Practical Idealism: How Sargent Shriver Built the Peace Corps
Sargent Shriver Peace Institute
George Mason University
On January 18, 2011, Sargent Shriver died at the grand old age of ninety-five. His passing came half a century — almost to the day — after John F Kennedy, newly sworn in as thirty-fifth president of the United States, summoned him from Chicago to take the lead in designing and developing the Peace Corps that Kennedy had pledged in his campaign to create. These twinned events, last year's fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the Peace Corps together with the death of its illustrious founding director, provide occasion to reflect anew on the Peace Corps' singular contribution to American peacemaking and public policy, and on the practical idealism of the man who brought John F Kennedy's campaign pledge to life.
Fifty years ago the Peace Corps represented a brand-new idea. Nothing like it had ever been tried by the U.S. government, and the nation greeted it with widespread enthusiasm — one Harris poll showed over 70 percent of Americans favored its creation.
Fifty years ago the Peace Corps represented a brand-new idea. Nothing like it had ever been tried by the U.S. government, and the nation greeted it with widespread enthusiasm — one Harris poll showed over 70 percent of Americans favored its creation. Today we are no longer as curious about the organization and what it does; with familiarity has come the easy assumption that we already know all we need to know about the Peace Corps. It is now easy to overlook the distinctive approach to peacemaking that Sargent Shriver and his staff built into the program, and to forget that a "peace corps" was Shriver 's tough-minded, practical answer to a question just as pressing to the American people today as it was when he asked it in 1961: "If you believe that people must live in harmony in this conflict-ridden world, how is this going to come about?"
What person — except perhaps the very young themselves — can really believe that an Africa aflame with violence will have its fires quenched because some Harvard boy or Vassar girl lives in a mud hut and speaks Swahili?
The Peace Corps itself came about with astonishing speed. Immediately after Kennedy's inauguration, Shriver returned to Washington, where he set up temporary headquarters at the Mayflower Hotel. In short order he gathered a team of talented people from across the country, galvanized a freewheeling dialogue that brought their best insights to light, and pushed hard to deliver a report to the president just four weeks later. The report recommended starting the program immediately, by executive order, with congressional authorization to follow. On March 1, five days after receiving Shriver's report, Kennedy issued the order that created the Peace Corps, and quickly appointed Shriver its first director. Not all were enthusiastic — certainly not the editors of the Wall Street Journal, at any rate, who greeted the announcement of the corps and its new director with a scathing rhetorical question: "What person — except perhaps the very young themselves — can really believe that an Africa aflame with violence will have its fires quenched because some Harvard boy or Vassar girl lives in a mud hut and speaks Swahili?"
Shriver, for his part, was not young. He was forty-five, a graduate of Yale Law School who had seen action as a gunnery officer in the Battle of Guadalcanal, gone on to work as a reporter for Newsweek in New York City, and finally moved to Chicago, where he helped Joseph P Kennedy build the Chicago Merchandise Mart into an extraordinarily successful enterprise and served as chairman of the Chicago School Board. And far from being naive, he was in fact savvy enough to understand that in creating the Peace Corps he had introduced into the heart of the U.S. government a fundamentally different understanding of conflict and peacemaking. So it came as little surprise to him that the Wall Street Journal would dismiss the corps, calling it "a puzzlement" and "nonsensical." Such pronouncements, Shriver understood, were not merely gratuitous insults, but rather reflected the establishment's traditional view of war, peace, and how the world works. "The wars of the civilized world," opined the Journal editors, "did not break out because there was any lack of people to people contact between Germans and Frenchmen."
Because his design for the Peace Corps ran contrary to the realpolitik of America's foreign-policy establishment, Shriver's challenge was to get members of that establishment — "the experts," he called them — to take the corps seriously as an effective way of making peace in a world torn by ideological conflict, postcolonial revolutions, and the Cold War. He tackled this challenge with abandon. In the lobby of the group's headquarters he hung a sign emblazoned in big silver letters: if they mean to have peace, let it begin here. This was a play on the famous words of Captain John Parker to the Minutemen on Lexington Green ("If they mean to have a war, let it begin here!"). As head of the Peace Corps Shriver became a regular on Meet the Press and delivered speeches across the country. He never met a senator or representative he didn't like — or who didn't like him — and he made sure to meet them all.
Guns won't change the world, that is one of the great lessons of this bloody century. Dollar bills won't change the world. Nor will simple goodwill. What would change it, is youthful enthusiasm and noble purposes... combined with hardheaded pragmatism and realistic administration.
Along the way, he honed a rhetorical strategy designed to challenge his audiences and spark their curiosity about the theory of change he built into the policies and procedures of Peace Corps. Speaking to the Foreign Policy Association in 1963, he voiced the prevailing reservations about the efficacy of a Peace Corps in a world beset by the Cold War and the menace of the hydrogen bomb. "What difference can it possibly make in the face of such enormous and complex forces," he asked, "that a few thousand Americans go overseas to serve mankind? Isn't it an illusion to think that the Peace Corps might actually help to bring peace — help to change the world?" Having raised these doubts, Shriver then took the inquiry deeper, asking a fundamental question: What would change the world? "Guns won't change the world," he reminded his audience; "that is one of the great lessons of this bloody century. Dollar bills won't change the world. Nor will simple goodwill." What would change it, he said repeatedly, was "youthful enthusiasm and noble purposes... combined with hardheaded pragmatism and realistic administration." And that was the Peace Corps in a nutshell: "a formula," Shriver said, "for practical idealism."
Theorists working in peace studies and conflict analysis and resolution maintain an important distinction between "peacemaking" and "peacebuilding": making peace with others is the act that creates the conditions for building the institutions and structures that are required to sustain peace. Making peace between two parties engages the whole range of actions and activities involved in defusing feelings of threat, deepening mutual insight, and creating possibilities for meaningful collaboration. Shriver was way ahead of his time in understanding this distinction well; he knew that if you didn't first make peace, you could never build it to last. While the Wall Street Journal was correct in pointing out that there was no lack of peoples-to-peoples contact between the French and the Germans before the great world wars, its critique of the Peace Corps failed to recognize that only certain kinds of peoples-to-peoples contact make peace; other kinds, in fact, create conflict. Shriver was clear about the difference. As he explained to his audience at the Foreign Policy Association, Peace Corps volunteers were sent overseas not merely as "skilled workers" but as makers of peace, living examples of what he called "the most powerful idea of all": the idea that free and committed men and women can cross, even transcend, boundaries of culture and language, of alien tradition and great disparities of wealth, of old hostilities and new nationalisms, to meet with other men and women on the common ground of service to human welfare and human dignity.
Compassion and service, can dissolve obstacles of race or belief any where in the world.
In asserting that when people meet on that common ground of service, they set up the conditions necessary to transcend boundaries of culture, language, wealth, and politics that otherwise divide them, Shriver's approach to conflict in the world departed sharply from the realpolitik of America's foreign-policy establishment, with its Hobbesian view of human affairs as the war of all against all. But in taking this approach, Shriver was not merely offering an opinion or declaring an article of faith. He was making an empirical claim, a claim he elaborated in a commencement address at Fordham University in 1963. Noting that his work as Peace Corps director had already taken him to thirty countries, he reported having seen firsthand how volunteers and their host-country partners had worked together to make peace. "Compassion and service," he insisted to the graduates, "can dissolve obstacles of race or belief any where in the world."
The Peace Corps works. It makes peace. It can change the world. This was Shriver's consistent, straightforward testimony to us all. But how does it work? Why does it make good sense to expect that sending Peace Corps volunteers to other countries to serve human dignity and human welfare is a promising way to make peace in the world — more promising, for example, than strategies based on guns or dollar bills or simple good will could ever be?
Over the years, Shriver offered numerous answers to this question, each one a variation on a core set of ideas. Cast in terms of what the individual volunteer should expect in her service abroad, his formula for practical idealism stressed five basic guidelines: learn the language of the country you work in; learn its customs and traditions; believe in the worthwhile nature of the personal sacrifices you are making; take your standard of living down to the local level; and, finally, cultivate integrity, humility, and determination. These rules, Shriver maintained, put volunteers in a position to cross the boundaries of language, culture, religion, and politics that they would need to cross in order to make peace. To grasp the logic of Shriver's rules, imagine being a host-country national — a citizen of Ghana, say, or Vanuatu — who learns that a Peace Corps volunteer has come to live and work in your community. What would it take for you and your fellow community members to engage with this person — to get to know her, to trust her, to work effectively with her?
First, in order for you to work together at all, she would need to speak your language. Second, she would need to learn the basic rhythms and patterns of your culture, understanding how your values and practices shape the way you communicate: how you seek to persuade and inform, how you make requests, entertain, refuse or affirm, and speak your mind. Third, she would have to live in your community. Because even if she happened to speak your language and share your cultural frame of reference, if she lived with other expatriates in an isolated enclave, what chances for meaningful contact would you have? How would you get to know her, work with her, trust her? Shriver believed that only by taking his or her standard of living down could an American volunteer hope to mix freely and easily with the people he or she had come to serve.
He also believed that all people desire to communicate effectively with each other — to hear and to be heard, to connect and to be connected. As he put it, "people are hungry for contact, for fellowship, for the breaking down of barriers." Again, this was not a naive view. Shriver was keenly aware that the human desire for fellowship is regularly frustrated and subverted, and that if people do not share a foundation of common experience, they will remain foreign to each other. He knew that if linguistic, cultural, and social differences block mutual understanding, people are likely to project incomplete or erroneous understandings onto each other instead. He also knew that such misunderstandings, if not corrected, could trigger suspicion — and that if not allayed, suspicion in turn could harden into hostility and escalate from there into rejection, vilification, and even violence. We are all too familiar with this pattern of experience; indeed, our deep knowledge of it is what makes realpolitik so compelling.
But Shriver maintained that the hunger for contact and fellowship runs even deeper than the experience of misunderstanding and suspicion. This belief informed his final and most important rules, the ones that enjoined personal sacrifice and belief in the power of personal integrity, humility, and determination. Such guidelines and priorities took into account the specific geopolitical context in which the Peace Corps operated — a world in which developing countries, many just beginning to emerge from colonial rule, were forced to navigate the titanic contest between the United States and the Soviet Union — and the way those realities complicated the task of peacemaking. Returning to our hypothetical host country, imagine that you and others in your community, based on your awareness of America's exercise of global power, find yourselves feeling suspicious, even hostile toward the prospect of this American coming to live and work among you. Why has she come? What reason could she have, other than to exploit you in some way? You feel she should go back where she belongs, and take the United States government with her.
Shriver knew that once people in other lands adopted a wary stance toward the United States, it was very difficult to allay suspicion and defuse their sense of threat. Distances existed that no claim of innocence or assertion of good intention could bridge — nor, in such cases, could a shared language or cultural sympathies. What, then, would it take to allay suspicions about the Peace Corps volunteer, to shift his or her relationship with host citizens from one of threat and suspicion to one of curiosity and trust? Shriver's answer: service to human welfare and human dignity. He believed that the very nature of such service would help counteract whatever projections of misunderstanding and ulterior motives might stick to volunteers. He acknowledged that this approach was unusual and required unusual volunteers. A Peace Corps volunteer is really a "rare bird," he remarked:
He goes to a foreign country to work within that country's system; he helps fill their needs as they see them; he speaks their language; he lives in the way they live and under their laws; he does not try to change their religion; he does not seek to make a profit from conducting business in their country; he does not interfere in their religious, political, or military affairs. And because of this he has been welcomed where others have been turned away.
To return to our host-country scenario: once you and others in your community understand that the volunteer truly is there to serve, as a teacher, a youth-development specialist, or a nurse working with and supervised by a counterpart from your community — and that she would not be there if your government had not requested her services — you may well begin to question your original suspicions. You may even become curious. "Would she come really all this way to serve us? A representative of the American government would do that?"
Of course, for Shriver's peacemaking strategy to work, the volunteer would have to deliver on it, genuinely motivated by the spirit of service to human welfare and dignity. Such a commitment, Shriver knew, could only be made by the volunteer, acting by the lights of her own integrity, humanity, and determination. Thus the crucial provision that a volunteer "could remove himself any time he realized his motive was less than a true desire for service." The need for such a provision reminds us just how difficult it is to enter a different culture and make peace in the spirit of service. The Peace Corps, Shriver liked to remind everyone, was never "just another job." Rather, it called for an unusual generosity of spirit, "a willingness to share the life of another people, to accept sacrifice when sacrifice is necessary."
In this regard, I suspect that Dana Carter, a volunteer in Cameroon in the late 1990s, captures the experience of many Peace Corps volunteers in a recent blog entry (on peacecorpsonline.com) in which she recalls the gritty difficulties of life and the personal sacrifice involved in being a volunteer. "Sure," she writes, "having malaria, no electricity, and no running water was hard to deal with."
But these weren't the things that left me in tears. Being an outcast and prejudged by certain people because I was an American was hard. Not being taken seriously because I was a woman was hard. Being yelled at and grabbed because people thought I had money was hard. Not being able to walk down a street without being called "white" was hard. Sometimes I felt bitter and angry that I was being accosted by the very people that I was there to help.
Crossing the barriers of race and culture in these circumstances, Dana writes, requires you to "let go of your previous beliefs and behaviors and allow yourself to become a different person." As Dana makes clear, the compassion required for making peace comes at a high personal cost, and part of it is the pain that comes from making yourself vulnerable to the projections and the misconceptions of others. This is a tall order, and Shriver knew it. He knew precisely what he was asking of those who chose to serve — and he expressed it directly, and profoundly, in the Peace Corps's first recruitment slogan: "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love."
The Peace Corps is different. It goes beyond politics and national rivalries to reach the deepest hopes of man. It is a working model, a microcosm, a small society representing the kind of world we want our children to live in.
More than fifty years have passed since Sargent Shriver created the Peace Corps, and now he has passed away too. In that half-century more than two hundred thousand Peace Corps volunteers have served overseas — some eight thousand are serving now — and the Peace Corps has become a fixture of the American political and cultural landscape. "The Peace Corps is different," Shriver told an audience in 1964. "It goes beyond politics and national rivalries to reach the deepest hopes of man. It is a working model, a microcosm, a small society representing the kind of world we want our children to live in."
Last updated May 22 2013
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