WASHINGTON -- Sargent Shriver had his work cut out for him. President Kennedy made a campaign promise to establish a Peace Corps, and after he was elected he passed the ball to his brother-in-law.
An energetic 45, Shriver took off across the world to pitch the idealistic dream to the leaders of India, Ghana, Nigeria and Burma.
'Jawaharlala Nehru was enthusiastic right from the start,' remembers Shriver, now a silver-haired 70. 'He wanted 500 volunteers all over India. But Kwame Nkrumah, the man who created Ghana, was rather cool to the Western countries. He was playing footsie with the Russians at the time.'
Shriver's way of convincing Nkrumah was by making a deal to put some four dozen Ghanaian schoolteachers in the United States if the West African country would accept the same number from the Peace Corps.
After a tough but successful whirl through the Third World, Shriver came home to sell a skeptical Congress, 'each man, one on one.
'When we started, there were only about three or four people on the Foreign Affairs Committe of the House of Representatives who were in favor of the Peace Corps. There were 20 against it or neutral.
'It was a challenge to convince them. It was exciting. And it worked.'
By September of 1961, the Peace Corps sent its first group of 52 teachers to Ghana. Within 10 months it had 750 volunteers in nine countries, and three years later it had 7,000 volunteers in 44 countries.
'It was sort of like the Wright brothers must have felt,' remembers Shriver. 'You do a lot of work on it, but you don't really know if it will fly until suddenly it does.'
Shriver laughs when asked if he was criticized for getting a government job from a family member.
'Getting the Peace Corps was not like being made Secretary of State,' explains Shriver, a senior partner in the Washington law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson.
'Nobody thought the Peace Corps was worth a damn. It wasn't thought of as a political plum. In fact, when Jack Kennedy gave me that job, he came up with that quip, 'I gave Sarge a lemon, and he made lemonade.''
'I was working 24 hours for the U.S. government at no pay,' continues Shriver, who is also president of the Special Olympics. 'This was a $1-a-year job. You see, my brother-in-law was president, and one of the things that wasn't thought to be very kosher in those old days was taking jobs (for pay) given by your relatives.'
While he was the Peace Corps' first director and in subsequent years, Shriver went on to create Head Start, Foster Grandparents and the Job Corps.
He sees a pressing need for the Peace Corps to be a higher priority for the White House and Congress.
'It's the best investment in foreign activity the U.S. government can make, yet the Peace Corps budget is exactly the same in dollars as when I left in 1965,' Shriver says.
'We have built up our capacity to kill people. We have built up our capacity to dominate people. We have built up our capacity to threaten people. But we have not built up our capacity to work with people.
'We should be sending more and more Peace Corps volunteers, because we know that's what foreign countries want. They don't want guns, as much as they're being forced to buy them. They want us, so why not give them us.'