The Practical Idealism of The Peace Corps, Essay by Jamie Price

Maureen Orth (Colombia 1965-67) was kind enough to forward to me an article  entitled “Practical Idealism: How Sargent Shriver Built the Peace Corps”  in the February 10, 2012 issue of Commonweal magazine. The article was written by Jamie Price, the Director of the Insight Conflict Resolution Program at George Mason University and Executive Director of the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute. Commonweal, if you don’t know the publication, is a wonderful liberal independent journal of opinions published by lay Catholics. Their offices are located on the West Side of New York City, and as they say, they have “a good view of the Hudson River and beyond.”

The Jamie Price piece is too long to re-print so let me just quote a few paragraphs.

Jamie Price writes: “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.”

Price goes on to writes, “Because his design for the Peace Corps ran contrary to the real politik 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 you mean to have a war, let it being here!)”

Shriver  knew that his approach–and the approach of the Peace Corps–did not sit well with the ‘experts’ and he spearheaded his answer to them when he spoke to the Foreign Policy Assocation in 1963. This was the time of the Cold War and the menace of the hydrogen bomb.

Shriver told them, “What difference can it possibly make in the face of such enormous and complex forces,” he said, “that a few thousand Americans go overseas to serve mankind?”

Having raised these doubts, Price writes, “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;…Dollar bills won’t change the world; Nor will simple good will.’ 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.'”

Price goes on, “He (Shriver) acknowledged that this approach was unusual and required unusual volunteers. A Peace Corps volunteer is really a ‘rare bird,’ Shriver remarked.

Then Price quotes what sort of PCV, Sarge had in mind for the new agency:

“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.”

In closing his article Price sums up, “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.'”

If you can, try and find and read Jamie Price’s long article on Shriver. And I have another suggestion. The Peace Corps HQ has a series of guest speakers at the agency and it would be useful, as well as very informative, I think, if the Director invited Jamie Price to speak to the staf. Price works at George Mason University, which is just across the river in Maryland. It wouldn’t cost the Peace Corps much more than a subway fare to hear from someone who knows Shriver and his philosophy “up close and personal.” There aren’t many of those folks left in D.C., or the Peace Corps. Just a thought.

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  • With little more than our enthusiasm in giving the poor campesino some hope and capacity in their own world we acted as a buffer of choice between our way of life and competing ideologies that were underway in Latin America when Peace Corps began.

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