by John Coyne
Six days before the 1960 presidential election, candidate John Kennedy gave a speech on “Staffing a Foreign Policy for Peace”. That brief address, Kennedy’s last before the election, helped shift the Foreign Service from its “Pale, Male, and Yale” character to a more diverse corps better equipped in local languages and culture.
It was a speech of six single-spaced pages, less than 3000 words. Written by Ted Sorenson and JFK it proposed a new government agency, “The Peace Corps” using that name for the very first time. And with it, Kennedy envisioned a way to change America’s diplomatic service.
Kennedy began by pointing out that the Lenin Institute for Political Warfare exported, each year, hundreds of agents to disrupt free institutions in the uncommitted world. Kennedy related that “A friend of mine visiting the Soviet Union last year met a young Russian couple studying Swahili and African customs at the Moscow Institute of Languages. They were not language teachers—he was a sanitation engineer and she was a nurse. And they were being prepared to live among African nations as missionaries for communism.”
Kennedy went on to say, “I have often been impressed with the caliber of men and women in the Foreign Service. But I have also been depressed by the grounds of selecting the non-career ambassadors who are placed in charge of these career servants. Many have been ill-chosen, ill-equipped, and ill-briefed.”
“In 1958, it was reported that our Ambassador to Moscow was the only U.S. Ambassador to a Communist country who spoke the language of the country to which he was assigned. Only two of the nine ambassadors to Arabic-speaking countries spoke Arabic. In eight of the twelve non-English-speaking NATO countries, our ambassadors lacked a workable knowledge of the main language spoken there.”
Again, he returned to recent news, pointing out that in the newspapers it was reported, “a group of Russian geologists, electrical engineers, architects, and farming and fishing experts arrived in Ghana today to give technical advice.”
Summing up, Kennedy proposed “that our inadequate efforts in this area be supplemented by a Peace Corps of talented young men willing and able to serve their country in this fashion for three years as an alternative to peacetime selective service—well qualified through rigorous standards; well trained in the language, skills, and customs they will need to know; and directed and paid by the ICA Point Four agencies. We cannot discontinue training our men as soldiers of war—but we also need them as ‘ambassadors of peace.”
And these ‘ambassadors of people’, Kennedy envisioned, would return from their Peace Corps service to become U.S. Ambassadors in the United States Foreign Service.
And indeed they did. Today more than 60 returned volunteers have served or are serving as U.S. Ambassadors, bringing the skills they honed in Peace Corps assignments to their diplomatic careers.
The State Department, which was famously labeled, “Pale, Male, and Yale” would increasingly be filled with returned Peace Corps Volunteers, men and women, as Kennedy said, “from every race and walk of life.”
John Coyne is the editor of: Peace Corps OnLine: http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/
John was with the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Ethiopia. After completing his service, he worked for the Peace Corps in Washington, and then became an Associate Peace Corps Director in Ethiopia.
He left the Peace Corps in 1967 to become Dean of Admissions and Students at the SUNY/Old Westbury, and later turned to writing full time. In 1995 John returned to the Peace Corps as Special Assistant to the Associate Director for Volunteer Support where he conceived of and edited three essay books about the Peace Corps experience: To Touch the World, At Home in the World, and Peace Corps: The Great Adventure, and wrote the concept paper that outlined a new role for Peace Corps Volunteers —the Crisis Corps, later renamed the Response Corps. In 1996 he was appointed Manager of the New York Peace Corps Recruitment Office.
John, who is considered an authority on the history of the Peace Corps, has written or edited over twenty-five books including Going Up Country: Travel Essays by Peace Corps Writers and Living on the Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers, and a novel partially set in Ethiopia, Long Ago and Far Away.