Address to the Catholic Interracial Council

"The ‘Big If’ is directed toward the American people. Have we gone soft? Are we so nonchalant, so apathetic, so indifferent that our response to the magnificent challenge of world revolution is little more than a feeble echo of the past sacrifices we have made for freedom? I don’t think so."
Chicago, IL • June 01, 1961

(Text of remarks by Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., at the dinner of the Catholic Interracial Council at the Conrad Hilton Hotel, Chicago, Ill.)

Your presence here, Mayor Daley, along with the presence of so many other distinguished people, is more a tribute to the Catholic Interracial Council than it is to me. And that is the way it should be.

Thanks to members of the Council, past and present, we have come a long way from the days when religious and racial prejudices were the rule rather than the exception.

I have in my hand a volunteer questionnaire for Peace Corps service. I look at it and see that nowhere does it ask for the candidate’s race and nowhere does it say, “What is your religion?” Looking at this questionnaire, I realize that the genius of the Peace Corps is its desire and ability to see people as people – to come to terms with human beings as persons apart from qualifying adjectives.

This is how we have gathered our staff. I wish you could visit our headquarters in Washington and meet the men and women who have stamped their images on the Peace Corps: the Jewish lawyer from Atlanta, the young Catholic teacher from Maryland, the Negro leader from California. They are there because we said: “We want people who want to do a job for their country. The Peace Corps wants Negroes, and is seeking them. The Peace Corps wants Jews, and is seeking them. The Peace Corps wants people of all races and all religions, because we want qualified Americans.

This is also how we see our task abroad -- not to work with Africans and Asians and Latins as members of a particular race or citizens of a particular nation, but as people. Intolerance, racial tension, and mob violence erupt wherever some men see other men in impersonal terms. Injustice is done when men place high priority on race or class rather than personality. When will the ugly incident of Birmingham cease to be? Only when every man becomes a person, to every other man. This is the concept toward which the Peace Corps is moving and to which we are all dedicated.

When the Declaration of Independence was written these words were used: “All men are created equal...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Ever since, the greatest hesitation of American democracy has been to apply that word “all” regardless of race, religion, or region.

It is a disturbing little word and it has irritated our souls for 200 years. It will not let us go and we cannot let it go. It has given us no rest nor will it until we can say “all men” with complete abandon.

We are saying those words in the Peace Corps---and saying them with meaning and conviction. This questionnaire asks for quality of skill not for the color of skin. It is concerned with affirmative material relevant to national service.

Why did Prime Minister Nkrumah call the Peace Corps a “splendid bold idea?” Because the Peace Corps is dedicated to a cause greater than any race, any religion, and any nation, belongs to no one race, no single religion, and no individual nation.

There have been some serious doubts raised in recent months about the willingness of Americans to sacrifice comfort and convenience for their country and in the interest of extending human freedom.

Many Asian leaders told me they are wondering if the people of our country have the courage, the fortitude, and the determination to give in peace what twice this century they have given in war.

“We are breeding, a strange new type of human being,” someone has said, “a guy with a full belly, an empty mind and a hollow heart.”

That conclusion is underscored by Eugene Kinkead, an editor of The New Yorker. In a book called IN EVERY WAR BUT ONE, he analyzes the mass of material collected by the Department of the Army in its effort to find out what went wrong with American prisoners-of-war in Korea. He reports that 229 Turkish soldiers who were captures in Korea survived; not one of them died, and not one of them collaborated with the enemy. On the other hand, one third of the American soldiers collaborated and 38% of them died. There was evidence that soldiers often abandoned fellow Americans who were wounded; they cursed their officers; the strong took food from the weak; in certain cases Americans sick with dysentery were rolled out into the cold to die. And this was done not by their captors but by fellow American soldiers.

Perhaps the African leader had read that material --- or seen the, television documentary called “The Flabby American” --- who said to one of the Peace Corps representatives: “The Peace Corps is a wonderful idea… if only your people could do.”

The Big If is directed toward the American people. Have we gone soft? Are we so nonchalant, so apathetic, so indifferent that our response to the magnificent challenge of world revolution is little more than a feeble echo of the past sacrifices we have made for freedom? I don’t think so.

I believe the Peace Corps is going to give Americans the opportunity to prove that we have the guts, the will, and the ability to wage a relentless war against hunger, poverty, and disease.

Already the response to the Peace Corps has been inspiring. Last Saturday, almost 4000 Americans representing many religions, many races, and many regions --- took examinations to determine their qualifications for service abroad.

These tests were not easy. They lasted more than five hours and included questions on just about everything in the book. All age groups were represented. What kind of people took these exams?

In Atlanta, a sixty-year-old Negro postal worker and his wife were among those who completed the tests. The man said, “I learned things on a south Georgia farm that might help Africans to help themselves.” His wife, a former school teacher, said, “I was born in Liberia. I worked at a Baptist mission. I know how much good Americans can do. They know manual labor and they know how to show others to do it. In spite of what has been written about people not liking the United States, people all over the world know that America is the friend of small folks.” In Washington, a 20-year-old student and his wife said, after concluding the exams, “We want to teach overseas --- not because we don’t have anything to do here, but because we would like to share with others what we have learned in this country.”

The New York Times reports that the words most frequently on the lips of men and women who took the examinations there were: “I am willing to go anywhere.” There was a young married couple from Brooklyn who said they hoped to go to Africa to establish an improvisional children’s theater project that would be useful as an expression for African children, and as a means of getting simple messages across to adults. The couple, who have directed a children’s theater in Maine for seven years, said they knew a native of Ghana who had successfully explained the need for water purification to many people by having children dramatize the matter.

A forty-year-old Wisconsin nurse -- just back from two years of nursing in Guam – took the test, she said, “because I don’t want to be an Army nurse on the battlefield; I want to be a peace nurse.”

A thirty-year-old resident of Denver, Colorado who is about to receive a master’s degree in English and has teaching experience in high school and college, said she wanted to teach in Latin America because “this is the chance for Americans to really join hands with some of the other people of the world.”

There were others: A concert pianist in California who is willing to do manual labor because “any sacrifice is worthwhile if it will help prevent World War III” ….. A retired Army officer and his wife, both in their 50s, who wanted to join because “a man who has worked so hard and long in war can do even more in Peace”.... A native of Shanghai raised in the Far East, who wants to work in some area of Asia because “the lack of understanding of America has helped the Communist cause abroad”.... An engineer in St. Louis who said: “I’ve been taking all my life and this is the first chance I’ve had to give.”

Why were these examinations encouraging? Because even though the Peace Corps is only three months old, and the tests were given when most colleges were giving final examinations, and even though our tests were purely voluntary (think how many people would have come if a college professor had said: “We’ve having an exam Saturday; you’re invited to take it if you want to.”) --- in spite of these obstacles, almost 4000 persons have responded positively to the challenge of service abroad. I hope you are as heartened as I am by the tremendous reservoir of dedicated and talented Americans who have stepped forward to say: “You can count on me.”

I am encouraged not only by these exams but by other remarkable results the Peace Corps has already begun to accomplish: First, it is giving Americans the opportunity to make a personal response to world needs. Our people have been charged with passing resolutions while evolutions pass by. I think that day is past. I believe the American people want a direct part in the upward Struggle to rid the world of tyranny in whatever form it exists. Second, the Peace Corps is reviving American idealism and combining it with American pragmatism. The result? A major program of international service. I am not ashamed of the word “idealism” and I am proud of the pragmatism that has blessed America with abundance. The Peace Corps is the synthesis of both.

Third, the Peace Corps is convincing the leaders and the people of the world that Americans can be as serious about peace as we can about war. That’s why Nehru of India, U Nu of Burma, Nkrumah of Ghana and others have not only welcomed the idea of the Peace Corps but have requested Peace Corps Volunteers as well. Whatever doubt we had about the demand for our people was erased on my recent trip -- eight countries alone requested almost 4000 Americans to carry on Peace Corps projects. There is a hopeful world waiting for America to respond. The real challenge is --- do we have enough dedicated, qualified Americans willing to fight for peace? From 1496 B.C. to A.D. 1861 there were only 227 years of peace compared to 3,130 years of war. Thirteen years of war for every year of peace. Within the last three centuries there have been 386 wars in Europe alone.

It seems to me a visitor from Mars said to an Earthman in a recent television play, “that your most serious business is the killing of your fellowman.” If that has been true in the past, the future must be different. I believe the Peace Corps can be an important part of our effort to convince the world that our most serious business is to serve our fellowman and thereby help build a just and peaceful world.

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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