Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Late Night with JFK

The spot is marked with a round metal plate, embedded in the cement on the doorstep of the University of Michigan Student Union.

It was there, nearly 50 years ago (gulp), where presidential candidate John F. Kennedy stood and delivered a speech late in the evening of October 14, 1960. There were only a few weeks to go before the election. And Kennedy was tired and haggard after whirlwind campaigning.

But he wasn't too tired to go public for the first time with his vision of an organization that would encourage recent college grads to serve their country overseas as voluntary missionaries.

It was called the Peace Corps, and JFK first stumped for it while in Ann Arbor, running a neck-and-neck race with Vice President Richard Nixon.

There's doubts that Kennedy was the very first individual to concoct the premise of the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the Federal Government. Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey, for example, introduced a bill in 1957 that would have established a program very similar to what ended up becoming the Peace Corps.

So what is the Peace Corps, exactly?

From its Wikipedia page:

Each program participant, or Peace Corps Volunteer, is an American citizen who commits to working abroad in an assignment for the organization for a period of twenty four months after three months of training. Generally, the work to be performed is related to international development. Specialties include education, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.

Kennedy won the 1960 election, of course, and signed Executive Order 10924 on March 4, 1961, officially establishing the Peace Corps.

Nixon, by the way, railed against the Peace Corps idea on the campaign trail. One of his gripes is that it would become a "haven" for draft dodgers.


President Kennedy greeting Peace Corps volunteers on August 28, 1961


JFK tabbed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as the Peace Corps' first director.

In just under six years as director, Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 volunteers.

I've been to the spot where Kennedy stood and first spoke of the Peace Corps. Apparently the late night speech was rather impromptu and was delivered to a less-than-huge crowd of people.

But it's kind of cool that something so historically significant happened in such an intimate location in such an off-the-cuff manner.

Oh, and Kennedy addressed the Peace Corps idea in his inauguration speech on January 20, 1961. Perhaps you've heard the words, which were in reference to the program.

"And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country"

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