MAY 26, 1961
BOSTON—Early last Monday morning I took a plane to Washington to sit in on the first meeting of the Peace Corps. My day was slightly complicated by the fact that Premier Fidel Castro had sent over 10 of the prisoners he held from the recent invasion, with the proviso that if they got a firm agreement for us to send 500 tractors to Cuba they could stay over four days after Tuesday noon to make any detailed arrangements for the liberation of some 1,200 men captured during the invasion. If they got no firm commitment, they were to return Tuesday at noon, and they had given their word of honor to do so.
I remained with the Peace Corps until a quarter before eleven and was much impressed by the reports given to us by the members of the staff. They reported first on regional and United Nations programs and I heard three of those reports before I had to run to the Statler Hotel, three blocks away, and meet with Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the head of Johns Hopkins University, and Mr. Walter Reuther to discuss the next steps in the Cuban situation.
It was decided that as the Cuban prisoners were being flown to Washington by the immigration authorities and would arrive at 1:30 that we should have a meeting with them at that time and not see the press until we had heard from the prisoners exactly what Premier Castro's offer was and we had decided what our answer would be. We felt quite sure that we must ask for a list of the 1,214 (or whatever number above that it might be) prisoners and that some provision of verification should be made as they returned to the United States and to whatever countries they wished to go. For the rest we would wait.
I went right back to my Peace Corps meeting and arrived in time to hear Mr. Lawrence E. Dennis give a very good account of the training program as far as it had been set up or planned, followed by Dr. Leo Gehrig of the Public Health Service on arrangements to be made on health instruction and for the care of the Peace Corps members wherever they might be in service. A very good talk was also given by Mr. Nicholas Hobbs on the question of selection. All three of these men are members of the staff and made a very good impression on the Advisory Committee.
This committee is composed of men and women of varied occupations and interests—an integrated group with different backgrounds, which led to many interesting questions. I think the Peace Corps organizers will find it very helpful to draw on this Advisory Committee for advice and help as the organization develops and grows. The primary target is to try to get between 750 and 1,000 people actually working on projects before 1961 is over.
The general philosophy, I am glad to say, is that we should move slowly, make our selections carefully, and do our training as well as we can, because these pioneer groups will be extremely important in the impressions they make. Also, we can learn much from the experience they are able to gain, and their weaknesses and strengths will help in future development.
At 12:30 we went over to the State Department for lunch but I was unable to enjoy more than a hasty snack. I did, however, have a chance to speak to Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Assistant Secretary Chester Bowles, and explained that I could not stay to hear them speak because I had to return to meet with the 10 prisoners.
At 1:30 Mr. Reuther, Dr. Eisenhower and I met with these 10 men. One or two of them were very young. Most of them were in command of some unit. They were all intelligent and fine-looking men. They told us exactly what had happened. Immediately after a Premier Castro speech early last week they asked to meet with him and they gave their word that if allowed to come over to the U.S. they would return. They were elected by their fellow prisoners.
They gave us in detail Castro's offer and he added that he wished it understood that he was not making an exchange of men for machines but was asking for indemnity for the damage done by the invasion. The world will make its own decision on this particular point, and it seems to me unimportant, since the machines must be delivered or we cannot save men's lives.
We made a firm commitment, but we asked to send a committee of experts back with the men when they go because it seemed to us that the type of tractors asked for by Castro were not suitable for the uses he said he wanted them for. We will try to get experts in agriculture and machinery to return with the group.
We immediately asked Mr. Joseph M. Dodge, who for a time in President Eisenhower's Administration was Director of the Budget and is now living in Detroit, to be treasurer of our group. And we are making an appeal to the country as a whole to raise 15 million dollars. As the tractors are delivered the men will be returned on the same ships. We have asked that the procedure for verifying the list of prisoners which we have asked for shall be worked out along with the manner of the exchange.
I hope all of you who care about human lives, for whom I think we have some responsibility, will send your contributions to Tractors for Freedom, Freedom Box, Detroit, Mich.