Address to the National Federation of Catholic College Students

Minneapolis, MN | August 27, 1963

As it has turned out, young Americans desperately wanted the chance to serve their fellow man and to exercise responsibility. The Peace Corps gave them that opportunity, and the response was magnificent. It has come from all walks of American life, from all creeds, from every geographical area of the nation.

I want to read tonight a few paragraphs from one of Russia's foremost poets.

His name is Yergeny Yevtushenko. He is 30---just a few years older than you---but his message already has stirred the minds and aroused the hearts of young Russians.

It is a message of conviction, passion, and commitment. Above all it is a message of ideals.

There are dogmatists in America, of course, who argue that Communist ideals are empty. They say the march of Soviet power has served to conceal the bankruptcy of their ideology. They cry that the Soviets are moved by power and the politics of power, not by poetry.

But are they? This year 14,000 Russian people jammed into the Moscow Sports Palace to hear Yevtushenko recite his poetry. Ten thousand, most of them young, came to give him a rousing sendoff before he left for Cuba. And twenty thousand wrote in praise when one poem came off of the press--- a response yet to be accorded any single work of an American writer.

What is Yevtushenko saying to the people of Russia? Listen:

"It is the more fortunate nations, those favored by their geographical position and historical circumstances, that today show a grosser spirit and a weaker hold on moral principles. (He is talking about us!) Nor would I call those nations happy despite all the signs of their prosperity. Never has the Biblical saying, 'Man does not live by bread alone', had such a ring of truth as it does today.

"Man has a need to dream. However prosperous, a man will always be dissatisfied if he has no high ideal. And, whatever devices he may use to conceal his dissatisfaction even from himself, these will only make him feel more dissatisfied. But even if the rich feel burdened by the lack of an ideal, to those who suffer real deprivation an ideal is a spiritual content with the power to draw diverse humanity to its cause.

We still have our vision, too----the vision of a world in which the rule of liberty under law is the possession of all men and not just a privileged few. We believe in a free and open society, accommodating all men and all ideals, dedicated to the truth that all men are born equal.

We are committed to making that vision a reality. The burning question of our day is: "Can we do it?"

Can we communicate that vision to other people?

In the face of a dynamic, determined Communist idealism, can we live what we believe so eloquently and persuasively that other men will believe and live it, too?

There are those who say we will fail. They say the flame of idealism which illuminates the first pages of our history is being smothered by the weight of material plenty which has made America the richest country in the world.

They argue that young Americans particularly have gone soft. That you have become morally and mentally flabby. That you don't have what it takes anymore.

I heard these voices of doom and despair loudest when the Peace Corps was just beginning two years ago. I was told again and again that “Kennedy's Kiddie Korps” was to be a "haven for beatniks and draft dodgers." All of us were warned that in future years this nation would suffer indeed when today's youth was called on to lead it.

That was just two short years ago. Today the record that American youth has made in Peace Corps service stands as a dramatic refutation of these charges. And further opportunities awaiting you in the Peace Corps make it possible for young Americans repeatedly to take up the challenge.

As it has turned out, young Americans desperately wanted the chance to serve their fellow man and to exercise responsibility. The Peace Corps gave them that opportunity, and the response was magnificent. It has come from all walks of American life, from all creeds, from every geographical area of the nation.

Today there are 5000 Peace Corps Volunteers at work around the world and almost three thousand more in training. And just as it was necessary to revise our estimate of the worth of young Americans it is plain now that our traditional concepts of leadership stand in need of some revision, too.

A leader, according to these concepts, is an authoritarian figure, a commander

These two Volunteers are leading people, but they are leaders who give no orders. And they have won acceptance. When the people of Bani heard that the government was going to transfer the two Volunteers, they held a town meeting. One of the villagers stood up and told the government official: "There have never been civil disturbances in this area, but if you take away our friends, there will be the worst riots you have ever seen." The local Catholic priest, who had been working with the Volunteers, arose and added: "And if there is a riot, I'll lead it."

Very few villages get that worked up over Americans, but in villages all over the world, volunteers are creating strong bonds of understanding between themselves and local people. "The Peace Corps," wrote Father. R. J. Henle, Vice President of St. Louis University, "is giving Latin America a new view of the United States. They see love instead of power."

What kind of young Americans are serving in the Peace Corps? I think you will be interested in that. The answer comes from many different sources.

Only recently I received a letter from a United Brethren medical doctor in Nepal, Dr. Robert Berry. He has been treating the Peace Corps' William Unsoeld, who participated in the recent American conquest of Mt. Everest. Dr. Berry wrote:

One of the satisfying experiences I have encountered in Nepal has been my association with the Peace Corps officers and Volunteers. Prior to this association, the Peace Corps to me was an idea or a program. Since I have seen them at work in their various jobs and under conditions which frequently are difficult, my respect for these individuals and for the work they are doing is unlimited. One of the things which impresses me most is that in a country such as Nepal, the only resources which are available to many of the Volunteers are the resources which they have within these young people have shown their resources themselves, and frequently to be ingenious and seemingly unlimited. Without hesitancy, I feel that these people are missionaries, although they do not fit the traditional image of what a missionary should be. Actually, this is fortunate. The Volunteers, however, have as the basis of their work the genuine trait of selfless giving, which is to me the fundamental prerequisite for any missionary."

There are hundreds of opportunities available in the Peace Corps. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In isolated villages or in great cosmopolitan cities. In the classroom of a one-room primary school or in the research library of a university. On a demonstration farm in the foothills of the Himalayans in Nepal or on a surveying trek across the savannah of Tanganyika. Whatever your major, whatever your vocation, there are places of service. But every one of them requires a personal commitment. Every one of them demands patience, fortitude, tolerance, maturity, and character.