When the Peace Corps turned 25 the other day, the calendar had another date worth celebrating: the 70th birthday of Sargent Shriver, the program's director for its first six years and its most fired- up defender and promoter for the next 19. The Peace Corps and Shriver, certified imperishables, have not been slowed by the passage of time. Both still stir with the idealism that marked their peaking in the 1960s. Both have yet to be tempered by the what's-in-it-for-me spirit of the '80s.
Last week, the Peace Corps was preparing for its next 25 years by working toward the congressionally sanctioned goal of having 10,000 volunteers in the field. Shriver, who was the federal government's original Department of Energy, had hiked off to China and South Korea to organize some Special Olympics events. Without doubt, he was selling the East on high hurdles, his own specialty during the first days of the Peace Corps.
Fate delivered back then the kind of opponents who guaranteed success. Richard Nixon, speaking in the 1960 campaign, said that John Kennedy's idea of the Peace Corps was no more than a "fast and flashy technique of proposing a program that looks good on the surface but which is inherently dangerous." The Wall Street Journal, dealing in the same sarcasm that is its editorial-page tone today, asked: "What person can really believe that 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 Daughters of the American Revolution asked Congress to kill the pending Peace Corps legislation. Rep. Otto Passman, who in 1961 worked to cut funds for the program, was saying in 1972: "If I had to meet my Maker in three minutes, and the last decision the Good Lord would let me make . . . it would be to abolish the Peace Corps. Then I could die in peace."
In early 1961, with legs the equal of his lungs, Shriver visited each congressional office to win support for the Peace Corps. Even the agency's name prompted arguments. Shriver recalls: "Peace Corps was not the most popular title. Among the most experienced advisers, that title was scoffed at. They wanted a solid bureaucratic title -- like the Agency for Overseas Voluntary Service. Conservatives opposed the word 'peace.' They maintained it sounded soft, wishy-washy, vague and weak. The communists, they said, had corrupted the word peace by applying it to every political initiative and even to every war they got involved in. . . . The left wing disliked the word 'corps.' It sounded too militaristic. The famous 'German Afriker Corps,' victorious almost everywhere under General Rmmel, was fresh in their mind. 'Corps' sounded like a scourge. Finally, I decided we'd use both words, put them together and get the best out of both of them: Peace because that truly was our business, and corps because it showed that we were not individualists but a group."
Today the group numbers 5,500 active volunteers serving in 62 countries and 120,000 former vounteers who went to 88 countries. In Washington, nine directors were to follow Shriver. In the quarter-century that saw at least two dozen members of Congress sent to prison or shamed by scandal into retirement, and the jailing of the Nixon gang, the Peace Corps leadership has not suffered one resig- nation due to corruption or deceit. The tension on the program has been its proximity to an American foreign policy that is based on the force of weapons and domination rather than the Peace Corps' force of altruism and cooperation. Thousands of volunteers hae been troubled by the obvious inconsistency of going abroad to create the conditions of peace but realizing that the big money from America to the Third World goes for military aid.
The imbalance is also at home. The current Peace Corps budget is still less than what the Pentagon spends on its soldier boy recruitment ads. The volunteers who came home 20 years ago as opponents of the Johnson war in Southeast Asia are echoed by volunteers returning today who oppose the Reagan war in Central America. Twenty-five years ago, Shriver wrote to John Kennedy: "What the world most needs from this country is better understanding of the world."
That sounds naive in these times when American foreign policy is guided by pushers of U.S. superiority who see no need to answer to anyone, much less to listen to the world's poor for guidance. This mentality was also present in the Kennedy White House. It created the Green Berets, saw the New Frontier as extending to Vietnam and called Shriver and the Peace Corps "boy scouts." Some justice exists. The best and the brightest are now seen, in history's surer light, as the worst and the dullest.
The Peace Corps and Shriver, and their band of 125,500 idealists, have earned kinder treatment. They are in the history books as true peacemakers. They provide one of the better reasons that make the reading of American history bearable.