This past Friday, November 9, we celebrated what would have been Sargent Shriver's 103rd birthday. Then, yesterday on Veterans Day, we honored those who have served in the US military. Taking both of these events into account, our Quote of the Week remembers Sargent Shriver as a warrior who became a peacemaker.
As a young man, Sargent Shriver opposed the US' involvement in World War II. Wanting to serve his country, however, he enlisted in the US Navy in 1940, while he was still a law student at Yale. He then reported for active duty in 1941, shortly after completing the bar exam. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Sarge was assigned to the USS South Dakota, a new battleship that would eventually be deployed in the South Pacific. The ship participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal, in which Sargent Shriver was wounded and for which he later received a Purple Heart.
Sargent Shriver served in the Navy until 1945. Several years later, working at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, he embarked on a career of service of a different kind. Throughout the 1950s, he headed both the Chicago Board of Education and the Catholic Interracial Council. During this era, Sarge successfully integrated the city's public and parochial schools, an experience that engaged him early on in the battle for civil rights. In 1959, he joined the Presidential campaign of his brother-in-law, then-Senator John F. Kennedy. Once Kennedy won the presidency, Sarge was appointed to be the first Director of the Peace Corps, an institution that did not exist until Kennedy imagined it, and Sarge brought it into existence. With its mandate to foster peace in the developing world through service and friendship, the Peace Corps has had almost 220,000 volunteers to date, and has supported the development of communities in 141 countries.
After the tragic assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson launched a bold initiative in which Sargent Shriver would play a central role: the War on Poverty. Sargent Shriver, who was already leading a thriving Peace Corps at the time, was reluctant to take on this new challenge, and he resisted President Johnson at first. However, the President persisted, and Sargent Shriver found himself building and directing another new institution, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Through this office, Sarge oversaw the launching of the War on Poverty programs, including Head Start, VISTA, Community Action, Legal Services for the Poor, and Foster Grandparents, which served to empower the poor in communities around the country. It's notable that while leading the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver often made the connection between conflict and poverty, noting that people who have been denied economic opportunity as well as political rights were living under a constant state of stress and duress that could at times result in violence. Essentially, the poor were in a war of their own -- for their very survival. Combating poverty, was, in effect, peacemaking of a different sort.
Although the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty are Sargent Shriver's best known accomplishments as a peacemaker, they are by no means his only ones. In 1968, Sargent Shriver served as US Ambassador to France. He took on this role during a time of increasing domestic and international tensions for both the US and France. Among other diplomatic activities, he attempted to bring an end to the Vietnam War (although, because of circumstances beyond his control, he was not successful).
Sargent Shriver's peacemaking efforts did not end when his diplomatic post in France was over. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he worked behind the scenes on initiatives towards nuclear disarmament and peace in the Middle East, mainly by bringing together religious leaders to exert their influence on world leaders. He also held leadership roles at Special Olympics well into the 2000s, during which he was responsible for bringing the organization into countries throughout the world, including Russia, China, Tunisia, New Zealand, and South Korea. In doing this, he expanded opportunities for people with developmental disabilities, giving agency to individuals whose human rights are sometimes ignored.
Whether fighting for the civil and human rights of the vulnerable, working on fostering relationships between people or between countries, or securing economic opportunity for those who were struggling, Sargent Shriver perhaps never left his fighting days behind; he simply shifted his focus, becoming a warrior for peace.