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Spirit of Innovation

The young, innocent-looking couple went into a photo booth to have their picture taken. The photograph looks much more intimate than most of the many other photos of John F. (Jack) and Jackie Kennedy. It was in 1954, just two years after Jack had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Less than a decade later this couple would help transform the United States.

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Vending booth photo. John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

At age 43, John F. Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected to the White House. In his campaign for the presidency, he spoke about a “new generation“ which had experienced World War II and was willing to assume political responsibility. "But I believe that the times require imagination and perseverance. I am asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier," Kennedy said on July 15, 1960, in his acceptance speech at the National Convention of the Democratic Party in Los Angeles. The New Frontier became his slogan. And just like in his inaugural address half a year later, Kennedy did not make promises, but talked about challenges: "And we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960's—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats."

Among those he counted peace and war, ignorance, prejudice, and poverty. To meet these challenges, "the old ways will not do."
For the famous Washington Post cartoonist Herblock, two somewhat deaf old men, Germany‘s chancellor Konrad Adenauer, aged 85, and the 70-year-old French president Charles de Gaulle, represented that past era and "the old ways." That the two European statesmen signed the Elysée friendship treaty on January 22, 1963 was viewed by the Kennedy administration as an attempt to limit America‘s role in Europe. When the American president visited the old continent in June 1963, he was trying to leave a bigger impression than de Gaulle had during his celebrated visit to the Federal Republic in September 1962.

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A 1962 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation

Kennedy intended to prove that the United States was still the West Europeans‘, and especially the West Germans‘ most important ally—and he succeeded, but it would be wrong to describe his presidency as the golden age of German-American or transatlantic relations. However, with his youthfulness, his charm, his intellectualism, and the spirit of innovation which emanated from his administration the young president reached out to a young generation all over the world in a way that no other American president in the 20th century and very few other individuals have been able to do.
Some of the impetus for the early student movement derived from Kennedy. Inspired by their president, young men like Ron Kovic joined the military to serve their country in the struggle against communism. James Meredith interpreted Kennedy's words as a call to fight for civil rights. Many others served in the Peace Corps. This voluntary developmental and assistance service would give the idealism of young Americans an internationally visible outlet. Initially, Kennedy had no clear plan for such an organization. At two in the morning on 14 October 1960 he gave an improvised speech to more than 10.000 students who had waited for hours to see him at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor:

"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. … So I come here tonight to go to bed! But I also come here tonight to ask you to join in the effort… I come here tonight asking your support for this country over the next decade. Thank you."

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Poster for the Peace Corps. Peace Corps

After the election Kennedy's transition team received more than 20.000 letters from young men and women inquiring about how to apply. JFK's brother-in-law R. Sargent Shriver was asked to draw up a plan for what would become the Peace Corps: a new agency founded by executive order in March 1961. It was independent of the State Department and protected from the influence of the CIA. During their two-year service, the volunteers working as teachers, engineers, social workers, agricultural experts, and even sports coaches would receive no pay, and live like and with the people in the countries they were being sent to, doing their little part to make the world a better place and promote mutual understanding. And through their new experiences they would help "make America a better place" after returning home. Conservative groups like the "Daughters of the American Revolution" were worried about how these young Americans might have changed. Kennedy told Shriver: "these are the guys I’d like to get into the Foreign Service." By late 1963 more than 7000 young people had served in the Peace Corps, which exists to this day. It was the model for similar institutions like the Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst which was founded in Bonn in the presence of John F. Kennedy on June 24, 1963.

 

Andreas Etges


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