Evanston RoundTable, June 9, 2021
In his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy famously told Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” They have been called “the 17 most inspiring words in 20th century American history.” Anyone old enough to vote (and many who weren’t) in 1961 can still remember the cadence of the president’s delivery, the familiar Boston accent, the insanely naive hope that America could benefit from the loving care of its citizens.
That spirit is dead, gone with trust in government and a decent respect for those with whom we disagree. The “gimme mine” spirit prevails now. But if we really wanted to make America great again (and who doesn’t?), we should re-instate President Kennedy’s plea. What can we do to help America, a country seemingly at war with itself?
I am motivated to ask that question by something I saw online recently, namely a copy of the original letter from President Kennedy welcoming those who first applied to be Peace Corps volunteers. “I was gratified to learn,” the President wrote on White House stationery dated May 22, 1961, “of the many capable people who have applied to serve in the Peace Corps and of the wide range of skills you represent. I hope that those of you who are chosen will carry your mission to these lands in such a way as to demonstrate the desire of Americans from all walks of life to be of service.”
Less than 10 years later I was one of them, serving in Liberia, West Africa, at the end of the decade. And while my experience wasn’t a particularly good one (due to a mismatch of needed work skills on their part and an unwillingness to be isolated on mine), it was a formative event in my young life. I failed, but in many ways it was a glorious failure.
AmeriCorps was founded in 1965 to be a domestic Peace Corps. What if every high school graduate and dropout was required to take a gap year before moving on to college or work? What if they were given a few choices for service opportunities — AmeriCorps or comparable public service work? What if they could extend that year to two or three or a lifetime of service to their country? What if some of those people could be directed to help the nation rebuild its crumbling infrastructure, not to take jobs away from qualified professionals, but to work hand in hand with them to learn valuable skills?
Shortly after I returned from the Peace Corps in 1970 I got the dreaded letter from Uncle Sam, the one that started out “Greetings,” the one directing me to an Army recruiting station downtown to take my military physical. I had no desire to fight in Vietnam. But I also had no desire to flee to Canada or shoot myself in the toe or take hallucinogens or some of the other insane things young men did to get out of the draft. I didn’t even bother to find a reserve unit that would require only a few weeks of my time a year. I wanted to do something worthy of the youthful principle that was firing my imagination and guiding my thinking (much to my parents’ chagrin).
Amazingly, there was just such an option. I applied to be a conscientious objector. C.O.’s were chosen, after submitting a lengthy form and undergoing an interview, by the candidate’s local draft board. Mine was on Belmont Avenue. On the evening I went for my interview my dad came with me. He was opposed to what I was doing—being a C.O. during World War II, his generation’s war, must have been highly unpopular, maybe even a career-ender. But he wanted to show his support for my heartfelt conviction. He waited outside the conference room in case they asked to hear from him. They didn’t. I remember a handful of men, middle aged, white, still wearing their dress shirts and ties and suits from work, asking me a few mundane questions. “How do you think it went?” my father asked me in the car on the ride home. “OK, I guess,” I ventured. “We’ll see.”
Sure enough, two weeks later I got the letter granting me C.O. status. I held two public service jobs in my two years. The first was surgical orderly at Skokie Valley Community Hospital, as it was then called. How naïve was I? When I saw “C Section” on the schedule I asked the nurses in all seriousness, “Is there an A Section and a B Section?” This caused much hilarity at my expense. After a year I was allowed to switch jobs and became the first bus driver for the Council for Jewish Elderly in Rogers Park. One of my clients was a Russian immigrant. When I failed to pick her up on time she lit into me. We became the best of friends. Both jobs were huge learning experiences—working with doctors and nurses at the hospital and with social workers and the elderly at CJE.
Some people will say I shirked my civic duty by forgoing the war in Vietnam. I understand and respect that opinion. But here’s the thing: nothing made me prouder to be an American than knowing my country would allow me to uphold my principles of secular pacificism, even during a war. I don’t think many other countries would have done that.
There are so many things young people could get out of a national service mandate. Pride in their country, the opportunity to give back in return for the blessing of living here, and the prospect of learning skills that could benefit them in the future to name just a few.
That would be one big way to answer President Kennedy’s long-ago call to “ask what you can do for your country.”