The Deathless Legacy Of Sargent Shriver

He launched one of America's greatest achievements — sending over half a million American volunteers to help raise the standard of living in 139 countries.

Sargent Shriver and John F. Kennedy
Sargent Shriver (left) walks with President John F. Kennedy on the White House collonade.
National Archives

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Sargent Shriver’s health failed him before he could celebrate the Peace Corps’ 50th birthday this March. He died January 18th, at the impressive age of 96. Given a choice, he probably would not have wanted a eulogy as much as promotion for the cause so close to his heart.

So we quote today from a Post article —“The Peace Corps: Making Friends for America.” Even in 1982, with the country’s culture wars just starting to heat up, the program enjoyed broad (we could even use the word “bipartisan”) support among public figures.

There are President Reagan and [recently appointed Peace Corps] Director Loret Miller Ruppe. Then, John F. Kennedy. “Miss Lillian” Carter. Bill Moyers. The King of Tonga. Senator Paul Tsongas. Father Hesburgh. Sargent Shriver. Unlikely allies, but all linked through one strong common interest.

Shriver was the founding director of the Corps—which began in 1961—and served under his liberal Democrat brother-in-law. President Kennedy, who originally proposed the organization in his campaign promises. Ruppe, President Reagan’s Peace Corps head, is—like her chief—a conservative Republican. Yet both directors testify to the enthusiastic backing of their chief executives, 20 years and political poles apart. Both directors won their White House standing through vigorous and successful election campaigning.

Today, Ruppe… is confident that the Peace Corps is on the threshold of a new era of growth and public recognition, fully in harmony with President Reagan’s philosophy of expanding the private-sector role in serving the public good. But it isn’t easy, especially since the Peace Corps has had such a low profile in recent years that many people, even in government-centered Washington, assume that it was one of those “nice ideas” that was abandoned long ago.

Over the past two decades, the Peace Corps has enlisted and sent out to 90 countries more than 85,000 volunteers.

Today, those numbers have grown 139 countries, and the total number of volunteers is nearly 250,000,000.

Wherever former Peace Corps volunteers live and work, they are symbols of caring concern, inclined to be active in community service and, inevitably, bridges between their hometown neighbors and visitors and immigrants from abroad. Some outside observers— and many of the volunteers themselves —believe that one of the main achievements of the Peace Corps has been the expanded and enriched education, experience and global understanding it has provided for those who have had PC assignments abroad.

However true that may be, the chief purpose of the Peace Corps today, as in the past, is to help other people in the poorer, less developed countries help themselves.

When the conservative government of Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington, there was a widespread belief that foreign aid would be drastically slashed, if not abolished. It didn’t quite happen that way. Despite initial proposals by the Office of Management and Budget for cutting the A.I.D. budget in half, and reducing the Peace Corps funding by about one- fourth, bipartisan support for maintaining a substantial assistance program won out. The Peace Corps allocation was held to $105 million. This represents, in actual value of the dollar, only about half the $114 million available to the Corps in 1966, when it had some 15,000 volunteers on duty in more than 70 countries.

In 2010 dollars, that 1966 budget would be about $700 million. In actual 2010 dollars, though,  the budget for the Peace Corps is now $400 million.

Loret Ruppe sees the entire Peace Corps operation as a prudent national investment of long-term benefit to the countries being helped, to the interests of the United States and to the peace of the world. She is thoroughly opposed… to a hand-out approach to solving people’s problems at home or abroad. But the Peace Corps, she points out, is one of those down-to-earth endeavors in which the emphasis is on helping people to help themselves—and it has a track record to prove that such an approach really works.

In a speech at the Peace Corps’ 35th anniversary, in 1996, Ruppe recalled the moment President Reagan changed his attitude toward the program.

In 1983, I was invited to the White House for the state visit of Prime Minister Ratu Mara of Fiji. Everyone took their seats around this enormous table—President Reagan, Vice President Bush, Caspar Weinberger, the rest of the Cabinet, with the Prime Minister and his delegation, and myself.

They talked about world conditions, sugar quotas, nuclear free zones. The President then asked the Prime Minister to make his presentation. A very distinguished gentleman, he drew himself up and said, “President Reagan, I bring you today the sincere thanks of my government and my people.” Everyone held his breath and there was total silence. “For the men and women of the Peace Corps who go out into our villages, who live with our people.” He went on and on. I beamed. Vice President Bush leaned over afterwards and whispered, “What did you pay that man to say that?”

A week later, the Office of Management and Budget presented the budget to President Reagan with a cut for the Peace Corps. President Reagan said, “Don’t cut the Peace Corps. It’s the only thing I got thanked for last week at the State Dinner.” The Peace Corps budget went up. Vice President Bush asked kiddingly again, “What did you pay?”

Well, we know one thing: It isn’t for pay that Volunteers give their blood, their sacred honor. I can never forget those who died while I was Director. Let us never forget those who have given their lives or were disabled in service. I can never forget the sweat, the tears, the frustrations, the best efforts, and successes of thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers. I stand in awe and with the deepest respect.

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