Early in September of 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for President, he went to California. The campaign was not going too well out there. So Kennedy asked Adlai Stevenson to go to California before him -- to shake up the Democrats, get them to do less talking and more acting.
The reason Kennedy asked Stevenson's help was that many Democrats in California were originally for Stevenson. They supported him at the Convention, not Kennedy. So with great heart, Stevenson agreed to introduce Kennedy wherever he spoke in California. Over and, over, Stevenson used the same line:
"Do you remember that in classical times when Cicero finished speaking, the people said, 'How well he spoke' -- but when Demosthenses finished speaking, the people said, 'Let us march.'"
The reference was obvious. Because after John Kennedy gave each speech in California, the people were ready to march.
His call was simple. In speech after speech, he said:
"I have premised my campaign for the Presidency on the single assumption that the American people are uneasy at the present drift in our national course, that they are disturbed by the relative decline in our vitality and prestige, and that they have the will and the strength to start the United States moving again."
To start moving again, Kennedy said you first had to know why the United States had stopped moving. He said that:
"The trouble with the United States politics...is that we talk in slogans too often and symbols and we fight old battles. The sixties are going to be different..."
When John F. Kennedy became President, the sixties did become different. Suddenly, there was a new flash of courage across the United States. As though we were just given the gift of tongues, like the Apostles at Pentecost, millions of United States citizens began to speak with a new vocabulary. Self-giving replaced self-service, commitment replaced comfort, my brother replaced myself.
The Concrete changes in our national life were immediately obvious. First off, John Kennedy made the United States aware of its art and literature. He opened up the White House to artists and writers. In November, 1961, Pablo Casals, played at the White House. President Kennedy had dinners for men like Stravinsky, Andre Malraux, Robert Frost.
What did the artists and writers think of this new freedom? Said Ernest Hemingway, who loved Spain: "It's a good thing to have a brave man as our President in times as tough as these for our country and the world."
One of the next things to take hold of the United States was the Peace Corps. At first, the skeptics said the young people of the United States were too soft and too smug. They didn't care about the world's poor and sick. But the skeptics were wrong. Within two years, 10,000 volunteers were working in 46 countries. Today, over 50,000 United States citizens have served in the Peace Corps. They have returned to their homeland different persons. They have been changed trying to change the changeless.
That might sound poetic and romantic, but it's true. Four years ago at Peace Corps headquarters, the Ambassador from Bolivia to the United States came to my office. Like most Bolivians, he was a man with much Indian blood.
"When the Peace Corps started, I knew it wouldn't work," he said. "I knew it wouldn't work because I myself had worked for 20 years to improve the life, education, housing and health of the Indians in the Alte Piano. I'm more than half-Indian myself. I worked with the United Nations. I worked with experts of all kind, with lots of money. So I knew that inexperienced, young Peace Corps volunteers couldn't succeed where able, dedicated, experienced men with plenty of money had failed. But I was wrong."
"What's your explanation?" I asked.
"The Peace Corps volunteers have succeeded," he said, "because they have come to Bolivia speaking our language, willing to live in our homes, eat our food, wear our clothes, travel in our busses or walk on our back roads. They have come not only willing, but eager to learn about our culture, our religion, our dancing, our songs, our customs. They have not come to make money from us, nor change our religion, nor dominate our political life. They have treated us as human beings equal to themselves -- even better than themselves. They are the first white men who were ever willing to learn from us! -- rather than try to remake us into Yankees.
"As a result," he went on, "our people have come to trust the Peace Corps volunteers- Our ears are open to their words. Our eyes are open to-their example. Our hearts are open to their guidance. Our minds are open to their thoughts. The Peace Corps volunteers, without any money, without handouts of food or clothing, have succeeded in reaching us and teaching us more than all the experts put together."
A third reason why the sixties began differently was because President Kennedy was aware of its poor. Only a few days before his death, he said, "The time has come to organize a national assault on the causes of poverty, a comprehensive program, across the board."
President Kennedy did not live to see his own war on poverty, but President Lyndon Johnson did start exactly the effort that John Kennedy proposed. Under President Johnson, the United States began to respond to the needs and rights of its 35 million poor people -whether in Harlem or Watts, or Appalachia, or Alaska, or migrant workers in camps or on Indian reservations.
That was how the sixties began in the United States. But there is talk the sixties won't end that way. People are saying that the United States has changed. Look at the European newspapers. They write almost exclusively about a United States where crime fills the streets, about an America where blacks and whites hate each other, where 50,000 people are killed in traffic accidents every year, where one out of every four marriages ends in divorce, where a murder is committed every hour and a robbery every 24 seconds, where drugs are bought and sold like candy, where it's almost as easy to get an abortion as an appendectomy, where the rivers and air are as polluted as our hearts.
To millions of Europeans, even millions of Spaniards, that's the U.S.A. The home of the brave has become the home of the brazen. The land of the free has become the land of the free-for-all.
But that's not the whole picture. It's not the United States I've seen.
The trouble with newspapers is that they only report facts. But a thousand facts don't always equal one truth. Applied to the United States, a thousand facts about our high crime-rate don't equal the one truth that we also have a high love-rate. For every act of crime that gets printed in La Vanguardia, I'd say there are 10 acts of love that never see print.
I don't mean selfish love or sexual love. I mean the kind of love the great Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset spoke of: "A going forth towards another person," a self-giving love that is "a cordial, affirmative interest in another person for himself," a love that, "springs from the most profound depths of our being." The kind of love I saw last summer when I took a trip to Alaska to visit a group of VISTA volunteers.
VISTA is a new national program in the United States that enlists young, and sometimes elderly, people to give a year or two of their lives in service to their country. It's like the Peace Corps, but instead of going into the slums of Colombia, South America, they might go to the slums of Columbia, South Carolina. Instead of serving the poor in India, they serve the poor in Indiana. In brief, they volunteer to serve within our nation -- because the United States has poverty, too. Right now, we have over 4,000 VISTA volunteers working in 49 states.
VISTA is a Spanish word. Literally, it means "view." That's exactly what a VISTA volunteer is: A person who views human life and human suffering differently, someone who sees himself not apart from the poor, but as a part of the poor. President Kennedy had a saying he used many times. "Some people see things as they are, and ask why. I dream things that never were, and ask why not."
Well, I was in Alaska with some VISTA volunteers who were saying "Why not." I'll never forget one volunteer in particular. He was in Nome, Alaska. There isn't a paved street in Nome. Most of the houses in Nome are ramshackle, falling-down places. But even Nome has a slum that is worse than the rest of Nome. Living in this slum are 500 natives who migrated there from an island out in the Bering Sea called King Island. These people live in poverty as abject as I've seen anywhere in the world -- including Africa, Latin America, India or anywhere else. Down in the middle of all this was a VISTA volunteer. He had a house that would make the hermitage of a Carthusian at Miraflores look like a palace. He had one little stove in it. He had a wooden bed, one window. The shack was made out of corrugated tin backed up with wallboard or paper. And he lived there-at 40 degrees below zero, day in and day out, day in and day out -- until you said to yourself, why? What's he trying to prove? What's he trying to tell us? About himself or us or what?
Suddenly, I realized that that VISTA volunteer was a witness. A witness to an interest in those poverty cursed fishermen living: in an Alaskan slum. He was witnessing to a remark made by a character in The Cypresses Believe In God by Jose Maria Gironella, who lives in Barcelona, Ignacio Alvear had just come home from the Seminary ---for good. He was undecided about his future. His mother, a wise woman, advised him. She said it was useless to pay attention to all the theories going around Spain at that time, all of them claiming to be true. "There's only one truth," she said, "to be good."
That's what that VISTA volunteer was doing with those King Island fishermen. He was witnessing to the one truth: Goodness. Not by talking about it, or defending it -- but by living it. For those King Island fishermen who had known nothing but raw deals and raw fish, the VISTA volunteer was the only human being who had not pushed them aside, the only person willing to be a part of their life.
That's what's happening in Alaska, our coldest state. The same thing is happening in one of our warmest states, Alabama.
Most of you know about Alabama. It received world-wide attention, perhaps infamy, a few years ago. You remember the pictures: Police dogs being set on Negroes, policemen beating Negro women over the heads with clubs, fire hoses being sprayed full-force into defenseless crowds of Negroes.
And you remember the news stories about the Alabama civil rights murders. The most shocking of these was in Haynesville, Alabama. That's where a Protestant Seminarian and a Catholic Priest were gunned down on the main Street, the Protestant killed, the Catholic wounded.
That was four years ago. Today in Haynesville, across the street from where that Seminarian fell in death, a Neighborhood Health Center is being built. The Center will be funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity, but local doctors and nurses will run it.
Who's responsible for that health center in Haynesville, Alabama? Not me. Not President Johnson. Not the United States Congress.
The person responsible is a white man -- a doctor -- from Haynesville. He didn't come down from the North. He's lived in Haynesville all his live. His family goes back five generations. Down the years, his ancestors probably did as much as anyone in Alabama to keep the black man down and the white man up.
Yet this lone doctor decided to change the system. He asked the Negroes in Haynesville what they needed most. They said health care. So that's what this doctor is giving them right now -- not in a spirit of paternalism, but in spirit of partnership.
Many of his white friends think he's crazy. His life has been threatened. But he goes ahead despite the ridicule, despite the threats.
That doctor would probably be the last to say that he is practicing the simple kind of love defined by Ortega: "A going forth toward another person." But that's what he's doing -- he's going forth toward the sick and poor of a small town in Alabama. Maybe it's not a tremendous improvement, but that doctor is a pioneer staking his claim in a no man's land of racial hate. His health clinic answers the question President Kennedy asked in May, 1963, on the day after a Governor of Alabama blocked the doorway of a public university to Negroes. If the Negro cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, asked President Kennedy, "Then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?"
It's impossible for a person to change the color of his skin, but thousands of Americans are willing to stand in the place of a poor person. Because standing in the place of someone is what love means: putting yourself into the skin of another man, to be weakened by his burdens and heartened by his joys. Into the skin of a black man, into the skin of a Jew, into the skin of a convict, into the skin of a leper, into the skin of a revolutionary.
The kind of revolutionaries that were in the Dominican Republic in 1965. Forty-six Peace Corps volunteers were down there when the fighting broke out. Some were girls. Nurses. When the wounded were brought in -- some of them shot by our own marines -- these girls stayed on duty around the clock.
So did all the volunteers. In fact, these Peace Corps volunteers were the only group allowed behind the lines of both sides. The words "cuerpo de Paz" eliminated all barriers -- military, political and human.
The volunteers stayed on during all the fighting and left for Puerto Rico. Their two years was up. They were scheduled for de-briefing, and then home. While the de-briefing was still going on, an unusual election was held in the Barrios, the slums of Santo Domingo. The slum dwellers with whom the Peace Corps volunteers had worked -- they are called counterparts -- took a vote to see if they wanted the Peace Corps back. Despite their hatred of Yankees, these slum dwellers voted 46 to 0 in favor of the Peace Corps.
What explained that vote? One Peace Corps volunteer offered this explanation. "The people liked us because we lived with them and knew them. A Dominican friend of mine put it this way, when we were hungry, you were hungry. When we walked in the mud, you walked in the mud."
That's what getting into the skin of another man means. When he's hungry, you're hungry. When he walks in the mud, you walk in the mud. This idea of standing in another man's place isn't something new to America. Dorothy Day, one of the United States' great Apostles to the poor, wrote over 30 years ago about the time she was in jail:
"Solitude and hunger and weariness of spirit -- these sharpened my perceptions so that I suffered not only my own sorrow but the sorrow of those about me. I was no longer myself. I was no longer a young girl... I was the oppressed. I was that drug addict, screaming and tossing in her cell, beating her head against the wall. I was that shoplifter who for rebellion was sentenced to solitary. I was that woman who had killed her children, murdered her lover."
Dorothy Day is an old woman today. But she still lives in the Bowery of New York. She not only lives with the poor and for the poor she is poor.
What does all this mean for the United States -- VISTA, the War on Poverty, the Peace Corps, Apostles like Dorothy Day?
It means simply that instead of going through the first throes of national death -- which is what the headlines about our riots and crimes would indicate -- instead of the throes of death, the United States is really experiencing the pains of birth. The United States is not dying -- it is being born. A new community is coming out of itself, the way new life comes out of its mother.
It's true, there is a great suffering in my country, but it's always that way at a birth. But just as there is great suffering, there is also great sacrifice. The sacrifice of 10,000 VISTA volunteers. The sacrifice of 50,000 Peace Corps volunteers. The sacrifice of over 500,000 unpaid volunteers in the War on Poverty. The sacrifices of doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests and nuns, housewives, college students, black and white, old and young, Catholic, Protestant and Jew.
These are the hidden sacrifices that never get on the wires to Europe and never see the headlines. But the people of Spain don't need to be told about hidden sacrifices. You are told about them in the book The Way by Monsignor Escriva:
"The world admires only the spectacular sacrifice, but it ignores the value of the sacrifice that is hidden and silent."
The United States is beginning to find out another truth found in The Way: "No ideal becomes a reality without sacrifice." The ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- the ideals that made the United States -- these are the ones for which we are now sacrificing. From a distance, the strain may seem to be killing us, but the United States has never been more alive!
Before I finish, I want to say a word about peace. It is one of the most talked about but least understood and least lived of words. One man says, "Let us work for peace by defeating the enemy." Another man says, "Peace through treaties." Another, "Peace through bombs," or, "Peace through conquest."
But they are all deluded. As history shows and our hearts reveal, none of that leads to peace. With luck, you get only a truce -- and always a dead truce that does nothing about live hates. The kind of peace the world seeks is not the kind that puts an end to a war -- because another war will soon start up again -- but the kind of peace that puts an end to the causes of war: Poverty, sickness, ignorance. Then another war can't start up again -- because, finally for the first time on earth, men will have nothing to fight about. Peace will happen not through the absence of war but through the presence of love. The kind of love that will see to it that men have enough food to eat, enough clothes to wear, enough houses to live in.
I agree with Jose Maria Gironella, who wrote in Phantoms And Fugitives:
"All men carry two opposites within themselves -a man who lives and a man who dreams. There is in us a realistic being, meticulous, preoccupied with daily incidents and with the present moment, and another magic being that occasionally turns a somersault and is preoccupied with the improbable, with things situated beyond logic, with the inexplicable and the mysterious."
Peace is beyond logic. Peace is inexplicable. Peace is mysterious. But I have seen and spoken to the "dreamers" who are the peacemakers of this world. I'll never forget in Malaysia, about 50 miles from Kuala Lumpur, going through a local hospital where we had two or three Peace Corps nurses. One of them worked in the leper ward. When this girl said to me, "Mr. Shriver, you've got to come see my ward," I didn't want to see her ward. But how could I say no if that girl was in there? So I went in and she had the patients all sitting up in bed dressed in those blue things they wear and their hands were stumps, and they had sores all over their faces. The nurse went down the beds saying hello, introducing them to me. And they'd hand that stump out to me. I'll never forget when I grabbed that first one and shook it. It felt just like a hot poker. I was scared. I shouldn't have been, but I was.
That girl was working in the leprosarium not because I told her to or anybody else told her to. She worked there to bring peace on earth. Not the abstract kind of peace that politicians talk about, but the peace that men feel in their bones when they are loved, or fed, or clothed, or housed.
Although she probably never thought of it, that nurse was trying to stop the steady stream of wars that plague the earth. She was destroying the conditions that make war possible: By "going forth towards another person," even if that other person is a leper.
I see no other way. Peace is like war: If enough men want it, enough men can cause it. They can cause peace to happen in a leper ward in Asia, in a health center in Alabama, on a lonely island in Alaska, in the Bowery of New York. Each of us has the power to bring peace not only to the world, but to our hearts.
Is peace an impossible goal? A lot of people tell me it is. But I am reminded of what Unamuno once said:
"Unless you strive after the impossible, the possible you achieve will be scarcely worth the effort."