Sargent Shriver and the Birth of the Peace Corps

Stanley Meisler is the author of When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years. Meisler was a foreign and diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, the Nation, and Smithsonian, and lives in Washington, D.C.

Meisler The family joke was that President John F. Kennedy handed his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, a lemon and Shriver turned it into lemonade. The lemon was the new Peace Corps, and Shriver, who died on Tuesday just six weeks short of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, transformed that lemon in 1961 into the most dynamic, popular and exciting agency of the new administration. The success of the Peace Corps made Shriver a national celebrity.

President Kennedy had not intended the new agency to be so dynamic nor his brother-in-law to be so celebrated. In the hierarchy of the large Kennedy family, brothers-in-law were second class, expected to stifle their own political ambitions until those of the real brothers – Jack, Bobby and Ted – were satisfied. Shriver had mused about running for governor of Illinois in 1960, but the Kennedys quickly squelched this distraction from the main family job of electing Jack president.

The pragmatic Kennedys never quite knew what to make of the idealist Shriver. He struck them not as a tough politico but a dilettante. In Chicago, where he managed the massive Merchandise Mart office building for the family, he had become involved in civil rights causes and served as president of the school board. Some Kennedys joked he was a communist. Bobby Kennedy liked to call him a Boy Scout. In a family where the patriarch, Joe Kennedy, and several of his sons were notorious womanizers, Shriver, according to biographer Scott Stossel, was still a virgin at age 37 when he married Eunice Kennedy.

President Kennedy’s call for a Peace Corps during the campaign had excited college students throughout the country. Many thousands had rushed letters to Washington offering to join the still unformed corps. But Kennedy was wary of thousands of youngsters rushing around the world interfering with his foreign policies. He envisioned a small Peace Corps – a total of several hundred at most, all strictly supervised by veteran officials of the US Agency for International Development (AID). He handed Shriver and his Peace Corps task force a professor’s proposal along these lines and urged his brother-in-law to follow it.

All Shriver’s public relations and sales instincts rebelled against this cautious approach.  As Harris Wofford, a member of the task force and a future US Senator, put it, President Kennedy’s model was “contrary to every bone in Shriver’s body and every cell in his brain.”  Shriver looked elsewhere for ideas.

He found them in a report, “The Towering Task,” written by two young officials of the foreign aid agency that became AID, Warren Wiggins and William Josephson. In many ways, their paper was ridiculous. They proposed sending 50,000 Volunteers to India, 17,000 to the Philippines, 5,000 to 10,000 to Nigeria, and “a few thousand” to Mexico. This kind of massive folly would have choked the Peace Corps senseless at birth.

But Shriver found two vital conclusions in the report: (1) the Peace Corps had to be large enough to make an impact on the developing world, to impress Americans and to accommodate the thousands of young American applicants, and (2) President Kennedy had to move quickly, creating the agency by executive order instead of waiting for congressional legislation. After the task force adopted these recommendations, President Kennedy signed the executive order creating the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.

But the President still refused to make the Peace Corps independent. Shriver enlisted the help of Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had once warned Shriver against letting the Peace Corps become part of the foreign policy establishment. “You put the Peace Corps into the Foreign Service and they’ll put striped pants on your people when all you’ll want them to have is a knapsack and a tool kit and a lot of imagination,” Johnson said. He pushed the same argument on Kennedy. Faced with pressure from both his vice president and his brother-in-law, the president gave up and made the Peace Corps independent.

Shriver now had independence and the executive order but nothing else. He had no staff, no programs, no Volunteers, no real Peace Corps. He put everything together in six months in a whirlwind of verve, stamina, risk and enthusiasm. The atmosphere was frenetic, sometimes frantic, and enervating. A staff had to be organized. Governments had to be persuaded to accept Volunteers. Staffers had to devise programs and then travel overseas to make sure there would be jobs for the Volunteers. Applicants had to be selected. Universities had to train Volunteers in language, cultural studies and job skills.

Shriver or “Sarge,” as everyone he hired now called him, hunted for imaginative and unusual people for his staff. He hired two mountain climbers who had conquered K-2 in Pakistan, one to run the program in Nepal, the other in India. When Sarge tried to hire Franklin Williams from the staff of California Attorney General Stanley Mosk, Williams said he could not leave his job that soon. “Yes, you can,” said Shriver. He phoned Mosk right then. “Stanley, we got to have your assistant, Williams,” he said. Mosk gave him up.

Sarge hired Jack Hood Vaughn from AID and then reneged. He had too many people from AID on his staff. But an associate rushed in to Sarge’s office. Did he realize that Vaughn had won the amateur featherweight championship of Michigan, fought professionally in Mexico under the name of Johnny Hood, coached the University of Michigan team, and spared with Sugar Ray Robinson in Detroit? “My God, how did I miss that?” said Shriver. Vaughn was rehired.

Everyone worked long hours. The Washington Post ran a photo showing lights glowing in the Peace Corps building at night while all other government buildings were dark. Staffers leaving the building at midnight sometimes found Shriver in the same elevator.

Sarge was an inspiring, untiring leader. He was always articulate and in command of facts at news conferences and congressional committee hearings. He ran lively staff meetings where new ideas were continually explored and no one feared to contradict anyone else, not even Sarge.

Finally, on August 31, 1961, six months after President Kennedy had signed the executive order, a Pan Am charter flight landed in Accra, Ghana with 50 Peace Corps Volunteers, all teachers. The Volunteers alighted and managed to sing an anthem in Twi, one of the three main indigenous languages of Ghana. Their grasp of Twi was actually woeful, but they did a credible job, after rehearsal on the plane, of impressing their Ghanian welcomers. The teachers were the first Volunteers to reach their assigned country. Sarge’s Peace Corps had been launched.


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  • My respect for President Johnson has been elevated even higher by his comment mentioned here that, “… all you want them to have is a knapsack and a took kit and a lot of imagination.” When will we understand how truly great Johnson was?

  • True. I had never seen that comment. But he “got it,” didn’t he? Maybe it was a Texas way of taking a little shot at East Coast propriety. We also forget sometimes that the War on Poverty was his. Johnson saw poverty when he taught in schools where most of the kids were Latino. He was who he was, a flawed fellow, but it’s nice to see that his braver side is getting noticed.

  • Johnson was also the president who led our country in putting an end to racial discrimination. Master politician, man of the people, heart of gold. His main mistake was believing that he had to continue JFK’s policy on Vietnam. He was unable to change course in that mess.

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