In the second part of our literary examination of JFK's legacy, we begin with a look at the hopes that the next generation brought to JFK's candidacy, and how those hopes—combined with the pressures of the campaign and the mounting conflict in Vietnam—led to the impromptu "definition" of the Peace Corps during an unplanned campaign stop at the University of Michigan. Later, Claire Conner takes us to Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, where she as a curious young woman—and daughter of the national spokesman for the ultraconservative John Birch Society—had gone to see the presidental motorcade, only to witness anguish and paranoia in the aftermath of JFK's assassination.
Stanley Meisler is the author of When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. Meisler was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times for three decades. He was also deputy director of the Peace Corps’s Office of Evaluation and Research in the mid-1960s. Meisler, who lives in Washington, D.C., has written for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Smithsonian, and periodically posts news commentaries on his Web site.
A madcap six months followed. Shriver hired a staff (preferring those who broke the bureaucratic mold like mountain climbers and sea captains), and the team sifted thousands of applications, selected potential Volunteers, rushed them to universities for high-speed training, and dispatched them overseas. The crucial job of persuading foreign presidents and prime ministers and royalty to invite the Volunteers, of cajoling Congress to approve and fund the new agency, and of sustaining the American public’s enthusiasm fell on the charming, irrepressible, idealistic Shriver.
On August 30, the first contingent of Volunteers landed in Ghana in West Africa. On September 21, Congress passed the Peace Corps Act by overwhelming votes. President Kennedy signed it into law the next day.
There are now more than 200,000 former Peace Corps Volunteers (who prefer to call themselves “returned Volunteers”), and many belong to associations based on where they now live like Boston Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or where they once served like Friends of Cameroon. These associations are sponsoring celebrations throughout the 50th anniversary year. Some like the early Ghana and Philippines Volunteers have published books about their experiences during the first year of the Peace Corps.
In mid-summer, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which celebrates different ethnic cultures for a couple of weeks every year, will honor the Peace Corps this year by featuring crafts, foods, music and drama from groups helped by the Volunteers overseas.
The National Peace Corps Association, the main organization of former Volunteers, usually sponsors a national celebration in September every five years. There was one exception: The 40th anniversary events had to be postponed for a year because of the shock over the terrorism of 9/11 in 2001.
Aside from the official activities sponsored by the National Peace Corps Association, there are a host of other events including separate reunions of Volunteers from many of the Peace Corps countries, a luncheon at the Library of Congress honoring Peace Corps authors, and pre-game ceremonies at the baseball park of the Washington Nationals.
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. The idea for the Peace Corps came from an impromptu speech made a few months earlier by then-Senator Kennedy at the University of Michigan, in the final few weeks of his presidential campaign. At about two in the morning on the steps of the Michigan Union, he presented an idea to a crowd of restless students for an organization that would rally American youth in service. Though the speech lasted barely three minutes, his germ of an idea morphed dramatically into Kennedy's most enduring legacy. From this offhand campaign remark, shaped speedily by President Kennedy's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, in 1961, the organization ascended with remarkable excitement and publicity, attracting the attention of thousands of hopeful young Americans.
Watch President Kennedy's announcement made fifty years ago today.
Of course, what transpired in those months between an inspiring speech and the establishment of a transformative institution-- not to mention what has happened in the fifty years since-- is a fascinating story, one you can now read in When the World Calls, the first complete and balanced look at the Peace Corps's first fifty years. Revelatory and candid, Stanley Meisler's engaging narrative exposes Washington infighting, presidential influence, and the Volunteers' unique struggles abroad. Meisler deftly unpacks the complicated history with sharp analysis and memorable anecdotes, taking readers on a global trek starting with the historic first contingent of Volunteers to Ghana on August 30, 1961.
The Peace Corps has served as an American emblem for world peace and friendship, yet few realize that it has sometimes tilted its agenda to meet the demands of the White House. Tracing its history through the past nine presidential administrations, Meisler discloses, for instance, how Lyndon Johnson became furious when Volunteers opposed his invasion of the Dominican Republic; he reveals how Richard Nixon literally tried to destroy the Peace Corps, and how Ronald Reagan endeavored to make it an instrument of foreign policy in Central America. But somehow the ethos of the Peace Corps endured, largely due to the perseverance of the 200,000 Volunteers themselves, whose shared commitment to effect positive global change has been a constant in one of our most complex-and valued-institutions.
Fifty years on, what has the Peace Corps accomplished? It's possible to cite the pounds of fish sold or the pounds of honey produced under volunteer projects. But how do you measure the influence of an inspiring teacher? Or the effect on an impoverished teenage boy such as Alejandro Toledo, who, with volunteers' help, goes on to college and becomes the president of Peru?
But there is no difficulty measuring the impact of the Peace Corps on the United States. Half a century after Kennedy's call, the Peace Corps' greatest achievement may be the volunteers themselves.
Peace Corps alumni include two U.S. senators — Chris Dodd of Connecticut and the late Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts — and nine members of the House of Representatives, as well as governors of Wisconsin and Ohio and the mayor of Pittsburgh. One Cabinet member was a volunteer: Donna Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary in the Clinton administration and now the president of the University of Miami. Ten other volunteers are presidents of universities and colleges.
More than 20 have served as ambassadors or assistant secretaries of State; others went on to become teachers, doctors, economic development specialists. The novelist Paul Theroux heads a long list of Peace Corps writers, and the roster of journalists includes Chris Matthews of MSNBC and George Packer and Peter Hessler of the New Yorker. The founders of Netflix and the Nature Co., and the board chairs of Levi Strauss and the Chicago Bears, were also volunteers.
In all, some 200,000 Americans have lived, often in the remotest of villages, in countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and Eastern Europe — places most other Americans can't find on a map. We would not have this enormous asset today without the Peace Corps. That is surely worth a birthday celebration.
This Thursday, Meisler will appear at the John F. Kennedy Library at a forum celebrating the anniversary. Register to attend here or watch the live webcast on the JFK Library website.
Read an excerpt from When the World Calls here or at Scribd. Did you or someone close to you serve in the Peace Corps? Please share your memories in our comments.
The family joke was that President John F. Kennedy handed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a lemon and Shriver turned it into lemonade. The lemon was the new Peace Corps, and Shriver, who died on Tuesday just six weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, transformed that lemon in 1961 into the most dynamic, popular and exciting agency of the new administration. The success of the Peace Corps made Shriver a national celebrity.
President Kennedy had not intended the new agency to be so dynamic nor his brother-in-law to be so celebrated. In the hierarchy of the large Kennedy family, brothers-in-law were second class, expected to stifle their own political ambitions until those of the real brothers — Jack, Bobby and Ted — were satisfied. Shriver had mused about running for governor of Illinois in 1960, but the Kennedys quickly squelched this distraction from the main family job of electing Jack president.
The pragmatic Kennedys never quite knew what to make of the idealist Shriver. He struck them not as a tough politico but a dilettante. In Chicago, where he managed the massive Merchandise Mart office building for the family, he had become involved in civil rights causes and served as president of the school board. Some Kennedys joked he was a communist. Bobby Kennedy liked to call him a Boy Scout. In a family where the patriarch, Joe Kennedy, and several of his sons were notorious womanizers, Shriver, according to biographer Scott Stossel, was still a virgin at age 37 when he married Eunice Kennedy.
President Kennedy’s call for a Peace Corps during the campaign had excited college students throughout the country. Many thousands had rushed letters to Washington offering to join the still unformed corps. But Kennedy was wary of thousands of youngsters rushing around the world interfering with his foreign policies. He envisioned a small Peace Corps — a total of several hundred at most, all strictly supervised by veteran officials of the US Agency for International Development (AID). He handed Shriver and his Peace Corps task force a professor’s proposal along these lines and urged his brother-in-law to follow it.
All Shriver’s public relations and sales instincts rebelled against this cautious approach. As Harris Wofford, a member of the task force and a future US Senator, put it, President Kennedy’s model was “contrary to every bone in Shriver’s body and every cell in his brain.” Shriver looked elsewhere for ideas.
He found them in a report, “The Towering Task,” written by two young officials of the foreign aid agency that became AID, Warren Wiggins and William Josephson. In many ways, their paper was ridiculous. They proposed sending 50,000 Volunteers to India, 17,000 to the Philippines, 5,000 to 10,000 to Nigeria, and “a few thousand” to Mexico. This kind of massive folly would have choked the Peace Corps senseless at birth.
But Shriver found two vital conclusions in the report: (1) the Peace Corps had to be large enough to make an impact on the developing world, to impress Americans and to accommodate the thousands of young American applicants, and (2) President Kennedy had to move quickly, creating the agency by executive order instead of waiting for congressional legislation. After the task force adopted these recommendations, President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.
But the President still refused to make the Peace Corps independent. Shriver enlisted the help of Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had once warned Shriver against letting the Peace Corps become part of the foreign policy establishment. “You put the Peace Corps into the Foreign Service and they’ll put striped pants on your people when all you’ll want them to have is a knapsack and a tool kit and a lot of imagination,” Johnson said. He pushed the same argument on Kennedy. Faced with pressure from both his vice president and his brother-in-law, the president gave up and made the Peace Corps independent.
Shriver now had independence and the executive order but nothing else. He had no staff, no programs, no Volunteers, no real Peace Corps. He put everything together in six months in a whirlwind of verve, stamina, risk and enthusiasm. The atmosphere was frenetic, sometimes frantic, and enervating. A staff had to be organized. Governments had to be persuaded to accept Volunteers. Staffers had to devise programs and then travel overseas to make sure there would be jobs for the Volunteers. Applicants had to be selected. Universities had to train Volunteers in language, cultural studies and job skills.
Shriver or "Sarge," as everyone he hired now called him, hunted for imaginative and unusual people for his staff. He hired two mountain climbers who had conquered K-2 in Pakistan, one to run the program in Nepal, the other in India. When Sarge tried to hire Franklin Williams from the staff of California Attorney General Stanley Mosk, Williams said he could not leave his job that soon. “Yes, you can,” said Shriver. He phoned Mosk right then. “Stanley, we got to have your assistant, Williams,” he said. Mosk gave him up.
Sarge hired Jack Hood Vaughn from AID and then reneged. He had too many people from AID on his staff. But an associate rushed in to Sarge’s office. Did he realize that Vaughn had won the amateur featherweight championship of Michigan, fought professionally in Mexico under the name of Johnny Hood, coached the University of Michigan team, and spared with Sugar Ray Robinson in Detroit? “My God, how did I miss that?” said Shriver. Vaughn was rehired.
Everyone worked long hours. The Washington Post ran a photo showing lights glowing in the Peace Corps building at night while all other government buildings were dark. Staffers leaving the building at midnight sometimes found Shriver in the same elevator.
Sarge was an inspiring, untiring leader. He was always articulate and in command of facts at news conferences and congressional committee hearings. He ran lively staff meetings where new ideas were continually explored and no one feared to contradict anyone else, not even Sarge.
Finally, on August 31, 1961, six months after President Kennedy had signed the executive order, a Pan Am charter flight landed in Accra, Ghana with 50 Peace Corps Volunteers, all teachers. The Volunteers alighted and managed to sing an anthem in Twi, one of the three main indigenous languages of Ghana. Their grasp of Twi was actually woeful, but they did a credible job, after rehearsal on the plane, of impressing their Ghanian welcomers. The teachers were the first Volunteers to reach their assigned country. Sarge’s Peace Corps had been launched.