Address to Commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Peace Corps

"So, I am not cynical, or depressed, about the Peace Corps and its future. On the contrary, I believe the U.S. needs the Peace Corps now more than when we started in 1961. Then, we thought of the good we could do overseas. Today, the overseas world still needs us desperately, but our own country needs us just as much or even more."
Washington, DC • August 03, 1991

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut
Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia

Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania

Congressman Jim Moody

Ambassador Loret Ruppe of Wisconsin

Director Paul Coverdell of Georgia

Distinguished Members of The House of Representatives

Civil Servants in the Federal and State Governments

Presidential Candidate, and Former Senator, Paul Tsongas, of Massachusetts

Ambassadors Walter Carrington; Nathaniel Davis; Franklin Williams;

Bill Moyers, Warren Wiggins, Bill Josephson, Morris Abram, Bill Haddad, Bill Delano, Frank Mankiewicz

Peace Corps Volunteers and Friends: --

I know many of the people I have just respectfully mentioned are not here today; but they are with us in spirit. Their names are like a litany of heroes in a war, or saints in a church. They reassure us all of the importance and ethics of the movement of which we -- every one of us -- is a significant participant. They help to make this 30th Reunion unforgettable.

It is heartening to see so many Volunteers joyfully celebrating the Peace Corps, their experiences with the Peace Corps, and their hopes for its future. Does any other U.S. Government enterprise inspire more generous and unselfish devotion? PCVs all served for less than a Private’s pay in the Army. They get no pension; they get no medical services. They get no medals. They get no bugle calls when they die.

Yet, they are here!

Congratulations to all of the RPCVs who have worked so hard to organize these Reunion Days. Congratulations to all who have travelled to Washington for this Reunion. I hope you are all enjoying these remarkable days.

I certainly am.

Of course, I, too, am “wrestling with the Peace Corps”, as the “New York Times” headlined an Op-Ed column written by an R.P.C.V., P.F. Kluge. It was published a few days ago. I’ve been engaged in that “wrestling match” for 30 years, but the Peace Corps wins out with me just as it did and does with Kluge. What “jerks” both Kluge and I would be if we had never “wrestled” with the idea and performance of the Peace Corps, with our own ideas about our country, about ourselves, and the future of our democracy.

I have been captivated also by book length studies and memoirs on our organization. The best I’ve read is “The Ponds of Kalambayi” by Mike Tidwell. If you haven’t read that book, buy it, and read it. You will laugh and cry and empathize with every page. And, don’t forget Coates Redmon’s faultless story of the first days at the creation of our organization. She called her book... “Come As You Are”...She could not have chosen a better title. In those early days, and, I hope now, the Peace Corps has sought Volunteers who are among the best of our fellow citizens. Typically, they have been patriotic, and hopeful about the future. Thank God they have not been skeptical, suspicious, fearful, envious, or overcome by greed! Wall Street still does not epitomize America for most of our citizens, or for foreigners. Financial cheaters, crooks in the banking system, savings and loan sharks flourished in the days of Presidents like Harding and Coolidge. The “business of America has never been business” as Coolidge claimed it was. Nor have we had many periods like the Reagan Years when anything that made money was permitted, and anyone who was extremely rich was acclaimed!

The Peace Corps spirit continues to thrive and represent our nation at its best. Volunteers continue to apply in numbers so large the Peace Corps budget cannot accept them all.

So, I am not cynical, or depressed, about the Peace Corps and its future. On the contrary, I believe the U.S. needs the Peace Corps now more than when we started in 1961. Then, we thought of the good we could do overseas. Today, the overseas world still needs us desperately, but our own country needs us just as much or even more. I say, therefore, the Peace Corps should be twice or even three times its current size; and, I believe VISTA should be joined with us.

I even like the title “Peace Corps and VISTA Volunteers United”, --


PCVVU - PCVVU - with emphasis on the “U": --

“United” for what?

United for Justice, which is the bedrock foundation upon which all peace must be based...United for Justice and Peace...

Remember the poem by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the HOMELESS, tempest-tost to me.”

We still welcome, and should welcome these huddled masses from abroad. But, today, my friends, we have millions and millions of human beings in huddled masses and homeless here at home.

The PCVVU -- should be dedicated to the pursuit of justice as well as peace, by every means available, -- not only in the barrios and favelas of Latin America or the shanty-towns of Africa; not only with the starving peoples of Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Indonesia, but with slum-dwellers in our largest American cities. The urban poor in New York and Los Angeles, in Detroit and Baltimore, in Miami and Philadelphia, in Milwaukee and St. Louis, etc., etc., etc., need the Peace Corps and VISTA in large, large numbers, beyond anything possible with “Points of Light”, which celebrates what has happened, not what needs to happen!

Let’s follow JFK’s example.

When all the “experts” told him he was foolish to start the Peace Corps, he remained undaunted. He went ahead.

When the “experts” counseled him against a unified Berlin, he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, more than 30 years before Berlin became one. When he said “we will put a man on the moon in this decade”, most of the world thought he was dreaming or hallucinating.

Well, yes, he was dreaming...dreaming of what should be, and could be, if we had the vision and guts, the generosity and spirit to make it happen!

His vision then far exceeds what I’m calling for today: -- VISTA and the Peace Corps United for work within the USA and outside our organization comprising all who participated in the Peace Corps experience -- not only Volunteers, but staff, parents, politicians, friends whose hearts and heads are open to the possibilities, rather than the problems of the 21st Century.

United we can help to create a new era when race, cultural differences, fear, wealth, and egotism, will no longer divide us into quarrelling blocs. The future, even more than the past, proclaims the truth that humanity must stand united or we shall all fall. Only this time, the word “we” stands for all of us human beings, created by God to live in harmony with one another, and with His glorious creation.

Thus, our attention must be focused on the USA as well as overseas. Three times as many American citizens will be killed in action this year in Washington, D.C. than we lost in combat in the famous Gulf War! We and our Allies spent more than fifty billion dollars to free that tiny country, Kuwait; a hundred times more than we spend in Washington to rid the capital of our nation from drugs, firearms, prostitution, homeless men and women, substandard schools, and unemployment.

George Washington must be spinning in his grave as he witnesses from on high what has happened to the city bearing his name.

The Pentagon today is seeking $500 billion to complete 100 programs for new weapons when, it is alleged, our nation cannot afford health care for millions of our fellow citizens!

Our President and our country stand astride the world like a great Colossus. No one matches us in military, economic, or political power. But, at home, we fall further and further behind in all communal aspects of our social life!

So, let’s unite VISTA and the Peace Corps. Put them together under one leader;--double or triple their size and budgets, and send a message around the world: -- that we practice at home what we preach abroad; that ours is truly a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, for all the people, not just the affluent. We cannot continue to be a nation where the wealthiest 15% of the population receive as much after tax income as the other 85% of the population combined, an almost unbelievable fact which first became a reality in 1988.

Critics will say the U.S. Government doesn’t have any money to expand the Peace Corps and VISTA...that all this work should be done by the private sector...that states and cities should finance their own physical rehabilitation and their citizens.

To which I reply...There is no less expensive way to deal with the human disasters taking place in our biggest metropolitan areas. There is no better way to help people to help one another than to enlist selfless volunteers in the task...there is no better way to reawaken in America the spirit of yesteryear, namely, that this country is our country, that we are all here together, responsible for one another and our common heritage and destiny. We are not a nation of hedonistic individuals, selfish, self-indulgent, spoiled by affluence and consumer goods, destined to live and die in shopping malls!

Read the new book coming out next month, -- “The Good Society” -- by Robert Bellah, the famous sociologist, and his colleagues, who wrote “Habits Of The Heart”...

Remember, President Kennedy was moved to start the Peace Corps, in significant part, by the impact of that famous book, -- “The Ugly American” by Burdick and Lederer. Remember, too, that his interest in poor people here at home was awakened by Michael Harrington’s famous book, “The Other America”.

That book helped to inspire nationwide governmental programs now endorsed even by conservative Republicans: -- “Head Start”, “The Job’ Corps”, “Foster Grandparents” (Nancy Reagan’s favorite), “Upward Bound”, and “VISTA” itself.

So, please read “The Good Society” next month.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues say:

“We hope to renew earlier efforts to create an American public philosophy less trapped in the clichés of rugged individualism and more open to an invigorating, fulfilling sense of social responsibility. But, responsible social participation, with an enlightened citizenry that can deal with moral and intellectual complexity, does not come about just from exhortation. It is certainly not enough simply to implore our fellow citizens to “get involved”. We must create the institutions that will enable such participation to occur, encourage it, and make it fulfilling as well as demanding”...

All of us need to enlist in that effort, and we can do so now. Let’s unite VISTA and the Peace Corps. Let’s unleash dedicated, and competent, and trained Volunteers within our own country as well as overseas. And, then, let’s do what they tell us needs to be done to recreate the spirit of togetherness, which made possible the creation of the USA in 1776.

In keeping with this spirit of togetherness and inclusiveness, may I say that this is a great reunion of PCVs. But, where are the visionary staff members who designed and produced the Peace Corps when there were no Volunteers? Where are the enthusiastic parents, and politicians, who have had the steadfastness and “guts” to encourage the Volunteers and supply the money? Many times, my friends, Congress has provided the funds when the Executive Branch favored reductions verging on extinction of VISTA and the Peace Corps.

Where are the citizens of foreign lands who have taught and trained and often led PCVS abroad?

The Peace Corps is an organization with world-wide friends; VISTA is an organization with roots and friends in the most forgotten parts of our country and our cities. Where are these helpers and beneficiaries of both the Peace Corps and VISTA? Maybe our next reunion -- the 40th, could be held in Nigeria or Panama; the 50th in New York City in the previously devastated parts of that metropolis where PCVVU’s working in The Bronx or Brooklyn and at the U.N. will have demonstrated how to unite peoples, not just nations!!

For the 21st Century, my friends, will challenge the world to come together, man-to-man, woman-to-woman, race-to-race, religion-to-religion, regardless of national borders! Those nationalistic borders, those lines on maps, are disappearing all over Europe! I can easily remember when it took travelers two hours to cross the border between Germany and France. Now, it takes seconds!! The walls of political nationalism are falling just as economic interdependence is making those old nationalistic lines vestigial reminders of a by-gone era.

Similar, profound changes are occurring between us and Canada, and between us and Mexico.

The Peace Corps cannot languish behind the tides of history. We don’t belong in any backwater or mere eddy. We are, especially the Volunteers must be, out in front of the mainstream, helping our own beloved nation to overcome our internal weaknesses as we lead the way to a unified world.

Let us never forget:

Peace cannot be achieved without Justice. Justice must prevail within our country if our United States are to remain united, not just politically, but spiritually. Unless we practice justice at home, we cannot preach abroad. Peace gained and maintained by military alone will never last. All history proclaims and teaches the truth!

So, let’s all of us who have been touched by the Peace Corps put that experience and knowledge to work. We must protect our country from militarism. We must protect ourselves from egocentric nationalism. We must rescue “the huddled masses” within our great urban centers. We must enroll our friends within the USA, and from abroad, so that together we can build a mighty army of experienced, dedicated citizens for the new world of the 21st Century.

In the year 2011, the Peace Corps will be only 50 years old. Pray that on March 1st, 2011, our successors will celebrate an anniversary with 50,000 Volunteers, friends, staff, employees and “boosters” rejoicing in a world made more Just and Peaceful because of us.

Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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