The Secret of Your Greatness

Bangkok, Thailand | January 28, 1964

What can change the world today is the same thing that has changed it in the past--an idea, and the service of dedicated, committed individuals to that idea.

This is my fifth visit to Thailand. On earlier trips I came to discuss what contribution the Peace Corps might make in Thailand; and to observe and inspect Peace Corps operations for myself.

That was in our early days. The Peace Corps was a new idea. Our earlier date Volunteers were untried. And many, both abroad and in the United States, were skeptical of the worth of their efforts.

Today that is no longer so. The Peace Corps is a going operation. There are many tests left for it; but it has passed the early challenges of acceptance abroad and at home with flying colors.

We now have 7000 people working in 46 countries. This past year 38,000 Americans--three times as many as our first year--volunteered for Peace Corps service. In Southeast Asia alone--from Indonesia to Thailand to Afghanistan--almost 1800 Volunteers are at work, and we are preparing to send 1300 more by this summer. Two hundred and sixty-five are in Thailand. All these Volunteers are living and working overseas, without special privileges or commissaries or allowances, under local conditions, and without pay. And they like it.

This is an important part of our record.

But this in not what I want to discuss here, tonight, before this informed group of citizens.

For you are concerned with the great issues of foreign affairs. The question uppermost in your mind is what relationship can the Peace Corps possibly have to those issues.

We might all agree that, the Peace Corps is a nice thing; that it has done well here in Thailand; that it has contributed to the need for skills; helped people to know more about the United States; and taught the PCVs much about Thailand.

But what of it?

In this world of the cold war and the many little hot wars, of the hydrogen bomb, the Atlantic Alliance, SEATO, and the Sino-Soviet split--on this giant Asian continent where communist subversion, guerilla warfare and political uncertainty occupy much of your time and thought--what room is there for a Peace Corps?

What difference can it possibly make--in the face of such enormous and complex forces--that a few thousand Americans go overseas to serve mankind? Isn't it an illusion to think that the Peace Corps might actually help to bring peace--help to change the world?

Let me start my answer with a question.

What is going to change the world? If you believe men must live together in a different way in this conflict-ridden world, how is this going to come about?

Guns won't change the world. That is one of the great lessons of this bloody century. Dollar bills won't change the world. Nor will simple goodwill, or even international organizations.

What can change the world today is the same thing that has changed it in the past--an idea, and the service of dedicated, committed individuals to that idea. That is how religious movements helped change the world. It is the secret of whatever power communism had. It was the motive power of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. It is the reason the American Revolution is still resounding throughout today's world. "No army," wrote Victor Hugo, "can withstand the force of an idea whose time has come." But for an idea to conquer it needs men and women who believe in it, who will work for it, who will dedicate their lives to it.

The Peace Corps is a group of men and women dedicated to an idea.

Recently I was visited by an Asian official. He told me there had been more than fifty protest meetings against the Peace Corps in his country. Dozens of newspaper articles attacked us. Demands were made that his government refuse to permit our 21 Volunteers to land.

"Why," I asked him, "is there such concern over 21 Americans? You would think that we were starting germ warfare."

He replied: "In a certain sense, Mr. Shriver, you are. In my country we have more than 21 Americans, and if these ... Volunteers were simply 21 more Americans, there would be no interest in them at all. But these Volunteers come representing an idea, the Peace Corps idea. That's why there is opposition. Your Volunteers may well infect thousand with the ideas of a free society. In that sense you may be starting germ warfare."

In the Dominican Republic, following the recent revolution, the U.S. government suspended economic assistance and diplomatic relations. But the Peace Corps kept on working. An experienced Latin American newspaper correspondent, sent to report on the situation, wrote: "Political crises may come and go...but the Peace Corps has taken deep root....The Peace Corps is the most radical operation which the United States has going in the Dominican Republic--no less than in the rest of Latin America."

This is so. It is so because the Peace Corps is different from anything we know. It is not merely non-political, but it goes beyond politics and national rivalries to reach the deepest hopes of man. It is a working model--a Microcosm,--a small society representing the kind of world we want our children to live in.

It is, first of all, a democratic society.

A Volunteer's color of skin, his religion, and his political beliefs, are irrelevant.

We have sent black Americans to white men's countries; white Americans to black men's countries; We were told that we couldn't send Protestants to certain parts Of Catholic countries in Latin America. But we sent them.

We were told that we couldn't send Jews to Arab countries. But we sent them.

And - in two and a half years these decisions have not cost us a moment of discontent. They haven't caused a single incident.

Our Volunteers go overseas as free men--free to travel, to write and to: speak as they please. We have built no wall of censorship or authoritarian discipline around them.

And on the job, they are on their own. What they accomplish is a product of their own initiative and ability and imagination.

In East Pakistan, a single Volunteer, Robert Burns of St. Louis, engineered flood control works and supervised 1,000 village laborers in a successful effort to overcome rising waters. For the first time in many years destructive waters were diverted from the rice fields of 10,000 families.

No one told Robert Burns to begin a project which saved 10,000 families from hunger and starvation. No one could have told him. He did it because the Peace Corps provides a framework in which individuals can use their own initiative and talents to help others. That is an important element of the Peace Corps society--reliance on the creative energies of dedicated individuals.

Nor do our Volunteers go overseas as the salesmen of a particular political theory, or economic system, or religious creed. They go to work with people--not to employ them, use them, or advise them. They do what the country they go to wants them to do--not what we think is best. They live among the people, sharing their homes, eating their food, talking their language, living under their laws--not in special compounds with special privileges.

But if the Volunteer is not a salesman, neither is he a man without a mission. He goes overseas not merely as a willing and a skilled worker--but as a representative, a living example, of the most powerful idea of all: the idea that free and committed men and women can cross, even transcend, boundaries of culture and language, of alien tradition and great-disparities of wealth, of old hostilities and new nationalisms, to meet with other men and women on the common ground of service to human welfare and human dignity.

And if this idea isn't going to change the world, then this world is beyond redemption!

It will require many years and a much greater effort for this idea to succeed--not only by the Peace Corps but by other men and institutions in all countries. But the impact we have had so far has given a faint glimmer--a shadow no bigger than a man's hand--of the possibilities of the future.

There are now 7,000 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in 46 countries. They are located at 2,400 different posts. By Christmas time we will have more than 11,000 in the field at almost 5,000 different places in 50 countries. Next- year we will have 14,000 abroad.

Every country which now has Volunteers has asked for more.

Two dozen countries which do not have Volunteers have requested them.

In Ghana approximately one third of all degree-holding instructors in the secondary schools are Peace Corps Volunteers.

In Ethiopia and Nyasaland a third of all the teachers are Volunteers.

In Jamaica Volunteers are helping to train the 20 percent of the work force which is chronically unemployed.

In Sierra Leone more than half of all the qualified teachers are Volunteers; more than the British supplied when Sierra Leone was a colony. And the Volunteers are in all these places by invitation, not by conquest.

In the Philippines more than 500 Volunteers are teaching in hundreds of villages. The MANILA EVENING NEWS wrote: "Peace Corps workers achieved in less than two years an understanding with Asian peoples that promises to pass all tests."

In Sarawak Peace Corps Volunteers working far out in the bush country have helped to find new locations for bridges and roads, causing a high local official to say: "They're not your people anymore, they're mine."

In Arequipa, Peru a communist group on October 30th demanded the "immediate expulsion of the Peace Corps from the country." They were answered, but not by the Peace Corps, or the government of Peru, or by the oligarch and landowners. They were answered by the Association of Slum Dwellers of Arequipa, with whom our Volunteers live and work. "We raise our most energetic protest," the slum dwellers' leader said, "against the attitude of a few persons who did not see the reality of the benefits being received by thousands of workers."

In Malaya a guitar was stolen from the home of a woman Volunteer. That day two local youths came to see the girl and explained that they were sure the guitar would not have been taken if the thief had known she was a Peace Corps Volunteer. The next day the guitar was back.

On a larger scale, three months ago in the Philippines I received, on behalf of the Peace Corps, the Ramon Magsaysay Award--a $10,000 prize given to persons in Asia who "exemplify in spirit, integrity and devotion to liberty," the late President of the Philippines. Sometimes this award has been called Asia's equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Nominations are made by sixteen countries and checked out at the grassroots level. Never before had a non-Asian group won this award. But perhaps the greatest testimony to the impact of the Peace Corps-- the sincerest form of flattery--is the fact that other western nations are following our lead. In the past year nearly every European country has expanded or established Peace Corps programs of their own. It is not an exaggeration to say we are on the verge of seeing the Peace Corps movement become the most widespread, peaceful volunteer movement the world has ever seen.

But the work the Peace Corps is doing abroad is only part, and perhaps not the most important part, of the Peace Corps story. I came here across central Asia, visiting Volunteers in the towns and villages of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. On my earlier visits to Thailand I have come not merely to Bangkok but to Marashumkan, CbiOngamaj dorn, Ubol, and other towns and villages. On these trips I have seen much of the world and many remote places. But my own voyages are insignificant compared to the experiences of our Volunteers who are in almost 3,000 different places in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In terms of the history of your civilization it is a short time since the world discovered America. But it is now, and through the Peace Corps Volunteers, that America is discovering the world.

They are not discovering the world of history books and maps—of the tourist brochure, the guided tour, and the movie travelogue. It is not the world of the big cities and the important people.

No, the world they are discovering, in their thousands of villages, is a different world.

It is a world of rich diversity--diversity of problems, of customs-, of traditions and values and of wisdom. An American Volunteer in Nigeria who finds himself treated with respect and friendship although he is a white man in .a black man's country has learned that the world has much to teach us about racial matters. The Volunteer here in Thailand who has had the chance to observe the patient and wise dignity of your people, learns about important values which are all too rare in America.

And as the Volunteer comes to know and respect and learn from the varied customs and institutions of different peoples, he also comes to see the strain of human unity which runs underneath. "For the last four months," wrote one Volunteer, "I lived with a Filipino family who were my friends and companions. I soon forgot that I was an American and they were Filipinos. They treated me as one of the family. All of us, as human beings, have the same basic needs and desires and a common characteristic is our yearning to be understood and respected."

Our Volunteers are also discovering the basic facts of life in the developing world--a world which, for all its richness of culture is living often on the edge of survival. These facts are well known to you. You live surrounded by them every day. But to Americans, imprisoned -: in their remote affluence, there is little chance to appreciate the realities of life in much of the world. Our Volunteers are coming to understand these realities. "People die here for want of so little," wrote one Volunteer from East Africa.

We have also discovered a world in which there are few simple answers. Those who think there are panaceas for the ills Of emerging nations--who believe that all we need is more money or more schools or more democracy or more private enterprises--have never served in the Peace Corps.

But despite the difficulties--the complexity of problems and the depth of difficulties, the Volunteer is also discovering a world where something is happening--a world which is going somewhere. This is often described as the "Revolution of Rising Expectations." But this is just a phrase. The Peace Corps is discovering, at first hand, what those words mean. In Sierra Leone our Volunteers built a road connecting a village, for the first time in its thousand year history, to the outside world. When I went there, the village chief said to me, "Mr. Shriver, we had never even seen a car before. You have shown us a world we never dreamed existed." To that village the Coming of a road has made it certain that future decades would be different and more hopeful than the past.

In each of the countries where our Volunteers work, stories like this, multiplied thousands of times, are giving our Volunteers the satisfaction of helping to meet the Revolution of Rising Expectations. But, more importantly, it is giving them a new, concrete, practical knowledge of what that Revolution is and what it means. This is revolution in the most modern sense--not a revolution of rulers but of the ruled, not just a revolution for power but for progress, not a revolution in government, but a revolution in civilization.

This is some of the world our Volunteers are discovering on that enormous new voyage of discovery known as the Peace Corps. When they return, re-entering the mainstream of American society--taking their places in our schools and government, industry and business, they will give us a far better knowledge of the richness, the difficulties and the dangers in the world around us. Thus my country, the United States, will be better equipped to meet its responsibilities as one of the great powers of the world.

And so here in Thailand, and in all the other countries in which we serve, it is America which is benefiting from the Peace Corps. It is we who probably learn and profit the most. And for the opportunity we are grateful to your country.

This is the other half of the Peace Corps story, of its hope to help change the world. Both through its impact abroad and its effect at home our Volunteers are demonstrating the profound impact which dedicated believers can have on the ideals and attitudes of millions.

Changing the world is a slow and uncertain process. But we should remember it was Adolf Hitler who wrote: 'If an idea is right in itself, and if thus armed it embarks on the struggle in this world, it is invincible…” These are strange words from a man of terror. But Adolf Hitler was right. And he, as well as the Japanese warlords, were ultimately destroyed not simply because others had more men or more factories, but because the corruption and evil of their ideas were fatal defects.

The idea which the Peace Corps represents is "right in itself." The Peace Corps society: free, open, believing that all men can find fulfillment in service to the common good--that society can be a helpful pass-key to the future. Armed with the moral strength of this idea, determined to translate it into the working reality of everyday life, we--Thais and Americans alike--can change the world. And if we do, the Peace Corps Volunteers will have helped to show the way.