Address at the Air Force Academy

"Traditionally in our country when you said you were “in the service” you meant the Armed Forces. Today that concept has been broadened. It includes Peace Corps volunteers serving in remote outposts all over the world. VISTA Volunteers working with the poor in city slums, and isolated rural communities. Neighborhood counselors, teachers’ aides, lawyers, doctors, social workers, are in service -- deeply involved in the same war we are fighting in Vietnam."
Colorado Springs, CO • April 01, 1966

In January 1964, as Director of the Peace Corps, I visited Israel and other countries in the Middle East: Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan. Just before I arrived in Israel, the Soviet Ambassador went to dinner at the home of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs. Discussing the Peace Corps, the Soviet Ambassador said to Israeli Foreign Minister, Mrs. Golda Meir:

“Don’t believe what the Americans say about the Peace Corps. They are not interested sincerely in helping people to help themselves — they’re not interested in equality for all men — look at the racial injustice in the U.S.A., — they’re not interested in opportunity for all — look how they treat the Indians on reservations in their own country. The Peace Corps, he said, is a phony — a sham. If Americans really believed in the Peace Corps ideals, they would work on them at home, not send Volunteers abroad.”

To which the Israeli Foreign Minister replied:

“What about America’s War against Poverty? That’s a new program within the U.S.A.”

The Soviet Ambassador, then, is alleged to have said:

“It will never get off the ground.”

Well, the War against Poverty has gotten off the ground — and already it has revealed to us and to the world extraordinary things about ourselves and our culture.

I am here tonight, very frankly, as a recruiter for the War on Poverty. You might even say that I am here as a recruiting “Sargent.”

And I won’t be satisfied with just one or two enlistees. I want all of you. This is not as incredible as it may sound. There is no need for General Moorman to tell Secretary McNamara that Shriver is subverting the Air Force.

To join the war I represent you do not have to alter your present condition, sign new enlistment papers, or change your commitment to the U.S. Air Force.

Let me explain what I mean.

Most of you, I am sure, plan to make a lifetime career of the Air Force. This is a lofty ambition and I feel a great sense of pride and respect for the choice you have made.

But I wonder if you have thought through completely what this life-time of service really signifies.

The average military man spends only two or three years of his career involved in actual shooting. This is the way it has been; and we pray it will continue to be — or even better.

For the rest of his years, although he is still “in service,” he is involved in a different kind of action. He is a guardian — a defender — a protector rather than a front line fighter.

But a protector of what? A defender of what? These questions should be as vital to you as the techniques of air support, the principles of command, the mathematics of fire power.

As a defender, you must know the kind of society, the values you are defending.

What is this society, this ideal you are defending — that we all are fighting for in our own way. “America - the land of opportunity.” That’s one of the ideals. Equality: “All men are created equal” - that’s another ideal: self-determination and self-realization, that’s another. But those are only words. We understand what they mean and how precious they are when we are called upon to fight for them — against a foe — a foreign foe — or a domestic foe like poverty.

Fighting poverty means renewing America’s promise of the right to live in dignity — America’s promise of equality for all men regardless of race, color or creed — a promise made to each succeeding generation of Americans. It was best expressed by a Cherokee Indian who came to Washington last month. He said:

My people used to walk about with a “lost spirit look” on their faces. Now I can bring them hope.

And that is why many of the most important victories we have won in the War against Poverty are intangible victories — victories which tell us something about the American dream, America’s fulfillment of the slogan America - the land of opportunity.

This past Christmas Eve, the Governor of Arkansas issued a press release and sent me a copy. This is how the release started off:

“The Federal Government’s ‘War on Poverty’ program, working in partnership with state government, has had about the same effect as a ‘blue chip’ industry coming into the state during the past year.”

Eight months before his release, I had been invited to speak to a joint session of the Arkansas Legislature. That was March 8, 1965. I was the first federal official ever invited to address the Legislature. After I spoke there, some people said I might well be the last.

The Office of Economic Opportunity has been in business for 538 days, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. For every one of these days we have:

  • Approved 6 Community Action grants.
  • Enrolled 1,000 young men and women in the Neighborhood Youth Corps.
  • Selected and assigned 60 new Job Corpsmen.
  • Processed two small business loans.
  • Approved assistance to 357 needy college students through special work-study programs.
  • Trained 285 men whose families were receiving public assistance.
  • Trained and assigned four VISTA — our Domestic Peace Corps — Volunteers.
  • Prepared 1,512 four or five year olds for first grade, through the Head Start Program.

Furthermore, we have done this with just about the same number of people on our staff as the Air Force requires for one single squadron of B-52’s in the air.

The OEO staff today is less than one-quarter that of the Department of Labor; one-fifth that of the Tennessee Valley Authority; one-seventh that of the new Department of Housing and Urban Development; one-eighteenth that of the General Services Administration; and one-fiftieth that of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

And you’ve doubtless heard the recent charges about the high salaries paid to all those poverty bureaucrats.

What they don’t tell you is that our average grade comparison is below that of the Bureau of the Budget, the President’s watchdog on waste —

Below that of the Emergency Planning

Below that of Civilian Defense

Below that of NASA

Below the Civil Aeronautics Board, the Rural Electrification Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

There are those who say we must choose between the war in Vietnam and the War against Poverty. We can’t afford — they say — both guns and butter.

But I would ask both them — and you — what kind of a society is it we are trying to defend in Vietnam or at home? The choice is not between guns and butter but between

Guns and Hunger

Guns and Ignorance

Guns and Ghettoes.

For there is really only one war. One war with many fronts and many battlefields. One enemy with many names and many faces.

It is a war of liberation, a war for self determination and dignity in Asia and Africa — in Watts and in Harlem.

Every one of our military services is a citizens’ service. Our professional soldiers are citizens first, who have made it their job to protect our rights and institutions from attack.

Traditionally in our country when you said you were “in the service” you meant the Armed Forces. Today that concept has been broadened.

It includes Peace Corps volunteers serving in remote outposts all over the world. VISTA Volunteers working with the poor in city slums, and isolated rural communities. Neighborhood counselors, teachers’ aides, lawyers, doctors, social workers, are in service — deeply involved in the same war we are fighting in Viet Nam.

Job Corps enrollees — they are “in the service too.” They have left their homes, their communities, their friends to learn to fight poverty. And forty percent of those who have graduated have now joined the Armed Forces to fight on another front. These are boys whom the military would have rejected — often whom the military did reject before they joined Job Corps.

All of America has responded to a declaration of war on the things that are wrong and unjust, and unequal in our nation, and around the world. Responded to the charge made five years ago by President Kennedy in his inaugural address:

“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need — not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out,

‘Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ A struggle against the common enemies of man: Tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

And that is why, even as you study here at the Academy, you are earning your commissions in the War against Poverty.

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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