I am not a very dedicated peacenik. I missed writing about the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which occurred last week. It was 60 years ago on March 1 that President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Many presidents talk about world peace but few actually do anything. Kennedy did something.
Since 1961, more than 241,000 Americans have answered a call to serve their country for two years without pay. Volunteers have worked with communities in more than 140 countries to address some of their toughest challenges. How did it all begin?
The University of Michigan played an important and historic role in Peace Corps history. It began at 2 a.m. on Oct. 14, 1960, on the steps of the Michigan Union, when then Senator John F. Kennedy gave an unprepared campaign speech challenging University of Michigan students to devote a few years of their lives to working in developing countries around the world and to promote a better understanding between those countries and the United States.
Coincidently my wife, Kathy, was visiting a friend in Ann Arbor, Mich., and was among the 5,000 students who heard Kennedy give his three-minute speech. A year later she would enroll at the university and four years later, she went to Uruguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. When I asked her if Kennedy had inspired her to enter the Peace Corps, she said, "From that moment on she knew what she wanted to do."
It was a remarkable event that would take place in Ann Arbor. As it turned out it was a signature event because when we think of John Kennedy, we think of the Peace Corps.
I want to quote some of the writing of James Tobin, on the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, who wrote an article for the University of Michigan "Michigan Today" magazine where he described Kennedy’s brief but historic speech.
"When the students heard that Kennedy would be in Ann Arbor on a campaign stop (he was running for president at the time), students began to gather around 10 p.m. Almost four hours later, Kennedy’s motorcade arrived. He told the students he was merely coming to Ann Arbor to go to bed—which brought a roar from the students. He had no speech planned but because of the crowd, he decided to say a few extemporaneous words.
"Speaking into a microphone at the center of the stone staircase, with aides and students around him, Kennedy began by expressing his ‘thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.’ (A recording shows that this got a shout from the crowd.)"
Then Kennedy asked an important question.
"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 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."
Within weeks after his speech, about 1,000 University of Michigan students had signed a petition calling for the establishment of the Peace Corps program.
He finished his speech by saying, "This is the longest short speech I’ve ever made, and I’ll therefore finish it. The state had not built the university merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it."
The students loudly applauded and Kennedy told an aide he appeared to have "hit a winning number."
On Nov. 2, in a major address at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Kennedy formally proposed "a peace corps of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country … for three years as an alternative or as a supplement to peacetime selective service." (Nixon responded by calling the idea "a cult of escapism" and "a haven for draft dodgers.")
In a June 10, 1963 speech given to American University graduates in Washington, D.C., Kennedy said he was going to speak on "a topic of which ignorance too often abounds and the truth too rarely perceived and that is the most important topic on earth—peace."
As you know, Kathy and I met in the Peace Corps in 1965 and were married on March 16, 1968, coincidently on the same day Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for president—another man who searched for peace.
I wish I could say or know the magic formula for peace, of which, I truly believe, in our hearts, we all search for. I’m not that smart, no doubt it follows what Kennedy says about "ignorance abounds." I do know, and this is what the Peace Corps taught me, if we don’t search for it, we will never find it. If anything, the Peace Corps should remind all of us that our work towards peace and understanding should never stop.
(As always, we make this offer to any school or organization who would like to have Kathy and I come and give a presentation about the Peace Corps and peace. We are willing to do so at no expense.)
Riddle: What is pronounced like one letter, written with three letters, and belongs to all animals? (Answer: Eye) We all must say “aye” when it comes to searching for peace.
Do you realize that if 100% of our people had a high school diploma we would be more likely to find peace in the world? Why? We would have more brain power to address critical issues involving our national and world problems.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.