The Founding Moment

One of the signature achievements of President John F. Kennedy was creating the Peace Corps, a new agency and a new opportunity for Americans to serve their country and their world. The creation of the Peace Corps dates back to an unexpected moment and impromptu speech more than 55 years ago.

President John F. Kennedy's University of Michigan Speech

After a day of campaigning for the presidency, Senator John F. Kennedy arrived at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on October 14, 1960, at 2:00 a.m., to get some sleep, not to propose the establishment of an international volunteer organization. Members of the press had retired for the night, believing that nothing interesting would happen.

But 10,000 students at the university were waiting to hear the presidential candidate speak, and it was there on the steps of the Michigan Union that a bold new experiment in public service was launched. The assembled students heard the future president issue a challenge: How many of them, he asked, would be willing to serve their country and the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world?

The reaction was both swift and enthusiastic, and since 1961, over 220,000 Americans have responded to this enduring challenge. And since then, the Peace Corps has demonstrated how the power of an idea can capture the imagination of an entire nation.

Following up on the idea he launched at the University of Michigan, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961. Three days later, R. Sargent Shriver became its first Director. Deployment was rapid: Volunteers began serving in five countries in 1961. In just under six years, Director Shriver developed programs in 55 countries with more than 14,500 Volunteers.

Full text of Kennedy's remarks

"I want to express my thanks to you, as a graduate of the Michigan of the East, Harvard University.

"I come here tonight delighted to have the opportunity to say one or two words about this campaign that is coming into the last three weeks.

"I think in many ways it is the most important campaign since 1933, mostly because of the problems which press upon the United States, and the opportunities which will be presented to us in the 1960s. The opportunity must be seized, through the judgment of the President, and the vigor of the executive, and the cooperation of the Congress. Through these I think we can make the greatest possible difference.

"How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.

"Therefore, I am delighted to come to Michigan, to this university, because unless we have those resources in this school, unless you comprehend the nature of what is being asked of you, this country can't possibly move through the next 10 years in a period of relative strength.

"So I come here tonight to go to bed! But I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort...

"This university...this is the longest short speech I've ever made...therefore, I'll finish it! Let me say in conclusion, this University is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I'm sure you recognize it. Therefore, I do not apologize for asking for your support in this campaign. I come here tonight asking your support for this country over the next decade.

"Thank you."