Providing us a study in contrasts, on this day in 1961, Pres. John F. Kennedy signs Executive Order 10924, officially launching the Peace Corps. Concerned with the growing tide of revolutionary sentiment in the Third World, Kennedy saw the Peace Corps as a means of countering the stereotype of the “Ugly American” and “Yankee imperialism,” especially in the emerging nations of post-colonial Africa and Asia.
Also on this day, exactly ten years later, a bomb explodes in the US Capitol building in DC, causing an estimated $300,000 ($2 million 2020 USD) in damage but injuring none. The radical group calling itself the Weather Underground (not the forecasting app) claimed credit for the bombing, done in protest of the ongoing Nixon-driven Laos invasion.
The Weathermen themselves were a radical faction of the Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS; they advocated violent means to transform American society, with philosophical foundations deeply rooted in Marxist theology. In 1969 The original Weathermen, the “action faction” of the SDS, was led by Bernardine Dohrn, James Mellen, and Mark Rudd and advocated street fighting as a method for weakening US imperialism.
From October 8 to 11, 1969, Weathermen worked to organize thousands of young people in a direct assault on the police, whom they called “pigs.” The group called this a “National Action,” but newspapers called it “Days of Rage.” The protests were to begin on the second anniversary of the death of Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and were to coincide with the trial of the “Chicago 8”–eight men charged with conspiracy for their actions during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago one year earlier.
And as the Weathermen existed in a mutual sub-orbit of the SDS, so did the Young People’s Socialist League (“Yipsel”), an organization that advocated the “social ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution.” And who might you find attending the University of Chicago and helping tip the Yipsel-spear from 1961-1964? None other than our Democratic insurgent Bernard Sanders.
While at U of C, Sanders met regularly with the Young Peoples Socialist League in the student center, where students talked about nuclear disarmament, former Socialist Party Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, the lessons of the Russian revolution, and how to implement socialism, though his vision did not match up well with the already faltering Soviet experiment. After graduation and a quick stint on a Kibbutz, Sanders arrived in Vermont in 1964 on the crest of a radical wave.The state’s population jumped 31 percent between 1960 and 1980, due largely to an infusion of more than 30,000 hippies. It was a retreat, in the most literal sense, from the clashes, demonstrations and such over the Vietnam War and civil rights that had defined such folks’ college years.
Captivated by rural life, Sanders worked sporadically as a carpenter, “filmmaker” and writer who created and sold “radical film strips” and other educational materials to schools. In one notable instance from 1972, Sanders published a stream-of-consciousness essay on the nature of male-female sexual dynamics, stating to wit: “A woman enjoys intercourse with her man–as she fantasizes being raped by three men simultaneously.”
Sanders spent the remainder of the 70’s as a perennial candidate for the Liberty Union Party of Vermont, losing multiple elections and remaining marginally employed until finally winning his bid to become Mayor of Burlington, VT, and spending the ensuing 40 years in professional gad-fly politics. Now in his third-term as one of two Senators from his home state of 629,000 souls, he has helped sponsor three Senate Bills into law; one re-naming a US Post Office, one recognizing the Veterans of Foreign Wars Charter, and a third providing a COLA allowance to discharged Vets.
Turing back toward JFK and the Peace Corps, from 1961 through to the present, nearly 220,000 Americans have joined the Peace Corps and served in 141 countries, undertaking projects from sewer and water systems to schools, from agriculture to public health, all while upholding and improving America’s standing as a global force for peace and progress. Meanwhile, in his 31-months as POTUS, Kennedy came to successfully preside over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, NASA, nuanced economic policy and a host of other New Frontier innovations setting the stage for a stellar second term in office which tragically never came.
Kennedy continues to rank highly in historians’ polls of US presidents and with the general public. His average approval rating of 70% is the highest of any president in Gallup’s history of systematically measuring job approval.
In a 1987 interview with “The Gadfly,” Sanders said he was “physically nauseated” by a speech made by President John F. Kennedy when Sanders was a young man, because Kennedy’s “hatred for the Cuban Revolution . . . was so strong.”