Symposium | A Nation in Service

Can National Service Become Integral to Our Culture?

By Harris Wofford

Most accounts of the long roller-coaster ride of the idea of universal national service see William James as the father of the idea. After delivering an influential address at Stanford University in 1906, the popular philosopher elaborated his proposal in 1910 in a long, widely read essay titled “The Moral Equivalent of War.”

“This is my idea,” James wrote. “Instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.” Through such service, he asserted, “injustice would tend to be evened out” and “numerous other goods to the commonwealth” would result. “Our gilded youths” would “get the childishness knocked out of them” and “come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” He predicted: “It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent.”

In the decades since, there has been a continuing discussion over James’s idea—whether it should be mandatory or voluntary, and, if voluntary, whether it could become as common an expectation as finishing high school is now. There have been high and low points for national service. The question today remains: Can blowing on the spark succeed in making enough Americans incandescent about the idea so that it becomes an accepted part of our culture?

James’s ideas were first turned into reality when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President in 1933. As governor of New York, he had taken steps to engage the state’s jobless young men in conservation work. On his desk in the Oval Office was a report showing that half a million young men were out of school and out of work.

During his first days in office, he told the secretaries of Labor, Agriculture, the Interior, and the Army that he wanted to create a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to get those unemployed young men into the woods—off the streets and into hard work in our national parks, forests, and public lands that had been ignored far too long. Labor would find and enlist the jobless youth, Interior and Agriculture would select the projects most in need, and the Army would build the camps and supply trained military staff to supervise the CCC men.

It was part voluntary national service, part jobs bill, designed to provide aid during a time of massive unemployment. Within a few weeks of taking office, FDR sent a message to Congress with a very short bill authorizing the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps with up to 275,000 young men who were between the ages of 18 and 25, unmarried, and unemployed. (A somber fact is that it was open only to men, and the young black men who were enlisted did so in segregated camps.) Signing the bill on March 31, FDR said he wanted a quarter-million CCC men at work by the end of summer. By July 1, the Cabinet team, including Army Colonel (later General) George C. Marshall, reported that more than 275,000 corps members were in some 1,300 camps.

By 1942, when most of the men of the CCC graduated into military service in World War II, more than three million of them had planted three billion trees, cleared 125,000 miles of trails, and developed 800 state parks. For many, the experience helped turn their lives around for the better. One of the last camps to be organized was initiated by Dartmouth College faculty and students, and named Camp William James. To this day, the speed and success of the launching of the CCC constitute achievements that made FDR’s “first hundred days” a standard many presidents seek to match.

A personal note: In 1947, on a former troop ship converted to a student ship heading to Europe, I was stirred to embrace the idea of national service. In my case, the source of that inspiration was not William James but a group of young men, singing night and day. I cornered one and asked what they were up to. He said they were Mormons, and explained, “When a Mormon man comes of age, the question is not, ‘Will I serve?’ but ‘Where will I serve a year or more?’ as a missionary.” Their group chose to help in devastated Europe.

On the ship’s deck, I thought to myself, That’s what ought to happen for all Americans as they become full adults. I may have read James’s essay in college, but the sea change in my thinking came aboard that ship sailing to Europe.

The rest of this backward glance is within the memory of many readers. In the 1960 presidential campaign, when John F. Kennedy proposed a Peace Corps—in which full-time volunteers, most of them young, would serve for two years—President Eisenhower derided it as “a juvenile experiment.” Vice President and presidential candidate Richard Nixon likened it to “draft evasion.” Others called it a “Kiddie Corps.”

Countering that was the surprising enthusiasm of college students, whose generation had been dubbed silent and apathetic. Without waiting for Congress, the young President created a “temporary Peace Corps,” appointed Sargent Shriver to organize and direct it, and sent the first Peace Corps volunteers to Ghana. Four months later, the bill passed after Shriver and his deputy, Bill Moyers, visited every member of Congress.

By the fall of 1962, all signs indicated that the “experiment” was going to be a success. On the White House lawn, after sending forth volunteers who had trained at Georgetown and Howard Universities, President Kennedy showed his high hopes. Among the 600 there that day were 300 about to fly (with me) to Addis Ababa (where I was headed to become the Peace Corps Special Representative to Africa and director of the Ethiopia program). Emperor Haile Selassie had asked Kennedy for 500 Peace Corps teachers in order to double the number of secondary-school teachers in the country, a goal that was achieved in the years that followed.

Walking back to the Oval Office, a happy Kennedy said to me, “This will be serious when there are 100,000 volunteers a year—one million each decade, who serve in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Then, he predicted, “at last there’ll be a large constituency for an informed foreign policy.”

When Shriver left the Peace Corps in 1966, there were 16,000 volunteers serving in 55 countries, including those in training. Vice President Hubert Humphrey talked of the 50,000 he expected would come in that decade. President Johnson had as vice president been the first chairman of the Peace Corps Advisory Council and was a strong champion of its expansion. Kennedy’s speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, called the Peace Corps “one of John F. Kennedy’s proudest achievements, the epitome of his call for service and sacrifice.”

Yet the enlarged Peace Corps Kennedy imagined never came to pass. Blamed on the growing demands of the Vietnam War, appropriation cuts began in 1967 and continued during the Nixon Administration until the number of recruits fell to fewer than 5,000 a year. In the twenty-first century, the number has risen modestly, up to about 8,000 a year.

The same fate blocked the bold ideas for national service that President Johnson advanced for the War on Poverty. He appointed Shriver to be the director of this major domestic program. Along with the Job Corps, Head Start, and Community Action, Shriver created VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America, to be “the ground troops” for the assault on poverty. He wanted full-time VISTA volunteers to soon match, in numbers, the several hundred thousand corpsmen of the CCC.

On George Washington’s birthday in 1965, at the University of Kentucky, President Johnson urged the nation to “search for new ways” through which “every young American will have the opportunity—and feel the obligation—to give at least a few years of his or her life to the service of others in this nation and the world.” That was a high point for the idea of national service becoming a common expectation for all young Americans coming of age. A year later, in his tug of war between the cost of the growing struggle in Vietnam and the ambitious plans for the War on Poverty, Johnson told Shriver he could not fund the crucial next steps toward overcoming poverty. VISTA would never reach even 10,000 volunteers.

The search for new ways and means for full-time youth service continued in the 1970s and ’80s. Some cities and states formed different kinds of youth corps. Many followed the model of the CCC of old, rather than the Peace Corps and VISTA, and drew mainly those who were poor and unemployed. The largest was the California Conservation Corps, organized in 1976 by Governor Jerry Brown. It grew to 3,000 participants per year, continued through Republican and Democratic state administrations, and is still operating today. Its motto, “Hard work, low pay, and miserable conditions,” resembled the Peace Corps’s best recruiting poster, “The Toughest Job You’ve Ever Loved.”

In 1979, the Potomac Institute’s “Report of the Committee for the Study of National Service” concluded “that the nation’s social, economic, educational, environmental, and military needs, including the need of young people to serve and be productive, and the need of our society to regain a sense of service, together make a compelling case for moving toward universal service for American youth.” It called for “the country to move towards such universal service by stages and by incentives but without compulsion.”

President Ronald Reagan began the 1980s with his own version of citizen service: “Let us pledge to restore, in our time, the American spirit of volunteer service, of cooperation, of private and community initiative, a spirit that flows like a deep and mighty river through the history of our nation.” Yet for those campaigning for all young Americans to have the opportunity to do full-time national service, the river seemed more like many separate streams.

The latter part of the decade saw a burst of new calls for national youth service. In 1986, a major study by Richard Danzig and Peter Szanton, National Service: What Would It Mean?, was published with considerable impact. In 1988, the Democratic Leadership Council, including Governor Bill Clinton and Senator Sam Nunn, released its landmark report, “Citizenship and National Service,” calling for all young people to serve, and proposing that federal college student aid be conditioned on such service.

Senator Ted Kennedy opposed that proposed big stick, but he framed an alternative bill based on the carrot of new student aid for service. Kennedy’s bill was combined with President George H.W. Bush’s proposed legislation supporting the Points of Light initiative to increase traditional unpaid volunteering. This led in 1990 to the first National Service Act, which included a commission with authority to test different approaches to full-time national service. The President appointed the first special assistant for national service, Gregg Petersmeyer, who helped bring both parties together for a truly bipartisan bill.

In his 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton found that his most popular campaign promise was offering that carrot of additional college aid to all who served a year or more in the community. When he visited the new City Year program in Boston, funded in part by the 1990 bill, he said a light bulb went off in his head: “Something like this is what I want for all American young people.”

As President, Clinton asked Congress to enact the quantum leap he had proposed in the campaign. Senators Kennedy and Barbara Mikulski took the lead in framing and passing the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The President appointed Eli Segal CEO of the new Corporation for National and Community Service in order to manage the new national-service program, which was named AmeriCorps and launched with fanfare. Almost all governors formed the bipartisan state commissions the act required for the allocation of AmeriCorps positions. But there was a cloud over this progress—only six Senate Republicans had voted to pass the national-service bill.

After the 1994 Republican sweep of Congress (of which I was one of the casualties, losing to Rick Santorum), one of the first acts of the new House of Representatives was to defund AmeriCorps. In response to this challenge, the President asked me to become CEO of the new corporation, to help him save AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps budget was significantly cut, but thereafter, despite the opposition of House Republicans, appropriations for the Corporation and for AmeriCorps positions increased each year in Clinton’s second term, with the number of positions reaching 50,000 by 2000.

Just before his death in 1995, former Michigan Governor George Romney—whose son, Mitt, was a strong supporter of national service and especially of City Year—set in motion a plan that led to additional Republican support. Romney (who was called “Mr. Volunteer Service”) enlisted the Corporation and the Points of Light Foundation to realize his dream of a summit at which all living presidents and leaders from all sectors of society would gather to support citizen service and show it was not a partisan issue.

In 1997, President Clinton and former President George H.W. Bush convened the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, with four out of the five living presidents, and Nancy Reagan representing her husband, along with some 30 governors, 100 mayors, and 2,000 other leaders. Gen. Colin Powell chaired the summit and launched America’s Promise Alliance, which included national youth service as one of its main aims.

After the summit, Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who had voted against AmeriCorps, published a persuasive opinion piece, “Why I Changed My Mind about AmeriCorps.” Ohio Representative John Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee, also changed his mind and gave his backing. In 2000, when he first ran for President, John McCain announced his support, and said, “I was wrong about AmeriCorps.”

By the turn of the twenty-first century, it seemed to be widely accepted that national service by young Americans had become a lasting dimension of volunteering in the United States. Forty-nine governors signed a letter to Congress supporting the reauthorization and strengthening of AmeriCorps.

The September 11 attacks ushered in a period of patriotic nonpartisanship and additional momentum for national service. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush called for 4,000 hours of service—or two years—by every American, the doubling of the Peace Corps, and an increase in AmeriCorps positions from 50,000 to 75,000. He created the USA Freedom Corps White House Council to coordinate federal support for national service and appointed John Bridgeland to lead it.

At that point, with the Republican President asking Congress for a 50-percent increase in national-service positions, and the chairman of the Republican Party, former Governor Marc Racicot of Montana, strongly in agreement, there was reason for supporters of national service to believe that the Republican Party was starting on a new journey toward a national consensus for large-scale national service. But while AmeriCorps did grow, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan divided the nation on political lines, and momentum stalled.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Senator Obama proposed a goal of 250,000 national-service positions. That idea and the bill that made it reality—the 2009 Serve America Act, sponsored by Senators Kennedy and Hatch, and supported by Senators McCain and Clinton—was the most recent high point for the idea of national service. Obama signed the bill into law with strong bipartisan support during his first hundred days. Once again, the road forward seemed clear. But yet again, events intervened. The 2010 midterm elections changed the political landscape. As in 1995, the House of Representatives voted to eliminate funding for AmeriCorps. At this writing, the new budget proposed by the House leadership would terminate not only AmeriCorps but all the programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service, including the Senior Corps.

In the current political stalemate, President Obama has done what he can to stave off a quantum leap backward for national service. His limited power for executive action is already being tapped by the White House Task Force on Expanding National Service, which asks all federal departments and appropriate agencies to explore and report how the engagement of national service volunteers can help them accomplish their missions.

With the fifth anniversary of the Serve America Act this spring, it seems clear that further expansion of full-time national service through major new appropriations from Congress is unlikely. Indeed, the continuation of federal support for national service may be in danger, despite the support of the hundreds of nonprofit organizations benefitting from the service of AmeriCorps members, and the work of the outstanding new CEO of the corporation, Wendy Spencer, a Republican and longtime leader on the issue of national service.

While Congress stalls, there is an opportunity to give new life to the idea of national service. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and a group of former generals, veterans of all ranks, and like-minded civic leaders are stepping forth with a new initiative, focused on the independent sector, to make a service year at home or abroad an opportunity for all young Americans. They foresee a time when the numbers of young Americans in civilian service years will equal the one million volunteers in military service. Then the “goods to the commonwealth” that William James envisioned will become an integral part of the education of Americans as self-governing citizens.

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Harris Wofford is a former U.S. senator and is currently a senior adviser to the Franklin Project. He served as special assistant to President Kennedy for civil rights, deputy to Sargent Shriver in launching the Peace Corps, and CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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