The Peace Corp turned 50 years old a little over a month ago. Congratulations are in order for the thousands of employees and volunteers who made the Agency an eternal flame of hope during the Cold War era and in the decades since.
How the Peace Corp went from an idea to a permanent part of the global fabric is a story every bit as remarkable as improbable. The idea was first offered by several U.S. Senators, most notably the late Hubert Humphrey prior to 1960. But in those dark days of the Cold War, traction for such an innovative idea was nowhere to be found. Richard Nixon cynically argued that draft dodgers would use the Peace Corp as a safe haven. Sounds familiar?
The Peace Corp needed what many new ideas require: a person at the right time and place to strike a chord that resonates throughout society. That person was Jack Kennedy and the place Ann Arbor, Michigan in the Fall of 1960.
I first read about that magical night in a book, "Remembering America, A Voice from the 60's," by Richard N. Goodwin. Goodwin was the deputy speechwriter under Ted Sorenson. Sorenson, who along with Kennedy, wrote one of the greatest Inaugural addresses in American history.
The candidate was scheduled to arrive the evening of October 13th in Ann Arbor and have a campaign rally at the University of Michigan the next day. However, by the time his plane landed and the bus caravan made its way to town, it was two in the morning. Much to Kennedy's surprise, thousands of students were waiting to welcome him.
When Sorenson saw the crowd he grabbed Dick Goodwin and suggested they get a bite to eat. They both knew there was no way that Kennedy would miss an opportunity to say a few words to the thousands who waited hours for him.
As his speechwriters snacked on cafeteria food, Kennedy climbed the steps and made an extemporaneous speech. At that late hour, he proposed the Peace Corp. The Senator challenged the students to recognize and use the tremendous resources of their education for the greater good. The candidate strongly suggested that "your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer
whether a free society can compete. And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have in the past."
The speechwriters had just about finished their meal when reporters and students rushed into the cafeteria. They were asked if they knew the candidate had just proposed the Peace Corp. Neither had the slightest idea! They had to go talk to the candidate to see what he said.
The response to Kennedy's brief remarks was instantaneous and overwhelming. In a few days, a thousand students signed a petition stating their willingness to serve in the non-existent agency. Thousands more indicated that they too were ready to sign up in the last weeks of the campaign. Imagine the response if his speech were recorded by I-Phones and the video went viral.
Contrast our era of focus groups and scripted sound bites to Kennedy's intuitive leadership. Instead of calling for our citizens to serve society and advance our ideals, candidates are mired in the muck of arguing how to shrink government, 9-9-9 plans, and over the efficacy and ethics of the HPV vaccine.
The Peace Corp Act was signed into law by President Kennedy on September 22, 1961, less than one year after his late night speech. In the last five decades, thousands of Americans demonstrated their "willingness to contribute part of their life to this country." Sargent Shriver, Bill Moyers, and Dick Goodwin gave their talents to the new agency.
Now our great country waits again for lightning to strike and another Peace Corp-type initiative launched. The challenges we face now are arguably more global, interrelated, and without regard for sovereign borders than those of the Cold War era. The American political experiment is again the best framework for an international strategy that encourages cooperation on environmental, economic, health, and military security concerns.
Will the election of 2012 see a candidate throw away his prepared speech late one night and create history? The optimistic side of me feels that will happen. Whatever candidate takes that step will become the next president as well as a great world leader.