers be better managed? How can they be better trained? Can we improve recruiting? Are we sending our volunteers to the right countries? Why do we have volunteers in Samoa and Tonga, but not in Indonesia, Egypt, or Brazil? Are we still achieving the broader goals of the Peace Corps and helping our country meet 21st-century challenges?
And, most of all: How can we strengthen and grow this remarkable organization without losing the spark – the ambitious sense of the possible that led JFK to stay up late dreaming with those students in Ann Arbor and Sargent Shriver to stay up even later reading Warren Wiggins’s paper?
Mr. President, Warren Wiggins died two years ago at the age of 84. His obituary quoted Harris Wofford: “I think he embodied the watchwords that were once given to me: We must be more inventive if we’re going to do our duty.”
Inventiveness and duty: two qualities that don’t often go together. But the Peace Corps is the result of just such a combination. It has strengthened our nation, improved the world, and stands today as one of the signal accomplishments of the 20th century. Nothing has meant more in my life, or in the lives of so many others.
Today, we honor that accomplishment. Let us commit to strengthening and expanding the Peace Corps by passing this legislation. Let us strive to inspire future generations to walk the path of service and exploration, the one that led me to the Dominican Republic and then, years later, to the U.S. Senate. And let us never lose that spirit, that idealism, that ambition that led a young President of a young nation to ask a generation to serve.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.