By Richard Reeves
Over the years, more than one Kennedy in-law has told me that there were obvious advantages to marrying into that blood-bonded family ever ready to take on the world, but that living with them was no picnic at the beach and you could get buried pretty deep in all that Irish mythology. R. Sargent Shriver was not one of the complainers; he was a man who would have made his own mark whatever his name or family.
Shriver, who married President Kennedy's sister Eunice and managed the family-owned Chicago Merchandise Mart, that huge building along the Chicago River, was asked by his brother-in-law to create a uniquely American institution, the Peace Corps. The idea, casually mentioned by candidate Kennedy late at night during an October 1960 campaign rally at the University of Michigan, was that young Americans would go around the world and teach people to be like us.
Shriver organized the thing in a month.
As many as 15,000 young people a year were invited—the local government did the inviting—into villages and muddy fields and disease-generating swamps to work beside the poor locals and try to teach them about democracy, the English language and the American way.
Didn't work. Not like that anyway.
Some schools and short bridges were built, some people learned a little more about sanitation and irrigation. Then the Americans went home.
Kennedy was terribly proud of the idea. He once told Shriver's assistant, Harris Wofford, that he would love to stand at the White House and watch a million corps members march off. That would have been great and Shriver probably could have done it, but the president never really understood what was happening. If he had, or other Americans had, we might be a much greater country today and the world might be a better place as well.
It took me more than 20 years to figure it out. I was given some money by public television to collect old film of volunteers, then track them down and film them returning to the villages and nameless places they had been and see how life had changed because of their smarts and efforts. Well, in most cases, they had changed nothing—except themselves.
One man who knew from the beginning that that would happen was Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India. "What do you think of the idea of our Peace Corps?" Kennedy asked Nehru just before the first volunteers were sent out.
Nehru answered that he thought it was a good plan, that pampered young Americans would learn a great deal about life serving in the villages of India.
Kennedy was not amused. But Nehru was not kidding, as I discovered when I tracked down those first volunteers, now middle-aged in the 1980s. I stumbled across some great stories: Taylor Hackford, the film director ("Ray"), was thrown out of Bolivia for daring to make fun of the American ambassador; the writer Paul Theroux accidently got himself into the middle of an attempted coup in Malawi.
But the real story was that we had produced a cadre of Americans who were, in a way, in the Peace Corps for life, working as world-wise teachers, community activists, health workers, diplomats, staffers of nongovernmental organizations, newspaper reporters. A bunch of do-gooders. I doubt there are many Peace Corps alumni clubs on Wall Street.
Kennedy and Shriver were right about sending out a million young Americans. Many of our problems over the years since then have been caused or aggravated by the fact that we are not world-wise. We may not be ugly Americans, but most of us are ignorant of the world. To begin with, as George W. Bush believed, other people don't want to be Americans; they want to have what we have.
There still is a Peace Corps. Membership is about 8,000, but it is a shadow of its former self and its former promise. So, goodbye to Sarge Shriver. He tried.
© 2011 UNIVERSAL UCLICK