Lately there has been endless talk among RPCVs about who was the first PCV. Perhaps I’m partially to blame with my blogging about the early days of the Peace Corps. Or is it because we are reaching the milestone of the 50? Some RPCVs are drawing on faulty memories, old plane tickets, anecdotal incidents, typewritten letters from Shriver, and yellow copies of telegrams folded and unfolded over the last fifty years, to make their historical (if not hysterical) claim. “Yes, it was I! I was the first PCV!”
Well, let me take another tact. Let me suggest to you who really was the first Volunteer. We can end the guessing game, solve the mystery, and all go on and argue about something else.
As we said back in the Sixties: Here’s the skinny.
The Peace Corps began in a light drizzle at 2 a.m. in the early morning of October 14, 1960, on the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan. On the steps of the Student Union Kennedy made his famous challenge to this new generation of students, those of us who had survived the silence of the ’50s and the years of Eisenhower.
The crowd on Michigan’s campus had been gathering since the late evening as word spread Kennedy was coming to spend the night. The University even allowed co-eds to be out after midnight! (Another Peace Corps first!)
It was, according to Mildred Jeffrey, Kennedy’s Michigan coordinator, a serious crowd, and when Kennedy arrived and worked his way up the steps of the Student Union, he knew he had to say something. He began with a few comments, talked about it being late, and he needed to get some sleep. His remarks were off-putting and the crowd responded with muted giggles, hoots and a few disappointed moans.
Kennedy was instantly irritated at this dressing down and responded to this unexpected challenge by tightened his tone, raising his voice, and making this seemingly spontaneous challenged to the college kids.
“How many of you are willing to spend ten years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom?”
“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 travelling around the world?”
Harris Wofford writes about what he believes prompted the off-the-cuff impromptu remark in his book, Of Kennedys and Kings:
The best guess anyone on the staff could give was that it was his immediate way of responding to the attack from Nixon earlier in the evening in their third television debate. The Republican candidate had said that he did not mean to suggest that the Democratic Party was a “war party,” but noted that no Republican had led the country into war in the past fifty years and “there were three Democratic Presidents who led us into war.”
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 Democratic war party.
Al Guskin, in an article he wrote in the Fall 1991 issue of The Antiochian, recalled that “the birth of the Peace Corps owes much to the spirit of social justice embodied in the civil rights movement, the students’ stirrings for change on campuses throughout the nation, the innocence and incredible optimism of a new decade and the newly independent nations of Asia and Africa.”
Al should know. He was in the Michigan crowd that rainy night along with his wife, Judith, both of whom were graduate students at the University. With the help of a handful of others, they formed a group to show the world “that students would respond to Kennedy’s challenge of whether we were prepared to serve in the developing nations.”
Guskin would go onto write, “It is said by chroniclers of the Peace Corps that Kennedy was moved by the Michigan student response. A short time later Kennedy gave a major campaign address on the Peace Corps, just one week before Election Day. He met privately with a group of us on the following day.” Eleven months later Judith and Al entered the Peace Corps and served two and a half years in the first group to Thailand.
What Al glosses over in his Antiochian article is that between that October 14 early morning address and the Kennedy speech about a “peace corps” at the Cow Place, Al wrote letters and articles for the university’s Michigan Daily about the idea, organized on-campus meetings at dozens of other college campuses, and started to circulate a hand written petition, sent to both Kennedy and Nixon, to show the support by students for the idea. It was a petition I would sign at Western Michigan University later that month, signing also (among others) were fellow WMU classmates Bill Donohoe (Ethiopia 1962–64), Dick Joyce (Philippines 1962–64) and Lee Reno (Liberia 1963–65).
So, in many ways, Al and Judith Guskin are the “first Peace Corps Volunteers.” They made it happen for all of us. But really, were they the first?
When I was manager of the Peace Corps Recruitment Office in New York back in the mid-nineties I often spoke to people interested, or just curious, about the agency. I’d say to them that the best Volunteers were people who had an itch about them; men and women who weren’t quite satisfied with whatever they were doing, and knew there was more to the world than where they were in life. They were the best PCVs, those individuals uneasy in their own skin.
I also told them not to join the Peace Corps if they were happy with the world, but to join if they got angry in the morning when they read or heard about a human tragedy that happened in some godforsaken country they had never heard of or couldn’t even find on a map! They were real Peace Corps Volunteer material.
I would tell them what Bill Moyers said in his closing remarks at the Peace Corps Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Memorial Service at Arlington Cemetery on Sunday morning, September 21, 1986. He said Shriver and the early staff knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program, or mission. “But that it was,” Moyers said, “a way of being in the world.”
I also told applicants back in the days when I was a recruiter that the Peace Corps is filled with individuals who joined for a variety of reasons, many of which are contradictory, and that everyone who does join, woman or man, is solely and alone, the Peace Corps.
Yes, there is a large apparatus surrounding them, and some groups silly enough to go out and buy matching blue and white tee shirts stamped with the Peace Corps logo, but the truth is that every individual, singular and alone, is the Peace Corps. That person, wherever and whoever she or he is in the world, is the fully realized representation of what Kennedy first meant when he made that challenge on the steps of the University of Michigan Student Union. “How many of you are willing to spend ten years in Africa or Latin America or Asia working for the U.S. and working for freedom?”
No matter in whatever decade or year that you joined, or for whatever reason that caused you to volunteer, you are the Peace Corps in the eyes of the host country nationals. To them, you are everything the Peace Corps has ever been or ever will be.
So, who is the first Peace Corps Volunteer? I’d say, you are.