University of Michigan 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps Celebration, Oct. 14, 2010
It happened here, and it can happen again.
The difference between 1960 and 2008 is that students and young people in the earlier time couldn't vote. But we could march, and we did in Ann Arbor in support of the southern student sit-in movement. And we could imagine, propose reforms, and believed the politicians might heed the call.
Sargeant Shriver called the Peace Corps creation a case of spontaneous combustion. It would have been a stillborn idea were it not "for the affirmative response of those Michigan students and faculty," and "without a strong popular response he would have concluded that the idea was impractical or premature."
If it was spontaneous combustion, there had to be igniters and inciters.
I became the editor of the Daily in the summer of 1960. I hitchhiked and to California and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles [where I now live], and wrote dispatches about the nomination of John Kennedy. I also reported on a picket line demanding a civil rights plank in the party platform, a picket led by Dr. Martin Luther King, then 31 years old. I was an ambitious young man in that time, my role models Jack Kerouac and Albert Camus, dreaming of a career as a foreign correspondent. Walking and talking with Dr. King affected me deeply that day, as I realized the difference between seeking a byline and seeking justice. I was still a reporter, not an activist, and yet when I wrote of new student movements, the University's vice president called me in and asked me to tone my writing down. He had no idea.
Sometime that year, Al and Judy Guskin came to see me at the Daily asking to print a letter to the editor about their peace corps idea. I not only said yes, but I committed the Daily to backing their efforts with continuing coverage. And I agreed to give a speech, the first of my life, 19 single-space pages, to their group, "Americans for World Responsibility." I became the Guskins' mouthpiece.
One other detail. After seeing a play on nuclear war called Which Way the Wind that October, about one hundred people met to write a questionnaire for the presidential candidates. As a result, letters were sent to Kennedy and Nixon with ten very utopian questions about war and peace. The fifth question was: "What is your position on the proposals, mentioned by two congressmen, for a national youth corps serving in constructive peacetime activity abroad in place of military service?"
The letter was signed by myself, Thomas Hayden, John Veenstra, David Macleod, Rev. Edgar Edwards, and Harold Duerkson, program director, Univ. of Mich. Office of religious affairs.
Only two or three days later, Kennedy came to campus and was handed the letter by Dave Macleod. He looked it over, put it in his suit pocket, and said, "I'll speak to one of your points tonight." A short time later he stood on the steps of the Union and asked the students what they thought of international service. I took notes on the speech, went up the Union elevator with the Senator, and never saw him again. On Nov. 2, he gave the Cow Palace speech endorsing the Peace Corps.
Is it any wonder we thought we could change the world? Sadly, it didn't turn out that way, but the Peace Corps remains a shining example of what US foreign policy might be, and the 200,000 or more Peace Corps graduates in this country are a great and permanent force for service and internationalism.
While the Guskins and thousands of others went into the Peace Corps, I found my calling as a community organizer and writer amidst the dramatic awakening of black students in our south and on campuses like Ann Arbor around the country. I left a jail cell in Albany, Georgia, in December 1961 to travel to Ann Arbor where plans were made to found a national student organization, Students for a Democratic Society. The first convention was at Port Huron in June 1962, and issued a founding manifesto, "The Port Huron Statement," a vision for our generation based on participatory democracy.
I don't remember much if any discussion of the Peace Corps at Port Huron, probably because of skepticism due to the attempt of the Kennedy Administration to overthrow the Cuban government in 1961, flood Latin America with Green Berets, and promote an Alliance for Progress mainly to offset the influence of Latin American revolutionaries and followers of liberation theology.
The contradictions surrounding the Peace Corps as an independent, nonviolent alternative to the draft at home and counterinsurgency abroad were too great. Not that the possibilities weren't there.
Arnold Toynbee wrote, "If the Peace Corps makes even a partial success of its job, it may achieve for America, and for the Western world as a whole, the one thing that we need above all. It may help us break down the psychological barrier that now insulates us from the human race."
As late as 1965, when our Marines invaded the Dominican Republic to suppress a popular uprising, the Peace Corps volunteers were waived through the barricades by the rebel soldiers. The peace corps volunteers refused to leave the barrios where they lived and were called "los hijos de Kennedy."
During these times, I was invited to work for the Peace Corps in the Andes, I believe by Frank Mankiewicz, and I refused.
I believed there was organizing to do here at home, in our ghettos and barrios, from Mississippi to Newark [where I knocked on doors from 1964 to 1968], and I didn't believe it right or practical to send in the Marines and napalm on the one hand and Peace Corps medics and village workers on the other. The mix would prove toxic, especially during the years of heavy combat in Vietnam. Peace Corps volunteers were being branded as agents of imperialism and "ugly Americans," the very image which President Kennedy and Sargent Shriver originally sought to erase. Those suspicions and labels have never fully ceased.
The other great quandary which the Peace Corps, and the domestic Peace Corps, was unable to resolve was the relationship to power. We knew then, and should still know now, that most of the miseries of the poor arise from forms of powerlessness, that ending poverty requires a challenge to the status quo. Helping peasants gain literacy, providing vaccines where established regimes had neglected the health of the poor, insisting that landlords adhere to housing codes, that merchants charge fair prices, that employers obey minimum wage laws -- all these things were necessary to improve the lives of the poor, but they irritated, infuriated and challenged the powers used to profiting from the slums, favellas, rainforests and waste dumps of the world. The Peace Corps volunteers could provide some beneficial social, medical or ecological services but could not challenge power. Not only was this true in the Amazon, but in the slums of Newark where the politicians and landlords and cops would not tolerate middle-class Peace Corps workers who witnessed, recorded and reported the flagrant daily abuses of power. Even the ambiguous policy requirement of "maximum feasible participation" of the poor -- which was a watered-down version of SDS' slogan "let the people decide" and liberation theology's preferential option for the poor -- was absolutely rejected when it resulted in the election of poor people to the citizen advisory boards of Newark's war on poverty.
John F Kennedy had predicted correctly when he declared that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." But he could do little to prevent the fulfillment of his prophecy, and died in a vast climate of incendiary hate from the segregationists, anti-communists and right-wing of his time. How little we knew then, how mindful we should be now.
I said earlier that the Peace Corps was one of the bright spots of American policy, and it remains so today. President Obama, with his own community organizer background, has awakened a new generation of Americans to the possibility of political change. He has popularized the concept of national service for millions of you, while the appeal of becoming a Wall Street junk bond dealer has diminished [somewhat].
The Obama administration is seeking an increase of our national service budget to an all-time high. The Peace Corps fields 7,671 volunteers and trainees in 77 countries. There are another 85,000 in the AmericaCorps program. His entire national service budget request this year is $1.4 billion, which, after Congressional cuts, is about $1.36 billion, an increase of $215 million.
But compare these numbers to the potential, especially if we link national service with economic recovery in this time of economic crisis.
When Roosevelt became president in 1933, he employed 300,000 young people in the conservation corps doing essential things like erosion control and reforestation. Soon another two million were employed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration feeding the hungry, providing clothing and shelter. Then the Civil Works Administration put 4 million to work repairing roads and parks. Fifty thousand were employed as teachers, artists and writers, leaving works that are with us even today. Eventually 4.3 million people were working in that Depression-era public works program, the equivalent of 10.8 million Americans today [roughly the number of jobs it would take us to get back to pre-recession levels today].
What is preventing us from beginning again, where previous generations left off?
The first and overwhelming reason is ideological and political. There are too many people who, like their heroes Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and now their pop icon Glenn Beck, worship the false god of the Market and hate the State. They believe that the government should not intervene in the private economy to employ anyone, even where markets have failed. They believe, for that matter, that public subsidies of public universities should be cut back until higher education is a private service to be purchased on the market. Needless to say, they believe that projects like national service are unproductive make work.
It is not an easy task to defend the state per se, especially if you include the CIA and FBI.
But where the market clearly fails, government has a role, and where government is deeply flawed, government should be reformed, for example, by better regulations on the flow of money into political campaigns, or if government is too bureaucratic, government should be reformed by innovation. On this latter point, take the remarkable inventiveness of the early Peace Corps, which was criticized as being a Kiddie Corps and a haven for draft dodgers. Sargent Shriver fought hard for autonomy from the foreign policy establishment, and even received this encouragement from Vice President Johnson:
You put the peace corps in 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 lots of imagination. And they'll give you a hundred and one reasons why it won't work every time you want to do something different. If you want the Peace Corps to work, friends, you'll keep it away from the folks downtown who want it to be just another box in an organizational chart.
Besides our elevation of the market philosophy as superior to the notion of democratic government, the second reason that we are prevented from making a more rapid advance in national service is our predilection for war abroad instead of investing in social and economic development abroad or here at home. Fifty years ago, it was the Cold War nuclear arms race that took priority over anything else, even provoking President Eisenhower to give an eloquent warning against the military industrial complex.
Nowadays it is the global war on terrorism, redefined and labeled simply as The Long War.
You will find no discussion of the Long War in the mainstream media nor in the wind tunnel we call the Congress. It is not a fabrication, a deduction or a conspiracy notion, but an actual military doctrine with proponents like the David Kilcullen, the counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Petraeus in Iraq, or journalist-historians like the Washington Post's Thomas Ricks. Briefly, the Long War doctrine calls for a series of wars, beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding into dozens of Muslim countries which have jihadists and, incidentally, oil and pipeline possibilities. Pakistan is the current center of gravity, and Yemen seems next in line. The Long War is projected to go on for 50 to 80 years, the span of 20 presidencies into the future. The Long War currently is unfunded, which means its tax and interest burdens will fall on future generations and, according to the Congressional Office of the Budget, will allow no increase in discretionary domestic spending.
Currently the minimum direct costs of Iraq and Afghanistan are one trillion, ninety billion dollars in unfunded costs. Afghanistan thus far is $353 billion and, according to President Obama's notes, will be over one hundred billion per year for military operations and only $5.2 billion for things called "civilian operations and assistance."
What does this have to do with expanding the Peace Corps? Everything, actually. For instance, you may have read the bestseller by Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, about an American mountaineer who drifts into Pakistan in 1993, has tea with generous villagers, and begins building schools in Taliban territory. Sort of the Peace Corps ideal. Gen. Petraeus loves the idea -- his wife encouraged him to read Mortenson's book. The only problem is a familiar one, how to win hearts and minds, how to improve education and health care, and how to accelerate economic development in a place where you are spending twenty times more on military occupation.
It happens that a very instructive poll was released last month by the New America Foundation, about public opinion in Pakistan's tribal regions. [By the way, Sargant Shriver was in Pakistan when he received word that he was appointed director of the War on Poverty, just at the time of the Vietnam escalation, so in a sense we are full circle here.]
The people of Pakistan's tribal regions -- known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA -- are among the poorest and most disenfranchised on earth. Think Khyber Pass. They are also the key target for escalated US aerial drone attacks and secret commando operations because they are considered a haven for the Taliban and al Qaeda. It's fascinating what they think.
- Sixty percent are opposed politically to the Afghan Taliban and three-quarters want al Qaeda out of their region; they favor the Pakistani military alone to fight the outsiders;
- But 90 percent oppose the US military presence, 80 percent oppose the US-led war on terror, and three quarters are against the drone strikes; 83 percent also are opposed to President Obama, who has drastically increased the drone strikes;
Now listen carefully to this --
- Three-quarters of these same people said their opinion of America would improve if the US increased visas and educational scholarships to America for FATA residents, funded education and medical aid in the tribal areas, withdrew militarily from Afghanistan, and brokered a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians;
- A majority said their opinions of the US would improve "a great deal."
The authors of the study, based on interviews with face-to-face residents this past summer, conclude that the FATA resident's opinions are not based on any "intractably held anti-American beliefs or feelings" but opposition to current American military policy.
It's not simple, of course, but this data suggests that a Peace Corps approach to Pakistan's tribal areas would be welcomed overwhelmingly while a military approach will be resisted until the end, leaving a vast well of hatred towards the United States that did not exist on such levels before. A complete reversal of our budget priorities, from military to civilian, would go far to lessening the fervent anti-Americanism on which al Qaeda so depends. But the Peace Corps today cannot be mixed with the Long War on Terrorism any more than the Peace Corps could be made compatible with the tracking and killing of Che Guevara in Bolivia or the Phoenix Program's suppression of South Vietnamese villages in the late 1960s.
I am not saying that the Peace Corps should be unleashed to win over Muslim hearts and minds -- or, for that matter, offset the free medical programs offered by Cuban doctors through Latin America. Some might make that argument, and I understand their political rationale. I am saying with Arnold Toynbee that the Peace Corps is good for what ails us, our isolation from the human race, but more than Toynbee I am here to say that the Peace Corps model is far more important than the military model in addressing the overwhelming crises that will give birth to violence in our future, the mass unemployment, illiteracy and incarceration of young people across the world, the deaths from malaria and other treatable diseases across the world, the destruction of forests, soil, streambeds and species across the world, and the slow death of our life support systems across the world from global warming. I am saying that one billion dollars for national service per year versus one hundred billion for bombing and killing in Afghanistan is shameful reflection of our fears over our hopes. I am saying we need the will and the determination to take seriously the words of President Eisenhower, who knew of these matters more than most of us -- he said --
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this, a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully-equipped hospitals, it is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyed with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people...
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
It is time for Obama, and more Americans, to read their Eisenhower and begin again.