“…ask what you can do for your country.” So said John F. Kennedy is his Presidential Inauguration speech just over 60 years ago on January 20, 1961. Kennedy may have been inspired by and building on William James’s 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Ultimately, JFK created the Peace Corps with Presidential Executive Order 10924. President Johnson followed with the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program—the domestic Peace Corps. Military sociologists have promoted national service as well. Morris Janowitz argued in his 1983 book The Reconstruction of Patriotism: Education for Civic Consciousness (University of Chicago Press) that patriotism had been hijacked by xenophobes and militarism and civic obligations through service needed a comeback. Later that decade, Charles C. Moskos, in his book A Call to Civic Service: National Service for Country and Community (Free Press, 1988) had a vision for community engagement through active citizenship obligations. George H.W. Bush signed into law the National and Community Service Act in 1990. President Clinton moved forward with the Corporation for National and Community Service which still exists today. George W. Bush created the Freedom Corps in 2002. Stanley McCrystal, a retired Army General has consistently appealed for national service laying out his points in a 2017 Time.com article titled “Every American Should Serve For One Year”. President Biden has yet to appoint a CEO to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The most recent Gallup Poll in November 2017 of Americans shows, surprise, surprise, the country is evenly split on national service, although, men and republicans actually favor national service more than women and democrats. Our data above has tracked university students and academy cadets over 20 years. Our college students and cadets specifically show a similar split as Americans more broadly. More, they are consistent over the past 20 years. However, there is a sex gap. More of them favor men doing national service than women doing national service. But that gap may be narrowing during the 2020s compared to the last two decades.
What can you do for your country? The answer to this question continues to be debated. Our data provides some insights into what drives our varied thoughts on the matter.