NEW BOOK: Answering Kennedy's Call: The Search for Peace and Community

Answering Kennedy's Call:
The Search for Peace & Community

by Harlan Green

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 I was one of 77,000 wide-eyed, mostly white students that came to hear President John Kennedy speak in Berkeley on March 23, 1962, to commemorate the 94th anniversary of the University of California’s founding.  It was the year before President Kennedy was assassinated, and I and many of my friends wanted to see and hear what our future might look like.  We wanted to believe in Kennedy’s vision that the cold war with Russia could end. 

He said on that day, “…a cooperative Soviet-American effort in space science and exploration would emphasize the interests that must unite us, rather than those that always divide us. It offers us an area in which the stale and sterile dogmas of the cold war could be literally left a quarter of a million miles behind. And it would remind us on both sides that knowledge, not hate, is the passkey to the future--that knowledge transcends national antagonisms-that it speaks a universal language-that it is the possession, not of a single class, or of a single nation or a single ideology, but of all mankind.”

JFK gave us the picture of a new future, while joking that Jackie was having all the fun riding on an elephant in India with Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith. We did not know then that the Cuban missile crisis would happen in just seven months—October 16-28—that could have turned into a nuclear war if Kennedy and Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev had not negotiated a peaceful resolution. 

But on that beautiful spring day, in that all to short year before his death, Kennedy promised a peaceful settlement to the Cold War, of scientific research and alternatives for peaceful service that could benefit all nations. His speech gave me hope that the world could become a better place than living under the continual fear of nuclear war that I had experienced since elementary school.

It was another year before I answered his call to service—by volunteering for the Peace Corps on December 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated, and I began my search for a more peaceful world.

Statement of theme

This book recognizes the many ways such a spirit of service is restoring communities and hope for a better future. I believe restoring the sense of community and common purpose that prevailed in the early decades of post-World War Two America is the only way to restore our faith in democracy that is imperiled by the rise of authoritarian governments, global pandemics, and a warming planet. 

I believe that spirit of service is alive in younger generations that are also wanting to make their world a better place,.  They are motivated by what must be done to keep the peace and preserve the environment in an even more populous and contentious world than we lived in.

Former President Obama challenged young Americans to a life of service in 2017 after he left the presidency; and the youth he talked about are my target audience.  He said then:

“We have some of the lowest voting rates of any democracy and low participation rates than translate into a further gap between who's governing us and what we believe. The only folks who are going to be able to solve that problem are going to be young people, the next generation. And I have been encouraged everywhere I go in the United States, but also everywhere around the world to see how sharp and astute and tolerant and thoughtful and entrepreneurial our young people are. A lot more sophisticated than I was at their age. And so the question then becomes what are the ways in which we can create pathways for them to take leadership, for them to get involved?”[1]

President Obama’s words came from his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. And studies show that millennials and Generation Z now reaching adulthood want to make the world they have inherited a better place to live. Millennials’ preferences will be influential for no other reason than they are the largest generation ever, born from 1980 to 1996, outnumbering even their baby boomer parents.  They are also a much more diverse and tolerant population, which is why they are picking up where we left off in their preference for making worthwhile life choices. 

“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution recently noted in a report by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais titled “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”[2]

It cites a 2013 survey of over 1,200 U.S. adults that found Millennials to be the generation most focused on corporate social responsibility when making purchasing decisions.  Almost all Millennials responded with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues (89 percent). A majority of Millennials reported buying a product that had a social benefit and 84 percent of a generation that accounts for more than $1 trillion in U.S. consumer spending considered a company’s involvement in social causes in deciding what to buy or where to shop. In 2013, 89 percent of all American consumers said they would consider switching brands to one associated with a good cause if price and quality were equal.

The Kennedy Era

I learned the elements needed to build and strengthen peaceful communities as a Peace Corps volunteer and later when joining the US Environmental Protection Agency and Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union in the 1970s.
Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law, the first Director of the Peace Corps and many Great Society programs, inspired me with his call to ‘service above self’, the Peace Corps credo, that would be needed to create a more peaceful and just world.

All things are possible with the spirit and mind-set that enabled us to serve causes that bettered the lives of others in that time, as opposed to the ‘me first’ narcissism so prevalent in much of American culture today. 

This dedication to service was first promoted in President Kennedy’s acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National convention, when he said, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.”

His was the defining presidency of the sixties that moved many of my generation with his message of new possibilities because he saw the need for models of change in a world still fighting the cold war while recovering from a world war.

The U.S. Peace Corps was one of Kennedy’s first creations, but he also benefited American’s poorest and seniors by signing social legislation raising the minimum wage and increasing Social Security benefits. He also supported Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for greater justice for African Americans by supporting James Meredith's attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi and ordering his Attorney General, Brother Bobby Kennedy, to protect the freedom riders in the South.

One 30 year-old millennial said in 2013, the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, that “Though his goals were typically big, what he sought from individuals was often rather small. Not everyone was expected to join the Peace Corps or become an astronaut or participate in the Freedom Rides. But citizens were asked to do their part — to think about how they could improve their community or make another person’s life easier — to look past their differences and focus on our common humanity. We badly need this message again. I believe it is one that resonates deeply with young Americans who are yearning for a time when we can search for new frontiers and once again be part of the same team.”[3]

What Happened to the Sixties?

“The sixties was a period of monumental social and political change, altering virtually every aspect of American life for future generations,” touts a popular CNN documentary film, The Sixties

And “No other decade of the Twentieth Century has acquired the mythological status of the 1960s,” said British Historian M J Heale in his book, The Sixties in America, (2001, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, Edinburgh, UK).

The United States had already been through World War II, the Korean War, and was under the threat of nuclear annihilation in a cold war with the Soviet Union.  Yet we were in a period of unprecedented economic and social growth, when many believed in a better future—not only for U.S. citizens, but those in the developing world.

America’s annual economic growth rates in the sixties equaled that of China and the fastest growing, developing countries today.  Annual U.S. Gross Domestic Growth rates—our best measure of national business activity—were as high as 8.9 percent in 1950, and consistently higher than 6 percent through most of the 1960s. Median family incomes grew 214 percent from 1945 to 1975 and haven’t grown faster than inflation since 1975.

It was also a time of protest against all authority—against loyalty oaths that foreswore radical beliefs, against segregated schools and workplaces, and a government continually at war.  The anti-war protests created Rock-n-Roll music and Bob Dylan; my favorite songster because he was a poet as well as a musician that portrayed the times many Americans were living through.  He warned of the hardships ahead, as had his mentor, Woody Guthrie, the dust-bowl folksinger who sang for those dispossessed by the Great Depression.

Dylan songs such as Blowin in the Wind portrayed a land longing for peace: “how many deaths will it take 'till he knows that too many people have died?,” and a rebellion against the old order that prevented it in The Times They Are a-changing when: “your sons and your daughters are beyond your command.”

I did not realize the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 would cause many Americans to lose hope of creating a more peaceful world with the terrible cost of the Vietnam War, and the rising drug culture in those regions of America that no longer believed they lived in the United States of America. 

Almost as quickly as it came the sixties were gone; times had changed, but not for the better for many Americans in the next decades. Good paying jobs began to disappear; energy shortages and soaring inflation caused deep recessions after the Vietnam War had ended.

Young Americans now face a world that seems to have limited possibilities, with the greatest income inequality in the developed world—which means today’s children may not be able to earn more than their parents.  Studies show that only half the children born in the 1980s grew up to earn more than their parents.  That is a drop from 92 percent of children born in 1940. Millennials also face a faster, more competitive world with challenging opportunities. They face problems their baby boomer parents never encountered, such as an inadequate social safety net, declining educational opportunities, and finding their place in a multi-ethnic, multi-national world community.

Successive recessions since the 1970s have led to catastrophic drug use and high suicide rates in regions of blue-collar America that have lost entire industries due to modern economies charging ahead at warp speed.  Blue-collar, high school educated Americans once earned enough to enter a middle-class standard of living that meant homeownership and upward mobility.  Many were left behind when their jobs and communities disappeared. 

The overall health of Americans has declined.  Americans are no longer the tallest people, the best educated in the developed world, or live the longest.  Workers have had to travel farther and move more frequently in search of a decent paying job, and better education. 

Social scientists such as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam have studied the breakup of communities in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone, The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  “Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work—but no longer,” he said in his portrayal of our fractured society. 
He believes rebuilding communities has to start at the local level, with local community organizations that seek to solve common problems, such as better educational opportunities and environmental protection.

We faced plenty of problems in the sixties as well.  Nuclear annihilation was always in the back of our minds.  I had read Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach.  It was a terrifying tale of Australians waiting for the arrival of a deadly radiation cloud spawned by a nuclear war. World War III had just devastated most of the populated world, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and the death of all human and animal life in the Northern Hemisphere. 

The icon of that age was the Peace Symbol designed by Gerald Holcomb, a British conscientious objector in despair over the possibility of nuclear annihilation.  He is said to have combined naval signal semaphore codes of N with Dthat stood for Nuclear Disarmament into the  symbol we know today.  And perhaps because of the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, we preferred to make love rather than war.

We also lived through the anti-communist witch hunts that resulted in the House of Un-American Activities Commission hearings to weed out communists and other subversives, even though membership in the American Communist Party was legal.
We believed the Cold War was based on outmoded beliefs and ideologies. Wars were fought because our government saw a world of scarcity and conflict the only solution.  The U.S. with just five percent of the world’s population maintained a large military to have access to 25 percent of the world’s resources.

Table of Contents

How do we build a world community that lives in shared values and recognizes common aspirations?  It will take patience and a determined effort to find commonalities between the various races and religions, yet we all belong to Homo sapiens—the one species in charge of Planet Earth.  Recognizing those commonalities provided the vision of that new frontier of possibilities that can lead to a better place for America and the world.

I write about those early struggles to build and organize communities that can provide a signpost for younger generations wanting to serve a cause or movement; whether it is to protect the environment, minorities and immigrants, or the underserved in this country. 

I tell the story of what was accomplished by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that I joined at its beginning in documenting air and water pollution creating legislation to protect our health.

The dream of greater peace and non-violence was not lost with the deaths of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I will show how Cesar Chavez practiced the principles of nonviolence in successfully organizing America’s farmworkers to better their lives.

Joining Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union later in the 1970’s was much like my work in a Turkish village as a Peace Corps Volunteer, where I practiced rural community development to improve the lives of Turkish farmworkers. 

The United Farmworkers Union gave agricultural laborers hope for greater equality and social justice that worked to provide the food on Americans’ tables, rather than being exploited by growers with poor wages and working conditions.

The dream of greater peace and prosperity for all cannot die if a new call to national service is made that can employ those young people Presidents Kennedy and Obama spoke of, and that President Biden has proposed.

This is possible because we no longer live in a world of scarcity with limited resources that was a basis for the eye-for-an-eye belief that has spawned conflicts, a system Mahatma Gandhi opposed with his tactics of non-violent protest that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez used to advance civil rights and social justice.  

I write about how to negotiate win-win outcomes, a term used in conflict-resolution and business negotiations in chapters on The Bully Mentality and The Art of Negotiation.  It is the opposite of a winner-take-all, win-lose mentality that caused wars, because the possibility of a non-confrontational solution enables both sides to profit in some way. 

How to negotiate win-win outcomes is easy to see in limited purchase transactions between a buyer and seller, but not in more complex conflict resolution negotiations involving political entities and nations. 

All can profit from such abundance, as we find better ways of sharing this wealth.  I also write about economists’ new understanding of financial behavior that is mitigating the frequent recessions and growing income inequality we have lived through, and the recent proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) helping to address poverty and wealth-sharing issues in the U.S. and underdeveloped world. 

The Kennedy and King legacies include the belief that service above self is more important than self-interested behavior underpinning today’s consumer-driven society.  They called for participating in the building of a more universal community that transcends loyalty to ethnic origins and political parties.

I also describe how the principles of community development brought communities and organization together to successively meet their needs.  This includes the work of M Scott Peck. a medical doctor and psychologist, to bring communities together to meet their wants and needs, a basic principle in community development that I was able to use in revitalizing my own community.

Younger generations are finding meaning in their lives by serving in their local communities.  There are more than 23,000 domestic community and non-profit organizations that nurture local initiatives to further community goals and aspirations in the U.S.

The National Collaboration for Youth, an interagency council of the nation’s 50 major youth-serving organizations, notes that its member agencies serve more than 40 million young people each year, making this system second only to the public schools in the number of youths served annually. Indeed, nearly 50 percent of eighth graders in the nationally representative sample surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education reported participation in programs sponsored by one of these groups.

There are more than 36,900 such youth organizations, according to’s web database.[4] These organizations are creating the leaders of tomorrow who will bring order to the seeming chaos and distrust of government since then.

Scientific research tells us there will soon be even greater devastation from natural and manmade disasters.   Many regions and nations still depend on fossil fuels that have been a major cause of wars, and the root cause of much of today’s terrorism, rather than today’s unlimited renewable energy sources that new technologies are providing.

How much time is left for Americans to come together in a peaceful and caring way, a way that allows greater peace of mind and freedom of expression of our true selves?  How much time do we have before 50 percent of Miami is under water; hurricanes and cyclones devastate whole regions and even countries, and North Korea or a yet unknown terror group unleashes a nuclear weapon?

The sixties was a decade when communities of all political and economic classes had a consensus that progress was possible. It was possible to join movements that swept one up in causes much larger than the individual—the environmental movement, the anti-war movement, or non-violent civil rights’ protests, and a farmworker movement that advanced minority and immigrant rights.

We know how much President Kennedy’s vision of a new frontier influenced other countries as well from the countless memorials they have erected to honor him.  They help to remind ourselves how important it is to “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

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