57 years later, Kennedy's pledge to University students resonates on campus

Saturday, October 14, 2017 - 1:26pm

With the 1960 Election Day just over three weeks away, presidential candidate and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., was making late stops on the campaign trail. Tensions were high, as Kennedy had just debated Vice President Richard Nixon on Oct. 13, 1960 — a performance that is still considered to be among the closest outcomes in presidential debate history.

With 63.7 million people watching the debate, Nixon reminded the American people that three Democratic presidents had sent the United States to war in years past. He made clear the country needed a Republican president.

“I stand so strongly for programs that will move America forward in the sixties, move her forward so that we can stay ahead of the Soviet Union and win the battle for freedom and peace,” Nixon said.

Once the debate concluded, Kennedy flew to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti in the early hours of the morning of Oct. 14, 1960. Michigan, which was a swing state, was critical to Kennedy’s campaign. Kennedy’s original plan was to sleep a few hours at the Michigan Union and then campaign across the state; however, when Kennedy arrived about 1:45 a.m. in Ann Arbor, he saw the streets flooded with about 10,000 students, most of whom had been awaiting his 10 p.m. arrival.

The Senator was with his speechwriters Theodore Sorensen and Richard Goodwin. Though the two had no speech planned for the late-night spectacle, they knew Kennedy was going to address the crowd.

Kennedy began his late-night speech by thanking the students of the University of Michigan, “as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.” The crowd erupted in cheers from Kennedy’s remark and the phrase has since become a popular T-shirt design.

Despite having no official prepared remarks, Kennedy laid out his vision for what became the Peace Corps.

“How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?” Kennedy asked the crowd. “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 have ever made in the past.”

As he continued, Kennedy challenged the crowd:

“Therefore, I am delighted to come to Michigan, to this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can't possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.”

After a few more remarks, Kennedy concluded: “Let me say in conclusion, this University is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, 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 Aftermath

Throughout the years, the University community has maintained its relationship with the Peace Corps. Even as the political landscape shifted from the liberalism of the 1960's to the conservatism that dominated the 1980's, many students on campus still looked to Kennedy's remarks with a sense of duty to commit their lives to public service abroad.

In 1985, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush praised the Peace Corps in an address given to University students on the same day as Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps' director rolled out proposed changes to expand and prevent budget cuts to the program.

In a 1987 Daily article, Dan Orlowski, who at the time was a senior, said at a Peace Corps recruiting event he believed the Peace Corps had a renewed importance during the Ronald Reagan Administration.

“I came because I think that especially in the Reagan era ... it's real difficult to look forward to a post-college career with a clear conscience,” Orlowski said.

Not all students, however, saw the Peace Corps as the altruistic organization it proclaimed to be. There was a belief among many the Peace Corps could be a CIA-sponsored organization which placed greater importance on promoting American politics of anti-Communist containment over acts of selfless charity in less-wealthy countries.

Despite these concerns, about 60 students showed up to that 1987 recruitment event. Interest in the program still remained high on campus, and in many ways, the University remained at the epicenter of the Peace Corps organization.

Just this past September, the University renewed its commitment to the Peace Corps by lauching a preparatory program designed to help students gain a competitive edge when applying to the Peace Corps.

“As part of the program, students will complete two semesters of language courses, take three intercultural competence courses, three work sector-related courses, one leadership activity, and complete 50 hours of field experience in a Peace Corps work sector,” a University press release stated.

Today, on the 57th anniversary of the speech, some current University students look back on this event and the context of Kennedy’s speech fondly.

LSA junior David Markey, who studies the history of U.S. foreign policy, noted students should be appreciative of the program Kennedy started. He believes Kennedy was challenging the young people of America to help underdeveloped areas of the world.

“It is important to remember when historical figures took the risks to challenge the people of this country to step outside their comfort zone to try and make the world a better place,” Markey said. “Especially in the context of the Cold War and Communist Russia.”  

LSA junior Sean Psenka noted how honored he is to be a part of a University integral to American history. He noted this is a primary example of the importance of student activism.

“I had no idea that two University students played such a strong role in getting the Peace Corps established,” he said. “It makes me even more proud to be a Wolverine.”

In a previous interview with The Daily, Austin McCoy, a postdoctoral fellow who studies progressive political movements in the upper Midwest, noted the University’s campus climate in the ’60s, particularly around the time of Kennedy's speech, was one of political and social activism.

“Michigan, at the time, had a decent cohort of students who were thinking more radically in their politics and were capable of launching a student movement,” McCoy said earlier last month. “They were thinking about the limitations of the old left, of Communist politics and of organized labor.”

Reflecting on the Past

On Oct. 18, 1960, a mere four days after Sen. Kennedy’s impromptu speech, Congressman Chester Bowles, D-Conn, spoke at the Michigan Union ballroom. Michael Burns, a reporter for The Daily in 1960, wrote of Bowles’s desire to change American foreign policy.

Burns wrote about Bowles’ suggested program, which would fall under the control of the United Nations, that would “send doctors, agricultural experts and teachers to needy countries throughout the world.”

Two University graduate students, Alan and Judy Guskin, were inspired by Bowles’s suggested plan. In response, the Guskins formed the Americans Committed to World Responsibility organization on campus.

On Oct. 21, 1960, the Guskins wrote a letter to the editor published in The Daily. Both students were among the first to support Kennedy and Bowles’s proposal of a U.N. international civil service organization.

“In reply to this urgent request, we both hereby state that we would devote a number of years to work in countries where our help is needed, either through the United Nations or through the United States Foreign Service,” they wrote in the letter.

The Guskins used The Daily as a platform to recruit students to join ACWR. They urged students “in their classes, dorms, sororities, fraternities, houses, etc.” to write to then-Sen. Kennedy and then-Congressman Bowles to define the potential program in greater detail. Eventually, they got more than 250 students to sign a petition agreeing to volunteer abroad.

Two days before the general election of 1960, word got out Kennedy was going to be at the Toledo airport. University students, including the Guskins, drove to the airport to show the presidential candidate the petition.

Kennedy received the petition and was seemingly amazed at the students’ efforts. Alan asked the senator if he was serious about starting the program, to which Kennedy replied: "Until Tuesday we'll worry about this nation. After Tuesday, the world.

In an interview with The Daily in 1980, the Guskins remembered their actions, saying they believe the movement that initiated the Peace Corps could have started at anywhere. Yet, they affirm the University is a place filled with political passion and vigor.

“(The University) has always been relatively unique on student activism,” Alan said in 1980. “It has always been in the forefront and has had a moderating influence” on political activism at other colleges.