Since his death on January 18, 2011 at the age of 95, a great deal has been written and spoken about Robert Sargent Shriver, an exemplary American who had an incredible life dedicated to civil rights and international peace-building. Sargent Shriver died a little more than a month short of March 1, 2011, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Corps Act. Over the course of this year there will be numerous celebrations marking the birth, success and endurance of the Peace Corps. Along with those will be many more tributes to Robert Sargent Shriver (“Sarge”) for other than President John F. Kennedy, himself, Sarge most symbolizes the Peace Corps, Shriver was not only its first Director, but also one of founding fathers and one of the chief architects who put the organization together in six months.
The 25th Anniversary of the Conference of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and Staff was held from September 18 to 22, 1986 with Monday, September 22 devoted to the first 300 volunteers. From start to finish, it was a particularly moving experience. Loret Rupee, then Director of the Peace Corps under the Reagan Administration and Sargent Shriver appeared to be co-hosts, a dynamic duo who displayed mutual admiration and respect for each other and a great love of the Peace Corps. The Washington Post reported that Ruppe is fond of saying that she can “still see the same stars that Sargent Shriver saw in the eyes of young people in America.”
Conference activities began on Thursday evening with a congressional reception and informal country reunions. Friday’s main events were held in a pavilion on the Mall, under a huge white tent, erected for the conference the largest ever on the premises. The day's keynote speaker was the recently elected President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino, who wore her signature color yellow. I was proud to be among the more than 4000 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), staff, family members and friends joining those who had served in the Philippines. For the occasion and in honor of President Aquino, former volunteers who had served there wore yellow shirts with the word, “Philippines” written across the front, creating a wave of yellow in a section of the pavilion. Many also wore “I love Cory” buttons. Aquino, elected by the People Power Movement, who had pushed long-term stronghold leader, Ferdinand Marcos, from power in less than three years after her opposition-leader husband had been assassinated was an appealing symbol of hope of democracy reclaimed in the Philippines. She was the first female president of her country and first head of state to honor the Peace Corps at one of its conferences in the U.S. Her presence was especially fitting given the fact that the Philippines was one of the oldest Peace Corps programs and by far the largest. From the time of the arrival of our group of 128 on October 12, 1961 to September 1986, the Philippines had hosted 7,070 volunteers.
Gordon Radley said, “Until now our grief has been largely a private matter shared with our separate families and communities. But as I stand here today, at our National Cemetery and in front of my fellow Volunteers, I realize that my brother and all the brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers who have given their lives to the Peace Corps service belong not only to our families, but to our greater Peace Corps family and to our nation as a whole.”
On Sunday evening, there was a gala concert at the Kennedy Center. The National Symphony Orchestra saluted the Peace Corps. The master of ceremonies was Harry Belafonte, a member of the first Peace Corps Advisory Council who told his audience, “You are all very special to me and the world.” Then Belafonte sang “Try to Remember that Kind of September” and “Matilda, Matilda”, which got the house rocking. The evening ended with the Washington International Children’s Choir leading in “Let There Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me,” which inspired everyone in the hall to stand, link hands, join in the singing and sway to the music. The following day, The Washington Post said of the occasion, “Bottle last night, export it and there’ll be no war.”
By Monday, the Conference had officially ended except for the day devoted to the first 300 Peace Corps Volunteer. Again I was proud to be among those who took that initial plunge. Loret Rupee hosted breakfast and Sargent Shriver followed by the group planting a Peace Tree at the National Arboretum. Lastly, there was a Congressional Luncheon at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Peace Corps’ 25th Anniversary Foundation. Vice President George Bush was the guest speaker and more than 10 senators and congressmen joined the charter-member volunteers and their family members.
To me, the most moving part of Monday’s agenda was when Senator Ted Kennedy took the podium at lunch. Nearing the end of his remarks, he affectionately looked out on his audience and for a moment he faltered as he ended by saying he knew how proud his brother Jack would be. One of the Volunteers from my group who was near the Senator reached out and took his hand. The late Senator is another national hero who died short of seeing the Peace Corps reach its fiftieth For certain, he would have been even prouder of his brother’s enduring miracle.
Sargent Shriver’s Speech, “The Challenge” Saturday, September 20, 1986
Under the big white top on the Mall, on Saturday, Sargent Shriver spoke of “The Challenge”. His remarks were both moving and informative and provided some insights into Robert Sargent Shriver, the man, and the making of the Peace Corps.
He opened by stating “Mine is an impossible task. To describe the challenge facing the Peace Corps is to describe the most profound problems facing the entire world. . . . .You know that all of us in the Peace Corps constitute merely a handful of persons seeking perfection in a world population of billions struggling for mere survival.”
Mr. Shriver confided that no one in 196l would have predicted the Peace Corps would last five years let alone twenty-five. He recalled that most in the Peace Corps Headquarters were just hoping for congressional approval to survive to the next budget cycle and the Peace Corps never had a multi-year authorization much less a multi-year budget appropriation; thus, there was no scope for long-term planning. “Every year was “do-or-die”, working under conditions in which each year more than 25 percent of the Congress voted against the Peace Corps. Sarge listed “famous enemies” of the Peace Corps: Otto Passman, H.R. Gross, Homer Capehart, Bourke Hickenlooper, and others. He named some famous Democrats as well as Republican skeptics: Eleanor Roosevelt, Richard Russel, Richard Nixon, Walter Judd, Edith Bolton and Gerry Ford.
Contrary to popular myth, Shriver admitted that the Peace Corps was not accepted like apple pie and motherhood. But he proudly reported, “Nevertheless, we were nervy, even presumptuous.”
He revealed that there were 400 volunteers overseas at work before Congress approved the Peace Corps, a feat accomplished by using Presidential Discretionary Funds of less than ten million dollars to hire Peace Corps’ entire staff at home and abroad, select and train volunteers, ship them overseas and arrange all operations in seven countries. Acknowledging that no one could do that politically or financially in today’s climate, he reminisced, “Those were truly the good old days.”
Secondly, Sarge pointed out that initially many at the Peace Corps Headquarters volunteered. He was an exception and called himself the “first and only draftee” in the Peace Corps. His excuse was, “Kennedy made me do it.” He listed a number of people who just showed up to get the program off of the ground: Bill Moyers, Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson, Frank Mankiewicz, Morris Abrams, Sally Bowles, Nan McEvoy, Pat Kennedy, Lee St. Laurence, Frank Williams, Harris Wofford, Bill Haddad and many others. He explained that the newly hatched agency survived without an organizational chart for several months before the need for more structure became glaringly apparent.
His third point was that the Peace Corps was started without knowing “whether anybody in the world wanted it”, citing that there was no market research, no real spokesperson and as a consequence, the meager, mostly volunteer staff did it themselves, traveling to potential customers – nations of the less developed world. Sarge applauded the leaders of initial host nations who gambled with us: Ghana, India, Tanzania, the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Columbia and Venezuela, leaders he described as “heroes of the first Peace Corps.” He was convinced we could not have succeeded without their cooperation because, “The Peace Corps has always been a two-way street.”
Then Shriver talked about the much-to-do over the title of the Peace Corps explaining that many bitterly contested the name. Some wanted a solid bureaucratic title such as “The Agency for Overseas Volunteer Service.” Conservatives opposed the word, “Peace,” terming it wishy-washy, vague and weak and others considered the word, “Peace” had been corrupted because it was applied to every political initiative and every war in which the U.S. become a participant. The Left Wing disliked the word, “Corps”, believing it sounded militaristic.
In the end, it was Sarge who decided to use both words, reasoning “that together we got the best of both: ‘Peace’ because that was truly our business and ‘Corps’ because it showed that we were not individuals, but a group.”
He continued, “So, may it be said that the Peace Corps is a miracle, a little one perhaps, but still a genuine one! For surely it was an intuitive flash of spirit which prompted Kennedy to say to himself: ‘Yes, the idea of a Peace Corps is right. It fits the times. It strikes the right note. It resonates to the concept. People will respond.’”
Shriver asked, “How did Kennedy know?” Answering his own question, he responded that the President “didn’t really know as one knows the facts of history or the accuracy of an algebraic equation. He knew it as Picasso knows the line he draws, or Yeats the word or phrase he chooses for a poem. Kennedy ‘knew’ the Peace Corps idea was right and timely, and evocative just as he ‘knew’ that ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ was right and timely and evocative and unifying and inspirational….Just as he knew that ‘We shall put a man on the moon in this decade’ would lift men’s souls and minds and hearts.” Shriver delighted in the fact that people still responded to Kennedy’s vision.
In closing, he counseled Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to “Stay as you are. Be servants of peace. Work at home as you have worked aboard, humbly, persistently, intelligently. Weep with those who are sorrowful, rejoice with those who are joyful. Teach those who are ignorant. Care for those who are sick.” He urged Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to serve their spouses, families, neighbors, cities and the poor. “Serve, Serve, Serve! That is the challenge. For in the end, it will be the servants who save us.”