Sarge: An Appreciation

By Geoffrey Howard

I never met Sargent Shriver, who died last week, and that’s probably a good thing. I tend to get tongue-tied when I meet people I admire as much as I admired him.

Shriver is best remembered as the founding director of the Peace Corps, the almost iconic legacy of the Kennedy years, when Cold War realism and youthful idealism appeared to co-exist peacefully. But “founding director” doesn’t really do justice to what the man actually did and the things he set in motion.

Basically, he took a raw idea that John Kennedy, his brother-in-law, had thrown out offhandedly in a University of Michigan campaign appearance in October 1960 and turned it into a vital reality within 3 months of the inauguration. He created an agency on March 1, 1961 – almost exactly 50 years ago – that began sending the first of what would grow to be more than 200,000 volunteers (so far!) into remote corners of the world to teach, to build, to heal, but also to listen, to learn, to understand.

It’s hard to overstate the cumulative impact of the agency Shriver started. The Peace Corps presents a part of the American story that the rest of the world doesn’t get to see in our military, economic and diplomatic policymaking. In the 1970’s, President Nixon tried to kill the Peace Corps, but was thwarted by an unlikely coalition of Third World leaders, many of whom were vehemently anti-American in their views, coming out strongly and publicly in its defense.

And it’s worth noting that this positive impact comes at an incredible bargain price. With an annual budget of a little over $400 million – less than the annual budgets of our military bands – the agency sends about 8,500 volunteers to 76 countries from Azerbaijan to Zambia.

In its earlier years, up until the 1990’s, the Peace Corps was primarily focused on hard-core Third World countries in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. But the world changed and the agency Sargent Shriver created changed with it. The fall of the Soviet Union led to dramatic Peace Corps opportunities in the newly independent states from Albania to Uzbekistan, and even, for a while, in Russia itself. Just last year, new countries like Mexico and Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation – were added to the rolls.

Interestingly, with Shriver’s passing, coinciding as it did with the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary, there is a groundswell of support for increasing the Peace Corps budget and the number of volunteers to something closer to its late 1960’s peak of 15,000. Unfortunately, the call for a bigger Peace Corps will have to do battle with demands to cut governmental spending. The outcome is unclear. 

Of course, great as it was and is, the Peace Corps is only a part of the Shriver legacy, only part of his answer to the famous challenge John Kennedy posed to us all. He went on from JFK’s Peace Corps to LBJ’s War on Poverty, starting Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA – the domestic Peace Corps – and other anti-poverty initiatives. And it didn’t stop even there: he became Ambassador to France and was generally credited with helping to rein in a head-strong Charles de Gaulle.

He went on to run for the vice presidency on the Democratic ticket with George McGovern in 1972 against Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, and while the Republicans won, it is hard not to speculate on what McGovern and Shriver might have accomplished – and the critical mistakes they might have avoided – had the election turned out differently.

And even then he wasn’t finished. He and his wife Eunice were driving forces behind the Special Olympics, raising millions for charities in the process.

As I say, I never met Sargent Shriver, but I did pass within his orbit, as did so many others. A Peace Corps Volunteer in the early Sixties, with a brand new BA in my hand, I headed off to dig wells for two years in a West African country I had never heard of, and that experience changed my life.

Thank you, sir. I wish I had had the opportunity to shake your hand.

Geoffrey can be reached at

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Geoffrey Howard is semi-retired and lives in Warwick. After serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in Senegal, he and his wife Carole have maintained a management consultant practice, interspersed with volunteer assignments in Uganda, Namibia, Thailand, Ghana and – 40 years later – Senegal once again.


One Response to “Sarge: An Appreciation”

  1. Lois Says:

    Great tribute, Geoffrey. I hadn’t put it all together.

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