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JFK, Nov. 22, 1963, the Peace Corps, and Me

The End of Civilization as We Know It

by CHARLES R. LARSON

The day President Kennedy was shot, I was in Enugu, in Eastern Nigeria, away from the school where I taught, attending a current affairs conference with other Peace Corps Volunteers.  Afterwards, about a dozen of us were eating dinner and drinking beer at a local bar when Walt Lewis rushed in and announced that Kennedy was dead.  We didn’t believe him, so he left in a peak of anger.  Then we knew it was true, so we all rushed back to the Peace Corps hostel in order to listen to the radio.  It was about nine o’clock local time and, as we soon learned, Kennedy had been dead for an hour.  It was an agonizing experience, huddled around a short wave radio with poor reception, trying to find coverage of the incident in English.  Finally we located Armed Forces Radio, and little by little the grotesque events of the day began to sink in.  (The next morning, the headline of the Nigerian Outlook was ‘Assassin in U.S. ‘Wild West.’”)

We all knew why we were in Nigeria—because of JFK—but we didn’t articulate it because that was unnecessary.  Similarly to some of the other males, I had run out of deferments (I was twenty-four years old), drafted, passed the physical, and called to serve in the Army.  That was when I thought about the Peace Corps.  On a Friday, I took the aptitude test required for entrance in those days, and on Monday I received a phone call asking me if I wanted to teach English in Nigeria.  I immediately said yes and after the conversation went to an atlas to see where Nigeria was.  That’s how worldly I was at the time, lacking any international perspective, how totally ethnocentric my past had been.  I was not alone.

We remained glued to the short wave for several hours, until well after midnight.  How could anyone sleep?  More Peace Corps Volunteers were streaming into Enugu after they heard the news.  One of my best friends arrived and we walked around the dark streets of the city, kicking the tarmac, cursing, generally depressed since we knew that the world we had known in our brief lives would never be the same.  Although I could hardly be considered an optimist today, I still believe that our country changed irrevocably on that day. If Kennedy had not been assassinated, so many other things would never have happened.  No President Johnson.  No President Nixon.  No prolonged war in Viet Nam (Johnson); no dragged out war for his own political agenda (Nixon).  Eight years of JFK and then eight of Bobby.  Which probably also means that everything else would have been altered.  No George Bush, no 9/11, no Osama bin Laden.

Is that too simplistic?  I think not.  I do know one thing absolutely for certain and that is that my own life was changed forever by JFK and the Peace Corps.  My subsequent career, my interests, my successes, above all my continually broadening international perspective, even today, fifty years later.  Probably my negativism also because of what was never achieved: the great potential of the Peace Corps vision positively connecting people around the world through understanding, collectivist action to solve the world’s problems, fewer wars, greater respect for people whose cultures, histories, religions, and ethnicities are different than our own.  That didn’t happen—not any of it.  Instead, the United States became a de facto colonial power, using up the world’s resources (including human capital), a gigantic sucking machine sweeping up everything in its wake.  Consider the current “greater recession,” inflicted on the entire world by American financial wizards, beginning with the charlatan at the top of the financial pyramid: Alan Greenspan, who ought to be in prison.

Greed.  Anathema to the vision of the Peace Corps but almost the only aspect of our culture today that matters to people with power.  I’m not talking simply about politicians and the mess they have made but too many American billionaires who clearly believe that they don’t have enough money.  They fight health coverage for the poor, the sick, the dying.  They want the minimum wage reduced, not increased.  Their enablers rig the tax system so their obscene profits remain offshore and untaxed. (So much for corporate responsibility.) They build safe communities that protect themselves and their children from everyone else.  They flame the fires of racism with subtle and not too subtle coded words, advertisements, and rhetoric, designed to pull us away from one another rather than bring us together.  They refuse to admit that the climate is changing. They are willing to risk the country’s future economic solvency to serve only themselves, their narrow, myopic interests.  The concept of the greater good, of sharing (the Golden Rule) is foreign to them.  It’s ludicrous, but they have even established “Think Tanks,” where no genuine good is ever considered but destruction instead.

It’s not only the United States that has failed in its great experiment of Democracy,  but most of the rest of the world, sadly emulating our own  excesses and—lately—trying to get even with us because of what we’ve done to them. African leaders who have trashed their countries in order to keep themselves in power.  Middle Eastern dictators who for years supplied America’s resource excesses.  Asian governments willing to pollute their environments in order to compete with the West—to hell with the rapidly changing climate.  Little thought for tomorrow, for future generations; hardly even consideration of their own starving masses; living, breathing and destroying, as their own elites gobble up everything like the plutocrats in the West.

And peace?  A forgotten concept, archaic for many, as refugees flee from country to country, from regime to regime; as war becomes the great monster, worshiped by industrial complexes, politicians everywhere; as classes, castes, ethnicities, and religions justify killing for God. Their God, not yours.

You could say that these are the crotchety ramblings of an old man, and you would be right.  But they are also the observations of what went wrong during the last fifty years as individuals and their representative governments (elected and unelected) altered the entire catalyst with self-inflicted harm, with self-induced destruction, with self-infused blindness.

Future generations will tell us that we did it to ourselves.

Charles R. Larson was one of the first 1000 Peace Corps Volunteers.  His novel, The Insect Colony (1976), grew out of his experiences in Africa during the two years he taught English in Nigeria.  Email: clarson@american.edu.