If there is one area in the world which demonstrates the truth of Jefferson’s observation that “the disease of liberty is catching,” that area is Africa. For, in the past few years, freedom has spread from one end of that continent to the other - until there is hardly a corner of Africa which is not independent or about to become independent. Everywhere the old colonial empires are dissolving as the African peoples take up the reins of self-government.
Even though Americans know little about Africa - its history or its people - even though we think of it as a continent covered by jungles and inhabited by primitive black people (when, in fact, there is very little jungle and the people are varied in descent and education) - even though we understand little of its complex transition from colonial status to modern nationhood - we cannot help but feel as George Washington did when he said that he was “irresistibly excited whenever in any country I see an oppressed people unfurl the banner of freedom.”
For we, too, founded a new nation on revolt from colonial rule - and it was in our schools that many renowned African leaders absorbed the ideal of the American dream - the dream of freedom and security - the dream which - according to African leader Tom Mboya - is the guiding spirit of modern African nationalism.
Today all Africa - all of the 200 million people who occupy a continent four times the size of the United States - is struggling for change: change from colonial status to self-government - change from poverty and sickness to a healthy and well-fed life - change from an inefficient and meager agricultural economy - which is the least productive in the world - to an industrial economy which can raise the primitive standard of living. As Barbara Ward has said “Africa is at one and the same time undergoing an agricultural revolution, an industrial, technological and urban revolution, a social revolution, and a political revolution; it is passing from a feudal and indeed, in places, still prehistoric age, into the atomic age in a matter of decades. It is recapitulating the history of the last five centuries of European society in fifty years.”
We - as Americans - welcome this bloodless revolution. We sympathize with the desire for change and progress. But we must do more. Good wishes and congratulations are not enough. The goodwill created by our past programs, our old policies, and our own history are not enough. We must move forward to meet the new challenges of Africa - we cannot be satisfied with the status quo. For today - in Africa - there is no status quo. And to stand still means inevitably to be left far, far behind.
And the fact of the matter is that America must keep up in Africa - our stake in Africa’s future is large. For the Africans realize - as Albert Schweitzer has told them - that “political independence is meaningless without economic independence” - that they will never be truly free until they have raised themselves from poverty. And the Communists are ready and willing to take advantage of this feeling. Already money and technical aid are flowing from behind the Iron Curtain into the new African nations - 35 million dollars to Ghana alone last year. The Soviets are seeking, with all their tools of persuasion, to convince the African people that the only road to prosperity is the Communist road.
For the Russians realize - whether we do or not - the potential power and importance of this great land mass which will soon control 20 to 25 percent of the votes in the United Nations. Our job - if we want Africa to remain free - and friendly toward the West - is to combat this drive - to show the Africans that democracy can bring the good life - that freedom and security can be achieved together.
At the center of these African aspirations and intentions is what Arnold Toynbee has called the most revolutionary fact of our times - not the hydrogen bomb, or flights into space - but the growing belief that the benefits of modern science and technology can be made available to all men. Africans have adopted this belief. They are confident that poverty, squalor, ignorance and disease can be conquered - that they can raise themselves from the lowest level of productivity and the highest rate of illiteracy in the world - that they, too, can share in the abundance which modern science has made possible. This is their quest and their faith.
But to succeed - to make this change - the Africans need three things. They need food. They need capital. And they need education.
Three-quarters of the African people barely survive on subsistence agriculture. The land is tilled with the most primitive of tools and much of it has eroded and become unproductive. The Africans desperately need to learn and to use the modern methods of agriculture which the United States has perfected if they are to feed their people, and free men for work in growing cities and new factories.
Capital is needed to start African growth on its way. By themselves, the Africans can never hope to generate the initial capital necessary to provide for expanding industrial production and necessary services. Today they have the least productive economy in the world. An initial injection of capital is required to start the upward spiral on its way - and that capital will have to be forthcoming from either East or West.
But - above all - the Africans need and want education. Eighty per cent of the African people cannot read or write. There are only a few thousand college graduates in the entire continent. There is a desperate need for educated men - men who know how to exploit the resources and build the factories and run the governments - men who will teach other men; and thus help to raise an entire continent from ignorance to light.
In these three needs - food, capital and education - can be found the measure of the Western challenge in Africa. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa I would like to make the following two proposals - proposals which I believe can help us to meet the challenge.
First, I propose a new African Educational Development Fund - a fund which would send our technical experts - our engineers, political scientists, educators and agricultural experts - to Africa - men like Robert Judy of Superior, Wisconsin who is now teaching the natives of Somalia how to farm with a hoe and a plow - implements as revolutionary to these primitive farmers as our jet airplanes or nuclear power plants are to us. Mr. Judy is working hard and accomplishing much - but we need thousands like him if we are to train an entire continent. At the same time that it is sending Americans abroad, this fund would bring more African students to our own universities for training - training which will equip them to return as potential leaders of this developing continent. Today we support less than 200 African students in this country - a smaller program than the Government of Ethiopia has for the other African countries. We must educate many times this number if we are to help meet the African need for education.
Secondly, I propose that there be established, in cooperation with many other nations, a multi-national economic development fund for Africa, to provide necessary financing for investment, development and personnel. Such an organization would have the active participation of African, European and American nations all on a basis of complete equality.
This fund would allow all the western nations to share the economic burden of what is - after all - a Western responsibility and not just the responsibility of the United States. By allowing the Africans themselves to participate in the planning of their own development, we would decrease the sense of economic dependence which our experience has shown us inevitably leads to resentment.
But, whatever program we adopt - whatever particular proposals are finally accepted - one thing is clear. The sound and orderly development of Africa stands high on America’s agenda for the sixties. The once dark continent is awake and moving. “From a small spark kindled in America,” Tom Paine wrote during the American Revolution, “a flame has arisen not to be extinguished.” That flame - the flame of hope - of freedom - of progress - now burns brightly across all of Africa. It is we Americans - as leaders of the Western world - who have the great responsibility of keeping it alight.
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 906, "Whitewater College convocation, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, 16 February 1960." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.