The American Presidents and AFS
President Johnson addresses AFS students at the White House while Mrs. Lady Johnson, Linda Johnson and AFS President Arthur Howe, Jr. listen, July 1966.*
February 13, 2014 - New York, NY - Since AFS’ inception, the US Presidency has represented a meaningful ally for the organization.
It’s a natural, symbiotic relationship. As an organization that both hosts foreign exchange students and sends US students abroad, AFS promotes understanding and friendship among nations and people. In turn, many US Presidents have publicly lauded the organization and its exchange participants for their contributions to US public diplomacy efforts.
Today, this relationship is stronger than ever, as AFS helps implement US Government-sponsored exchange programs like the Kennedy-Luger Youth Exchange & Study (YES) Program. Developed in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2011, The YES Program facilitates student exchanges between the US and predominantly Muslim countries.
In its infancy, however, AFS relied heavily on the support of US Presidents to help promote its name and ideals.
As President’s Day 2014 approaches, it is timely to remember those US Presidents who were among AFS’ earliest supporters, and recall how they have helped the organization grow.
Eisenhower: Calling for growth
34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was an exemplary advocate for AFS. Several years in a row, he invited the entire class of international AFS students being hosted throughout the US to the White House. Each time, he personally addressed the students, delivering inspirational messages that stuck with them long after they departed the US.
In 1957, he told the students, with sincerity and a touch of humor, “I don’t know of anything more worthwhile today than for young people of our several countries to visit each other…to decide for yourselves whether most of us wear tails or horns or whether we are on the average sort of good people that want to live and work productively just like any other decent people.“
He later added, “I would hope…that we in turn will find ways of sending our young people to your countries…so that we can be a little wiser, a little more understanding, in the dealings we have with all the world.”
Evidence of President Eisenhower’s impact on the exchange students he spoke to came several years later during his brief visit to Uruguay. The year was 1960, and a group of Uruguayan AFS Returnees were determined to greet the President on their home soil, just as he had done for them.
Late on the night before their scheduled meeting with the President, Returnee Carlos Russo received a call from the American Embassy. “President Eisenhower is leaving one hour earlier than planned, so you’ll have to be there at 8 o’clock instead of nine,” the voice informed him. “Will you please tell the other Returnees?”
At 6 AM the next morning Carlos was running through the streets, knocking on the doors of fellow AFSers. “They didn’t mind being awakened so early, for they were all very excited,” recalls Carlos.
The Returnees were extremely nervous about the meeting, but Ike’s warmth instantly put them at ease.
“We were surprised by a friendly, ‘hello,’” says Carlos. “In the next moment we had forgotten all our big-sounding words, our nervousness and our Oxford accent, and we were chatting with one of the most wonderful people in the world.”
Kennedy: Inspiring a generation
President John F. Kennedy also had a profound impact on the AFS students he greeted on the White House lawn.
In 1961, he told the students, “It is going to be your destiny, I hope, to serve in the interest of peace as a bridge between the best parts of my country and your people. I hope that you go from here not merely as a friend but understanding our faults and our assets.”
The request came at the end of the students’ 3-week bus trip across the US, during which they had visited 402 communities in 45 states.
When Kennedy was tragically assassinated in November of 1963, an outpouring of condolence came from many of the students he had spoken to. These students were distraught over the loss of a leader with whom they associated positive memories of the US and optimism for global cooperation.
Examples of their condolences include:
Johnson: Honoring Stephen Galatti
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson showed his reverence for AFS by honoring AFS founder, Director General Stephen Galatti.
Immediately following Stephen Galatti’s death in July of 1964, President Johnson presented his son, Stephen Galatti, Jr. with a presidential citing, which read:
“Trusted Counselor, Friend, and Inspiration for Young People Throughout the World, he selflessly devoted his life to the cause of Peace by laboring tirelessly to foster understanding today among the youth who will lead the nations of the world tomorrow.”
The citing was presented in front of the 1963-64 class of AFS exchange students being hosted in the US. “Mr. Galatti was a remarkable American and a remarkable citizen of the world,” Johnson told the students. “Through the fruits of this program, his influence will live on for many generations.”
Gerald Ford: How far we’ve come
In 1976, President Gerald Ford publicly commemorated the tremendous growth of AFS programs.
Like many of his predecessors, President Ford greeted AFS students at the White House and spoke to them about their roles in fostering international cooperation. Yet, he also emphasized the substantial role of exchange activities themselves.
“The best hope of making the world a better, more peaceful place is to seek even greater exchanges of persons of different backgrounds and different nationalities,” he stated.
In circuitous fashion, he referenced President Eisenhower’s initial address to AFS students, recalling that, “President Eisenhower spoke to approximately 1,100 students…Today your group numbers 2,700 or more.”
Honoring our Leaders
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Ford are just a few of the US Presidents who have supported AFS in numerous ways throughout its history. As the nation celebrates President’s Day 2014, AFS-USA is particularly grateful for those Presidents whose commitments to public diplomacy have reinforced its efforts to make the world a more peaceful place through global education and cultural exchange.
*Scurlock Photograph. Courtesy of the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. The holder of copyright for this item is AFS or is unknown. Please contact AFS if you can help identify the copyright holder(s).