U-M's role in Peace Corps History
On October 14, 1960, at approximately 2:00 a.m., Senator John F. Kennedy addressed more than 5,000 students from the steps of the Michigan Union in an unprepared campaign speech. He challenged them to serve their country and promote the cause of peace by working in developing countries around the world. In the speech's aftermath, hundreds of U-M students signed a petition saying they would volunteer. About two weeks later, in one of his final campaign speeches (delivered 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."
On November 6, two days before the presidential election, three carloads of U-M students drove down to Toledo, Ohio, to show Senator Kennedy the signed petitions. One graduate student asked: "Are you really serious about the Peace Corps?" "Until Tuesday we'll worry about this nation," Kennedy replied. "After Tuesday, the world." Two days later, Kennedy won the presidency and on March 1, 1961, he signed an Executive Order that officially established the Peace Corps.
"It might still be just an idea but for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty," wrote Sargent Shriver, JFK's brother-in-law and the Peace Corps' first director. "Possibly Kennedy would have tried it once on some other occasion, but without a strong popular response he would have concluded the idea was impractical or premature. That probably would have ended it then and there. Instead it was almost a case of spontaneous combustion."
Since the establishment of the Peace Corps, nearly 2,200 U-M graduates have volunteered—the fourth largest number of any university. They have lived and served in more than 44 countries, putting their education and experiences to work in health, training, business, information technology, education, agriculture, the environment, and other areas. To learn more about Peace Corps history at U-M, explore the following sections:
- Read "JFK at the Union: The Unknown Story of the Peace Corps Speech" by James Tobin
- Read Senator John F. Kennedy's Speech
More about the Role of U-M Faculty/Students in Peace Corps History:
- U-M graduate students, inspired by JFK's speech, created a group called Americans Committed to World Responsibility (ACWR). Their efforts inspired students at U-M and other colleges to sign petitions indicating their willingness to serve overseas. Many also wrote letters to the Kennedy and Nixon presidential campaigns to emphasize their desire for a Peace Corps. In December of 1960, ACWR hosted a Working Symposium about the Peace Corps at U-M, which featured talks by faculty about a potential Corps. In partnership with American University and the International Division of the National Students Association, the group also hosted a national conference at American University in March 1961, where they handed out copies of the document that emerged from the Working Symposium. A rare copy of this paper can be found at U-M's Bentley Library.
- A U-M graduate named Jack Hood Vaughn (B.A. '43, M.A. '47) was the second director of the Peace Corps from 1966-69. In this role, Vaughn took steps to improve the agency's marketing and programming efforts, and to promote volunteer assignments in conservation, natural resource management, and community development.
- Al Guskin (Ph.D. '68) made a huge impact on the creation of the Peace Corps. He was a leader of the Americans Committed to World Responsibility, the U-M student group credited with inspiring Kennedy to move forward with the idea of establishing a peace corps. In 1961, Guskin joined the staff at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the fall of that year, he entered the Peace Corps' Thailand Training program, held at U-M, and in January 1962, he and his wife Judith went to Thailand with the first Thai group. Upon his return, Guskin completed his Ph.D. at U-M and later became chancellor of Antioch University.
- Dr. Samuel Hayes, a professor of economics at U-M, was asked by John F. Kennedy to write a report about a potential Peace Corps in September 1960. Entitled "An International Peace Corps: The Promise and Problems," the report was sold at the bargain price of one dollar. (A copy can be seen at U-M's Hatcher Graduate Library in October of 2010.) In addition to becoming an advisor to the Americans Committed to World Responsibility (ACWR) student group and a mentor to two of its leaders, Al and Judy Guskin, Dr. Hayes was a main speaker at ACWR's Working Symposium, held at U-M in 1960. Also, President Kennedy appointed him to a national task force charged with reviewing and formulating the U.S. foreign aid program.
- New Notes: Classroom and Campus. Kennedy’s “Peace Corps” Program Wins Support From the Nations Campuses
(New York Times, December 18, 1960)
- University of Michigan: Meaningful Activism Praised
(New York Times, June 17, 1968)
Colby Schneider Halloran, U-M Alum: "My father photographed Kennedy that night. He was photographing a democratic candidate, Tom Paine (who appears next to Kennedy in many photographs.) He went to Willow Run airport to meet Kennedy's plane. When Kennedy came out of the plane he was met by a crushing crowd on the tarmac. My father, who was taking publicity photos for Paine, was meant to escort Kennedy back to a nearby hotel for photographs before coming to AA. He called "Jack!" and recalled how Kennedy went straight to him, took his hand and my father led him to the car waiting for them. In the crowd, my father's glasses were knocked off. He had to photograph him that night (4x5 Speed Graphic camera) without his glasses (nightmare for a photographer). Later he went back to the tarmac and found his glasses unbroken which he forever associated with Kennedy magic. The day JFK was assassinated we heard this story at home, having never heard it before. My father was Samuel F. Schneider."
Darryl R. Cochrane (U-M BA, MBA, and JD): "I got to the steps of the Union and waited 10 hours to see and hear JFK. By 2:00 am, when he spoke, there were thousands of students. I was probably 5 yards from him. As he stood on the Union steps I was to his left. I was so crowded that I couldn't move my arms. I saw a girl pass out near me, maybe 2 feet away, and she couldn't fall down. Her head just rolled around freely. I have no doubt that if she had fallen she would have been trampled. I heard the speech but I was so concerned about safety I didn't realize the full import of what he said until later."