Address Before the Great Decisions Meeting

Little Rock, AR | April 9, 1964

Fifty years ago we did not know how to eliminate typhoid fever, scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria or paralytic polio. But we found out. Twenty-five years ago, we didn't know haw to harness atomic energy, but we found Out. Today we do not yet know how to go the moon, but we are going to get there. And we may not yet know exactly how to go about ending poverty and abolishing war, but we can do it.

Tonight in the presence of Wilbur Mills and Oren Harris, I would like to begin by paying a tribute to the Congress of the United States. I do so not because my good friends are the Chairman of two of the most important Committees of the House. I do so not because Congress has been criticized a great deal over the last five years. I do so because Congress had the courage and the vision to start the Peace Corps.

This may not impress some of you. But it would if you knew more about Congress.

Congress doesn't like to start new agencies-- because most government agencies neither die nor fade away.

Congress doesn't like to appropriate money--because then new taxes are necessary. And no one likes new taxes.

Congress doesn't like to start new programs, especially when most of the so-called "experts" on the subject are skeptical.

But Congress has a deep faith in the American people, and that faith was never better exemplified than by the Congressional approval given to the Peace Corps at the very time when this new idea was being ridiculed and scoffed at not only in the United States but all around the world.

Congress agreed to give the Peace Corps a try. The courage and the vision of that decision has since been acclaimed on all sides. One Washington writer has even gone so far as to declare that the Peace Corps is the only agency which enjoys the combined simultaneous support of Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater. In Washington, that's the highest test of all.

The Peace Corps has also passed a vital test abroad. Every country which now has Volunteers has asked for more. Two dozen countries which do not have Volunteers have requested them.

And the world-wide Communist press constantly attacks the Volunteers as "imperialist spies." They have even promoted me into an "agent of Wall Street imperialism." Not bad for a Democrat.

We cannot blame the Kremlin for its cries of pain. Imagine what our reaction would be if Our newspapers were reporting that a Soviet or Chinese Peace Corps, 10,000 strong, had been welcomed into -- invited into - 46 Countries; that 10,000 dedicated young Communists were working in the schools and hospitals and villages of Asia, Africa, and Latin America at the invitation of host governments! How would we react to news that half of the school children it many countries were being taught by friendly, hard-working members of a Soviet Peace Corps?

What a Congressional investigation we would have then!

If such a Soviet or Chinese Peace Corps were in operation, I know what one of the Great Decisions of 1964 would be: How do we meet the challenge of this far-flung Communist Corps?

But we do not need to worry. For once, the United States acted upon a big idea first. Too often in the past, we merely reacted to something our adversary did. It is good to be acting instead of reacting.

And, as far as the Peace Corps is concerned, we do not need to worry about what the Communists can do.

Starting a Peace Corps is the one thing Mr. Khrushchev can't do. He doesn't dare let his young men and women learn about the world beyond the wall. There will be no freedom to travel for Soviet youth; freedom to live in foreign homes and join in the life of private families abroad, no freedom to listen to the sounds of free men in debate.

Soviet men and women can be permitted short propaganda missions or to live in Embassy compounds. But Khrushchev does not trust them to work and serve by themselves, on their own, in the schools and in the homes of proud and independent peoples.

Maybe it would be good for all of us if large numbers of Soviet youth could get a chance to see the outside world, freely. The ideas they would take home, the questions they would ask might bring about or speed up a peaceful change within Soviet society. But dictators in authoritarian countries have never been interested in freedom or change within their own countries.

America was able to launch the Peace Corps -- to trust its young people to let them loose in the world to question, to teach, to work and to learn -- because freedom is our first principle, because individual initiative is our secret weapon.

But the Peace Corps is launched, and it is working. So its future is not one of the Great Decisions of 1964.

There are some Great Decisions coming up in November, but I am not going to talk about them ... not because I'm afraid to ...but because I'm confident of the answers Arkansas will give.

Instead, let me present to you a great decision now before the Congress and the people, a question that will be decided before November.

Will we undertake wholeheartedly the war against poverty that President Johnson has proposed?

The facts are clear. We know that almost one million young men and women between the ages of 16 and 21 are both out of school and out of work.

We know that many of these will remain in poverty, a burden 
on society -- on all taxpayers -- unless something is done to train them, to give them hope, to give them a chance.

We know that there are over one million poverty-stricken, fatherless families, with mothers unable to support the children in a decent life.

We know that there are over four million rural families trying to live on less than $250 a month -- over a Million rural families trying to live on $80 a month.

We know that there are over three million families whose head is over 65, whose income is less than $3,000 a year --over a million and a half such families whose income is less than $1,000 a year.

As President Johnson said to Congress, "There are millions of Americans -- one-fifth of our people -- who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us."

We know all this. The question is: What are we going to do about it?

The answer to this question goes deeper than any specific program, goes beyond partisanship, goes to the heart of our national life and purpose. Mankind today--we in America today-hold in our hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. We can conquer poverty and we can eliminate war.

Fifty years ago we did not know how to eliminate typhoid fever, scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria or paralytic polio. But we found out. Twenty-five years ago, we didn't know haw to harness atomic energy, but we found out. Today we do not yet know how to go the moon, but we are going to get there. And we may not yet know exactly how to go about ending poverty and abolishing war, but we can do it.

Twenty civilizations before ours, Arnold Toynbee tells us, have perished because they could not solve these twin problems of War and Poverty.

The Great Decision for us therefore is: Do we have the vision and the courage and, above all, the will to solve these problems – to take action in time--to avoid the fatal flaw of too little and too late?

May Craig, the Washington correspondent from Maine, who has seen Presidents and Congresses come and go, recently uttered a cry from her sharp, critical mind and big, New England heart. "Unless there is a change, deep down, in the American people," she wrote, "...then we are witnesses to the decline and fall of the American Republic."

Many things were bothering her, but basically, it was a softness of our spirit that she sensed and cried out against.

And perhaps Premier Khrushchev is reflecting a sagging of the spirit even in the dogmatic Communist Party, in his recent remark that the important thing is that we should have more to eat -- good goulash...

Fortunately, among young Americans there are more hopeful and optimistic signs. In my own work I have seen enough to make me believe that, given the chance, Americans will be up to the task.

96,435 Americans have applied to join the Peace Corps, just three years.

7,754 Volunteers are now overseas, in some 2,400 towns, villages and farms (compared to the some 300 posts of the State Department). In September the Peace Corps will be 10,000 strong in 50 countries.

There is David Crozier, a Peace Corps Volunteer from Missouri, who died in an airplane crash in South America. In a letter to his parents, he wrote: "Should it come to it, I had rather give my life trying to help someone than to have to give my life looking down a gun barrel at them."

And there is Willi Unsoéld, the Peace Corps Representative in Nepal, who took leave from the Peace Corps to climb Mount Everest, the first man ever to traverse that mighty peak. He called the climb a vacation from the Peace Corps.

Of that climb, which cost him nine toes (he now has the slogan, "Have Toe, Will Travel"), of the freezing night at 28,500 feet, he says: "It was not so much a contest with nature or a competition with other men -- it was primarily a struggle with ourselves — a struggle within each man."

And that is the heart of the problem of peace and poverty: Can we, the richest and most powerful people on earth, can we who have been so blessed, bring out the best within us to do what we know we ought to do at home against poverty; overseas for peace?

President Kennedy once said that politics is like football. If you see daylight, go through the hole.

That is what happened in the case of the Peace Corps. The President and the Congress saw the daylight, and went through the hole. They decided to try, and it worked.

Now, President Johnson is determined to make a break through in the struggle against poverty. We are going to find the daylight on this age-old problem. If Congress accepts our proposals for a Job Corps, for a corps of Volunteers for America, for community action programs, for a frontal attack on poverty, bringing together all the present efforts for a concerted drive, we will go through the hole.

With the Peace Corps, we have shown how Americans, young in spirit, can turn an idea into action, a dream into reality. We an do the same in the war against pocerty.

President Johnson declared this a war against poverty in order to mobilize the full will of America. In war, we give everything we have. For peace in the world and full opportunity at home, we need to give fully of ourselves, just as we would in war.

The final test will not be in statistics, not in the number of countries served abroad or jobs found at home, not in numbers of teachers provided or schools built or slums destroyed or workers trained. Premier Khrushchev to the contrary, it will not be in terms of "good goulash." Rather, it will be Unsoeld's test on Mount Everest, the test within us: Have we done our best, have we given all we can?

For one Peace Corps Volunteer the answer came recently in a small African village. A little boy pointed to him and said to his mother, "Look, there's a white man." "No, son," she said, "that's not a white man, that's a Peace Corps Volunteer." We are working for the day when no one, anywhere, will say -"Look, here is a white man," or "Look, there is a colored man," or "Look, there is a poor man."

We are working for the day when they say only, "Look, there's an American."