Why the Peace Corps? Part Two

As Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)  points out in his book Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and The Speech That Changed America, and Chris Matthews (Swaziland 1968-70) alludes to in his recent book on Kennedy, Elusive Hero, most of JFK’s great speeches evolved over time with ideas and paragraphs of prose being sharpened and changed and improved from one speech to the next during the campaign of 1960. 

The idea for the Cow Palace speech on the Peace Corps has such a gestation period. To begin with, Kennedy was well aware of a ‘youth crop’ talk in the halls of Congress.

In 1958 the novel The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick was published. As a Senator Kennedy had sent a copy to every member of Congress. The bitter message of this novel was that Americans diplomats were, by and large, neither competent nor effective. The implication of the plot was that the more the United States relied on such ‘diplomats’, the more the U.S.’s influence would wane. The novel came out in July 1958. It was a Book-of-the-Month selection in October; by November it had gone through twenty printings. Later paperback editions its cover proclaimed that “President Kennedy’s Peace Corps is the answer to the problem raised in this book.”

The ‘idea’ of a ‘peace corps’ were, in the words of Kennedy’s Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, “gradually building” even before Kennedy alluded to it in his pre-dawn address in late October to the students at the University of Michigan. While the Peace Corps was the U.S. government’s “quintessential social reform institution” of the decade, Cobbs Hoffman in her book points to two other themes that were in the air: a rebellion against mass society and “the widely popular existentialist emphasis on individual choice.” These were coupled, in the American case, “with a desire to recapture the rigors of the old frontier,” so much so that Kennedy described his administration as the New Frontier. These impulses set the stage for the attitude of Peace Corps Volunteers at the dawn of the decade.

Kennedy’s chief speech writers at the time were Archibald Cox, who would become Solicitor General in the new administration, and Ted Sorenson, whose daughter, years later, would become a PCV in Morocco.

The Cow Palace in San Francisco was seen by the Kennedy campaign team as an appropriate forum to make a formal endorsement of a new ‘youth corps.’ Some of Kennedy’s advisers felt it would be helpful in winning the votes of Stevensonian Democrats and liberal Republicans. There was also a rumor, proved untrue, that Nixon was planning to make an announcement of their endorsement of a Youth Corps.

Kennedy also knew, based on the reception he had received at the University of Michigan two weeks earlier, that the idea of a peace corps would be a popular issue with the people. And indeed it was. A Gallup poll had 71 percent of Americans backing the idea; 66 percent wanted their sons to join it.

Kennedy’s Peace Corps speech at the Cow Palace had several new elements that had not been previously part of the concept. He opened the Peace Corps to women, and he softened the age requirement  so older Americans could and would join. In his speech he also suggested that the Peace Corps service could be an “alternative to peace-time selective service.” That never happened, thought Nixon declared later in attaching the idea of the agency that the Peace Corps would “be a haven for draft dodgers.”

The Cow Palace Speech was the major news story the next day. It was front-paged in a thousand daily newspapers. George Sullivan writes in his book, “Thirty thousand Americans wrote to Kennedy in support of the idea. Pierre Salinger said no topic during the campaign received as much mail. In those letters, thousands more wrote that they were also volunteering to join.”

On college campuses throughout the country, study groups and clubs were organized to talk about the idea. While we will see that the ‘peace corps’ idea was not necessarily new, according to Dr. Samuel Hayes, an early Peace Corps adviser, Kennedy’s proposal had lifted the idea “to a much higher level and to a much broader scope.”

John F. Kennedy in 1960 had the courage and the vision to make the Peace Corps his administration’s national policy and that would make all the difference. But the question remains: who thought of a ‘Peace Corps’ in the first place?

Part Two, of Six Parts


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  • My husband and I were two of those thousands who wrote to President Kennedy in 1961, volunteering for service. This story brings back all those memories. We were accepted and went to Ecuador in the first group in early 1962.

  • Hi Rhoda, nice to meet you at the 50th. By the way, I found a copy of the National Geographic with you on the cover at an antique store in Gloucester not long ago. Concerning this article about the Peace Corps beginnings, I remember being inspired by reading Gene Burdick’s “The Ugly American,” which actually led me to fall in love with the idea when I first heard JFK speech.

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