Development & Education

JFK wanted the Peace Corps to create a generation of world-savvy Americans

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Harris Wofford with President Kennedy at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House for the first contingent of Peace Corps volunteers, Aug. 9, 1962.


Courtesy of Harris Wofford

Harris Wofford was standing at the foot of a mountain in Addis Ababa when he heard that President Kennedy had been shot.

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Kennedy had sent Wofford to live in Ethiopia and set up the Peace Corps in Africa. Wofford was overseeing the first group of volunteers in Ethiopia. He says the reaction of Ethiopians to Kennedy's murder was immediate. 

"Neighbors were coming to the Peace Corps volunteers' homes with food, with sympathy," says Wofford. "It was a nation-wide mourning and then an Africa-wide mourning and then, through the wide network of Peace Corps volunteers, I realized it was a world-wide mourning for John Kennedy." 

Wofford says that Africans, many in newly independent countries, had been excited about the Kennedy presidency. "They had been waiting for America to be represented by somebody that embodied youth and optimism and idealism." 

Kennedy had high hopes for the Peace Corps. "His primary interest always was the world," says Wofford, who recalls that on the eve of Wofford's 1962 departure for Africa, Kennedy told him: "You know this Peace Corps is going to be really serious when we have 100,000 volunteers a year. Because in one decade, we'll have a million Americans who will have had first-hand experience in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Then at last, we'll have an intelligent foreign policy because there will be a big constituency of people who understand the world."

Wofford believes the Peace Corps is a key part of President Kennedy's legacy. "I think the Peace Corps is the embodiment, the only embodiment, of Kennedy's appeal to 'ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.'"

Kennedy saw the Peace Corps "as a lot of different things — a swiss knife with lots of different values," says Wofford. But one thing the President definitely did not want was for the program to be an engine of the Cold War, a sales job for the American way of life.

"I, and most Peace Corps volunteers I knew, tried to make it clear that's not what we were doing," says Wofford. "The first thing you learn as a Peace Corps volunteer is that you're not there to either sell America or to make a country line up with America in the Cold War. You need to make clear that you're there to learn a lot and contribute what you can."

Five months before his death, President Kennedy made a famous speech at American University's commencement calling for a new way to engage with the world, which the Peace Corps represented. In that speech, Kennedy spoke of moving away from nuclear arms to focus instead on shared values, even with America's chief adversary, the Soviet Union.

Kennedy had also finally started pushing hard for civil rights. "He went to Dallas happy," says Wofford. "He was moving forward on two key tracks: that of civil rights and on trying to find a way out of the Cold War and toward world peace and nuclear control."

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    Harris Wofford working as Peace Corps director in Ethiopia.


    Courtesy: Harris Wofford

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    Departing with Sargent Shriver in early 1962 for talks with African leaders on the establishment of the Peace Corps.


    Courtesy: Harris Wofford

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    Harris Wofford in Ethiopia introducing then Peace Corps volunteer (and future Massachusetts Senator) Paul Tsongas to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.


    Courtesy: Harris Wofford

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    Harris Wofford and his wife and children in Ethiopia.


    Courtesy: Harris Wofford