Being Numb from “Years of Useless War”

“Americans have been numbed by years of useless war ... by the cruel, unusual prosecution of technological war in a simple land. We will not feel clean until we rid our souls of this obsession.”
Sargent Shriver | Washington, DC | August 8, 1972

Our Quote of the Week calls on us to rid ourselves of the “obsession” of war.

This week’s quote is from Sargent Shriver’s 1972 Acceptance Speech of the Democratic Vice Presidential Nomination. Shriver joined the McGovern presidential campaign late, after the presidential candidate decided to replace Terry Eagleton on the ticket.

In this relatively short but memorable speech, Shriver covers economic as well as social issues, and pays particular attention to the topic of war. He focuses on the the conflict Vietnam, in which an estimated 58,220 US members of the military were killed, an additional 153,303 were wounded, and during which the nation saw years of protests and backlash.

Sargent Shriver knew the cost of war all too well. In 1937, he had spent time in Germany as part of the Experiment in International Living, where he met family members of people who had been imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. Then, in 1940, he had volunteered to join the US Navy and was stationed in the Pacific aboard the USS South Dakota, where he fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal. During the battle, Shriver witnessed the deaths of many of his shipmates, and he suffered injuries for which he would later be awarded the Purple Heart.

Just as Shriver knew war, he had also had hands-on experience with diplomacy and peacebuilding. In the early 1960s, he built the Peace Corps from the ground up, designing the program such that Peace Corps Volunteers would have both the compassion and the practical skills to serve as citizen diplomats in developing countries. And he served as US Ambassador to France, working to improve diplomatic relations between France and the United States during a period of heightened tensions between the two countries because of Vietnam.

These experiences undoubtedly shaped the way he saw Vietnam and the responsibility that a US president ought to havein bringing the conflict to a swift conclusion. It’s notable that Shriver ends the speech with an aspiration for the American people, that they should be seen on the world stage as “working for mankind in [their] community, in [their] country, and around the world.” In his vision of the country, Americans must all take on the role of peacebuilders, diffusing and transforming contlict rather than fueling it.

Since Sargent Shriver spoke these words over five decades ago, the US has been involved, either directly or indirectly, in multiple, prolonged wars. In addition, the US is frequently called upon to serve as an intermediary or an ally in foreign wars, as we are seeing now with the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts. In this moment, we have the opportunity to fulfill Sargent Shriver’s vision to show strength not through our military might, but by our ability to transform conflict and build peace.

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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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