November 9, 1998: Headlines: Peace Corps Directors - Gearan: Los Angeles World Affairs Council: The Peace Corps" Preparing for the 21st Century" by Mark Gearan
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November 9, 1998: Headlines: Peace Corps Directors - Gearan: Los Angeles World Affairs Council: The Peace Corps" Preparing for the 21st Century" by Mark Gearan
The Peace Corps" Preparing for the 21st Century" by Mark Gearan
The Peace Corps" Preparing for the 21st Century" by Mark Gearan
The Peace Corps" Preparing for the 21st Century"
Thank you very much, Mrs. Ahmanson, for that introduction and thank you, Mary, for welcoming us all here to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. Mrs. Ahmanson, that was a particularly kind introduction and a very generous one, but it has all the more meaning because my mother got to hear it. If you would permit me. As luck would have it, my mother is visiting my cousin here in San Marino, Martha Gorin, who joins us here. It's not often that one's mother gets to hear a nice introduction.
I am delighted to be here to address all of you and to give you an update on the state of the Peace Corps today as Mrs. Ahmanson said the work of the more than 6500 Peace Corps volunteer working around the world in needy countries. During lunch we were visiting here at the table and earlier during the social Mr. Chang said to me he knew some of my predecessors, Lin Chou, and others and said "but you look so young" and I was reminded of the story when I first started my position as the Director I was visiting with our Peace Corps volunteers in Poland and the United States Ambassador to Poland had a very nice reception for me and invited all of our volunteers that were working in Poland in education, environmental work and health care, as well as many members of the Diplomatic Corps posted to Warsaw. One of the diplomats came up to me and said "So you'll be teaching English here?" I said "No, actually I'm the Director of the Peace Corps and I'm visiting with the volunteers and I'm going back to Washington." He seemed a little surprised and he said "Well, are you going to be doing health care work here?" I said "No, actually I'm the Director of the Peace Corps and I'm visiting the volunteers and going back to Washington." He said "So, you're going to be doing environmental work here?" I said "No, I'm the Director of the Peace Corps." He said "Could you tell me who's this reception for anyway." I said "Well, actually it's for me. I'm the Director of the Peace Corps and..." So that's how I began my job three years ago, and I've worked very hard at looking older in the past three years and given events in Washington, frankly, that's not particularly difficult these days.
Being here in Los Angeles and in California, though, home of the entertainment industry I was reminded of an E-mail I received last year from our Country Director in Pakistan who was telling me the story of a young Peace Corps volunteer who was staying with a host family in East Pakistan and explaining the Peace Corps. That it was started by President Kennedy in 1961 and one of the members of the host family said "Well, didn't one of the Kennedy marry Schwartnegger?" And the Peace Corps volunteer said "No, actually Maria Shriver married Arnold Schwartnegger, but her father, Sargeant Shriver was the first Director of the Peace Corps. Well, then the young host family member said "Well, then could the Peace Corps use its Kennedy-Shriver-Schwartnegger connections to get more Arnold Schwartnegger films into East Pakistan." So, the range of the Peace Corps today, ladies and gentlemen, is enormous, but I'm proud to be here and certainly proud to have the introduction by Mrs. Ahmanson who gave so much of herself and her time on the President's Advisory Committee to the Peace Corps. I want to thank her for her service and for her continuing good service here in community work here in Los Angeles and California generally. I'm delighted to have the chance to give you a sense of the Peace Corps today.
I thought that today would be an interesting opportunity to certainly look back and to look ahead. Certainly to look at where we started in the early days of the Peace Corps and just as importantly to concentrate where we're going in the years ahead. It's certainly appropriate to do so because in a few short weeks, on November 22, will mark the 35th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy and certainly as my third year now as the Director of the Peace Corps, a job that I think frankly is the best job in Washington, but as a son of Massachussets and as an Irish- Catholic son of Massachussets, a chance to direct the Peace Corps arguably President Kennedy's greatest legacy, it's a particular honor and privilege. But in that time, that 35 years since President Kennedy's passing, much has changed in the world.
When John Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, a main foreign policy concern, of course, was the Cold War. The Cold War was a frigid military standoff and that defined certainly an awful lot of the political debate at that time. Our missiles were pointed directly at the Soviet Union and vice versa with mutually assured destruction serving as the principal safety switch. But the Cold War was about more than throw weights, or tanks, or missiles. It was also an intense ideological battle that was being waged between respective countries around the world. In the minds and hearts of citizens of the world this great ideological battle and its intellectual and spiritual battle was in many ways between communism and democracy.
So in this front then- Senator Kennedy believed that the United States was in danger of losing, in part because, unlike the Soviet Union, we seemed unwilling to invest our human capital in the future of those other nations around the world that were just emerging from colonialism into independence. On November 2 1960, shortly after his speech at Ann Arbor, Senator Kennedy gave a powerful speech here in California, up in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. In his speech Senator Kennedy looked with a critical eye at our commitment to other nations around the world in comparison with the then-Soviet Union's and listen to what he said: "The fact of the matter is that out Moscow and Peking, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany there's hundreds of men, women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses, in those institutes prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism. In short, the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain had what you might call a "communism corps." The United States, however, had no equivalent, no organization anywhere near it that would allow ordinary Americans a chance to push for progress, for peace on behalf of our country by interacting with other peoples and countries around the world. The only instrument we had for engaging with other citizens around the world was the foreign service which Senator Kennedy thought had its own limitations at that time. Again, from his speech: "The key arm of our foreign service abroad are the ambassadors and members of our missions. Too many have been chosen who are ill-equipped and are ill-briefed. Campaign contributions have been regarded as a substitute for experience. Men who lack compassion for the needy here in the United States were sent abroad to represent us in countries which were marked by disease and poverty and illiteracy and ignorance and they did not identify us with those causes and fight against them. They did not demonstrate compassion." Well, Senator Kennedy wanted to change how the people of developing countries thought about America and the American people. He saw a wide gulf in the perception that existed certainly in the world and how the world in turn perceived the United States.
He had a plan to involve ourselves more actively and passionately in those causes and in those issues and he argued for the establishment of what of course became the Peace Corps. Senator Kennedy envisioned the United States sending talented, compassionate and energetic men and women from every background in the United States to the far corners of the globe to teach people of different races and cultures and to in turn learn from them. At the Cow Palace he said again: "I am convinced that the pool of people in this country of ours anxious to respond to public service is greater than it has ever been in the history of our country. I'm convinced there are men and women dedicated to freedom who are able to be missionaries, not only for freedom and peace but to join in a world-wide struggle against poverty and disease and ignorance. And John Kennedy's dream of having men and women serve their country by helping people in the developing worlds became a reality in March 1961 when he created the Peace Corps and since that time, there have been
150,000 Americans who have entered the service of the Peace Corps. But what isn't the same in those 35 to 37 years is the world itself. Over the last three decades the world as a whole has moved closer toward achieving some of the very ideals of freedom and self-determination that can be found in the Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and the United Nations Charter. And certainly while the world is marred by tragic conflicts and tragedies and wars, we have seen many areas for great hope. We've seen Africa emerge from colonialism to independence in many part of Africa, with a healthy number of African nations embracing democracy and while there are still enormous pockets of poverty we've seen Latin America arise from years of dictatorship and revolution into a collection of very budding and thriving democracies with great economic futures. And more than ever before the United States itself has become a beckon of hope to the rest of the world or a beckon of freedom, a beckon of democracy in personal enterprise. And while they still face enormous challenges certainly the governments and the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe have at long last regained their long-fought for independence and today are building institutions of a free society. So the Cold War is over and the world won and I think John F. Kennedy played significant part in the way the world looks today. And the Peace Corps, perhaps his greatest legacy, has played an important role in changing how the United States perceives the rest of the world and how the rest of the world perceives us and let me explain way. In 1960, again John Kennedy, cited these statistics: 70% of all new U.S. foreign service officers had no skill at foreign language at all. Only 3 of 44 Americans in the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade could speak Yugoslavian; in Athens only 6 of 79 Americans spoke Greek; in New Delhi no American, zero, could speak an Indian dialect fluently, and indeed our Ambassador to Paris could not speak French. " We cannot understand what is in the minds of other people," President Kennedy said "if we cannot even speak to them." Well, President Kennedy was worried that our ignorance of other nations would have a profound and long-term implication for America's role in the Cold War era. He wanted to transform our ignorance into knowledge, our indifference into compassion and with the Peace Corps he did just that. In my view, when you look around in the history of the Peace Corps you would see that really the Peace Corps and the work of our volunteers have fulfilled President Kennedy's vision. Working for two or more years in thousands of towns and villages in the developing worlds and even today, and especially in the new republics that were once part of the Soviet Union, Peace Corps volunteers are often the first Americans people would ever meet in those countries. Volunteers are learning and speaking 170 languages or dialects as we sit here today. They've become acquainted with local customs; they've worked side by side with host country nationals to solve problems. In so doing, they've made important and lasting contributions to world development and to world peace. Just as importantly, volunteers often use what they saw and did and learned in the Peace Corps for the rest of their lives. Today, former Peace Corps volunteers are now serving as U.S. Ambassadors in Algeria, Armenia, Guyana, Malawi, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal; about 15% of the staff of the Agency for International Development is comprised of returned Peace Corps volunteers. Most of the mission directors and deputy mission directors are former volunteers. Strobe Talbott related to me recently in a conference call he had on Bosnia with Special Envoy Halbrook, the U.S.Ambassador to Bosnia, Bob Gelbard and Ambassador to Macedonia, Chris Hill, he realized that he was on the phone talking to a Peace Corps Country Director, Richard Halbrook, and two Peace Corps volunteers, Bob Gelbard and Chris Hill. They've now risen to important leadership positions in the foreign service.
In large measure, Peace Corps volunteers have done what President Kennedy hoped they would do. They've gone out, they've done important work, speaking of important work, thank you, and not a week goes by when an Ambassador or a Minister will come into my office where they will thank the Peace Corps for the important work that our volunteers are contributing to their country. So while the Peace Corps remains separate and independent from the day-to-day operations of policy, our own Ambassadors are emphatic in their belief in the support of the Peace Corps. They realize the important difference the Peace Corps volunteers make.
The U.S. Ambassador to Nepal recently had this to say: "I know first hand what a difference the Peace Corps has made in Nepal and even if I did not know it I would be reminded by every Nepali I meet from the King and Prime Minister to the ordinary Nepalis at the village level." So it's heartening to know that for the majority of volunteers their time in the Peace Corps is only a beginning to what becomes a career in public service in literally every walk of life. Former volunteers are now leaders in American business and industry from Robert Haas the President of Levi Strauss to Precilla Wrubel , the President of the Nature Comapny to Gordon Radley, the President of Lucas Films to Mike McCaskey, the owner of the Chicago Bears, all former Peace Corps volunteers. The author, Paul Theroux, the writer, Chris Matthews, all served their country as Peace Corps volunteers. In the non-profit field, Elaine Jones from the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund or Jonathan Lash, the President of the World Resources Institute, all began as Peace Corps volunteers.
At the Cow Palace, again, Senator Kennedy argued that more Americans were eager to serve in this new kind of public service than ever before. He was right then and I think that spirit can certainly be felt today. Today, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, tells people wherever she goes that her service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran was one of the most important experiences of her life. California Congressman Sam Farr will say the same thing, as would Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut about his service as a Peace Corps volunteer. In the Congress today there are six returned Peace Corps volunteers, wonderfully divided -- 3 Republicans and 3 Democrats. While I can certainly go on with a long list of notables who have served in the Peace Corps, but I wouldn't be telling the whole Peace Corps story if I did that if I didn't note the tens of thousands of ordinary Americans who served as volunteers and who are making a remarkable difference in their communities across our country and certainly the future for prospects of future Peace Corps volunteers is equally bright. Indeed, what we're seeing tod ay is a resurgence interest in the Peace Corps. Last year alone 10% more inquiries into the Peace Corps from Americans asking for information and wanting to become Peace Corps volunteers. So from the early days of the Cow Palace speech of then- Senator Kennedy to today, the Peace Corps has grown been enhanced and I think it's fair to say that President Kennedy could not have imagined how dynamic and how successful the Peace Corps would become.
Today the 6800 volunteers working in 80 countries, including such distant places as Ukraine, South Africa, Jordan. Last week we sent volunteers to Mozambique and Bangladesh for the first time ever. And our volunteers are helping children to get a basic education, helping communities to preserve and protect their environment, working with people and international organizations to prevent the spread of diseases such as AIDS and they're offering advice to entrepreneurs who want to build their own businesses. So even as we remain true to the Peace Corps' original mission we're also expanding ways to strengthen it and expand upon it. We've established the Crisis Corps, a new program that enables experienced volunteers and recently-returned volunteers to use their language skills in the cross-cultural understanding that they gain during their own service as Peace Corps volunteers to serve in short-term capacities in humanitarian relief and natural disaster relief. Recently more than a dozen volunteers helped with humanitarian aid in the Dominican Republic after Hurricane Georges and we anticipate the Crisis Corps will soon get started in Central America to help overcome the devastation that has occurred in recent weeks. But it would be imprudent to think that because we've achieved so much we have little else to do. We may have realized Kennedy's visions but there are too many problems left in the world as you all well know to congratulate ourselves just yet.
As a nation and more broadly as a world of nations we're confronting a very challenging time because while the Cold War is over we are in the process of defining a new era. We've seen peace come to places that had known the word in modern times from Central America to Southern Africa to Northern Ireland and as a nation we've reached out to many of these countries to help them better themselves. So in view at the Peace Corps now is not the time to revert to the kind of indifference we experienced before the Peace Corps was started. What form of indifference would take place in the ?90s context? While my concern would be that we might, for example, think that because we can now reach half the world over the Internet and indeed we can call ourselves "globe trotters" even as we sit in our own living rooms and as we can send faxes to the Philippines or E-mail to Ecuador that does not mean, particularly, that we understand these cultures. Technology is no substitute for the face-to-face contact for working as Peace Corps volunteers do side-by-side with people of other countries and cultures. The global village that we hear so much about is an enticing concept certainly and the main thrust of it is certainly true. WE are more interconnected than ever before. Indeed that's a good thing that technology has made possible, but the connection that we still need the most is the personal kind. We need to sit not only across our computer terminals from each other, but next to each other in communities and homes. We need to reach out to each other not only through the touch of a telephone number but with a handshake and an embrace that lead to the bonds of friendship. Certainly achieving lasting peace is at heart a matter of recognizing our commonality and our shared humanity and for many Peace Corps volunteers what is most important and indeed most impressive about their experience is not discovering what divides us but certainly what unites us as peoples and cultures the world.
So for the Peace Corps of the 21st Century we will be working on these and other issues to make sure that we remain and stay on the cutting edge and to do honor to our past as President Kennedy first outlined. A week before he was elected in concluding his speech at the Cow Palace he quoted the ancient philosopher Archimedes when he said "Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world." Well, President Kennedy and his generation of idealist and hardworking and dedicated men and women did indeed move the world toward freedom and one of the ways he did this was by establishing the Peace Corps -- its own magnificent fulcrum. Today, we continue to hold fast for peace and progress in the countries where our volunteers work and we're prepared to work for the challenges that await us in the next century and I think the growing sense of service and the spirit of volunteerism that exists in our own country, President Kennedy was not someone to say "Stop, sit tight, we've done enough" -- his own life was cut far too short but we can nourish ourselves in what did survive his assassination - his vision for a strong America, his belief in public service, his commitment to international engagement in ways that the Peace Corps does so singularly.
So, as we recall our own nation's sorrow, what happened 35 years ago this month, we can take comfort by looking ahead to the promise of the new century, the resurgent interest in the Peace Corps, the important ways our volunteers are serving America and the domestic dividend that returned Peace Corps volunteers bring to our country.
Thank you very much.
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Story Source: Los Angeles World Affairs Council
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