Robert Sargent Shriver was born on November 9, 1915 in Westminster, Maryland to Robert and Hilda Shriver. After graduating from the Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut, which he attended on a full scholarship, Shriver spent the summer in Germany as part of the Experiment in International Living, returning in the fall of 1934 to begin college at Yale University. By his sophomore year, despite financial difficulties, Shriver became the senior editor for the Yale Daily News. The following summer, Shriver was once again invited to participate in the Experiment for International Living, but this time as a leader of a small group of students. Shriver graduated from Yale in 1938 and, with the help of scholarships, family, and friends, enrolled in Yale Law School.
Shriver maintained a link to the Experiment for International Living while in law school, and he led a third group of students to France in the summer of 1939, when World War II was just beginning. Back at Yale, he enlisted in a summer program in the Navy and, at the same time, protested actively against America’s involvement in the war. After he graduated law school in 1941, he reported to duty in the Navy and was assigned to a new battleship, the South Dakota. Shriver served as a gunner in two large battles during 1942: the Battle of Santa Cruz and the Battle of Guadalcanal. Shriver next trained as a submariner, and on March 13, 1945 he was given the assignment of gunnery and torpedo officer on the USS Sandlance.
After the war, Shriver returned to New York City, working briefly at the law firm of Winthrop, Stimson before becoming an assistant editor at Newsweek. It was during this time that Shriver first met Eunice Kennedy and began working for Joseph P. Kennedy at JPK Enterprises in Manhattan. Soon afterward, Shriver moved to Chicago to become the assistant general manager of the Merchandise Mart for Joseph Kennedy. In 1947 he moved to Washington, DC to help Eunice Kennedy on the National Conference on Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. A little less than a year passed before Shriver returned to Chicago to resume work at the Merchandise Mart.
Shriver married Eunice Kennedy on May 23, 1953. The wedding took place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, with Cardinal Spellman, a Kennedy family friend, officiating. The Shrivers would have five children: Robert III, Maria, Timothy, Mark, and Anthony.
Shortly after the wedding, the couple settled in Chicago. In 1955, Shriver began directing both the Catholic Interracial Council, an organization established for the desegregation of schools, and the Chicago Board of Education. In 1960, Shriver coordinated the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. When Kennedy was elected, Shriver was asked to direct the Talent Hunt committee to research and find appropriate candidates for top administrative and ambassadorial positions.
John F. Kennedy’s election led to what would become one of Shriver’s most important and long-lasting accomplishments, the creation of the Peace Corps. The idea for the Peace Corps originated with two speeches that John F. Kennedy gave on the campaign trail. At the University of Michigan, Kennedy introduced the idea of a youth service corps for college students. Months later, Kennedy solidified his ideas about the service corps and made it a major campaign pledge. Shriver was asked to work on a report about the feasibility of a volunteer corps that would work on projects in other countries. Shortly after receiving the report, Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps (Executive Order 10924).
Shriver served as the Director of the Peace Corps from 1961 to 1966. During his tenure as director, he traveled around the United States giving speeches about the Peace Corps in many different contexts: graduation ceremonies, honorary doctoral ceremonies, political meetings, and economic councils. Shriver also made oversea trips to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Germany to review Peace Corps work being done in those countries and to make new connections for future programs.
After President Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, Shriver continued directing the Peace Corps while also helping to launch President Johnson’s new War on Poverty. Though there was talk that this work would result in a vice-presidential bid for Shriver in the 1964 presidential election, President Johnson chose Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey as his running mate instead. On 20 August 1964, Johnson signed the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) Act which would eventually provide job training, work study programs, loans and grants to poor farmers, and a domestic volunteer service that cooperated with local governments and communities. After having spent months laying the groundwork for the OEO, Shriver became the agency’s first director. The OEO was quickly dubbed the domestic Peace Corps, and branched into many different programs including Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Community Action Program (CAP), Job Corps, Head Start, and the Neighborhood Youth corps. Shriver traveled extensively throughout the country giving speeches, visiting various communities where poverty programs were in place, and encouraging others to join the War on Poverty. He resigned as Director of the OEO on April 12, 1968.
On May 7, 1968, Shriver was sworn in as the US ambassador to France. His job in Paris was not expected to be an easy one, as American relations with France, and specifically with French President Charles de Gaulle, had grown increasingly strained throughout the decade. President de Gaulle had established diplomatic relations with communist China in 1964, withdrawn from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) integrated military organization in 1966, publicly denounced the American war in Vietnam in 1967, and encouraged French-Canadian separatists in 1968. The United States, for their part, had consistently refused to aid France in its pursuit to become a nuclear power. The domestic situation in France proved to be difficult as well; upon his arrival in Paris, Shriver encountered a severe domestic crisis involving nationwide strikes and student unrest.
Despite these obstacles, Shriver and de Gaulle established a working friendship, and the Shriver family became popular and often-publicized members of Paris society. Franco-American relations began to thaw as a result of this friendship, and were furthered when de Gaulle was succeeded by his former Prime Minister Georges Pompidou in 1969. As ambassador, Shriver was peripherally involved in the Paris Peace Talks which began in 1968 between the United States and Vietnamese officials. He also oversaw President Richard Nixon’s visit to Paris in 1969, which marked the first American state visit to France since 1961, as well as President Pompidou’s state visit to Washington, DC in March 1970.
Despite his success as Ambassador and his family’s apparent contentment with life in Paris, Sargent Shriver’s thoughts and ambitions were never far from the political scene back in the United States. His correspondence with friends and colleagues touched on various political possibilities, including the 1968 Democratic vice presidential nomination, a nomination for Ambassador to the United Nations, a run for the governorship of Maryland, and Shriver’s consistently strong political potential in Illinois. This period was also marked by Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s organization of the First International Special Olympic Games, held in July 1968 in Chicago, and the assassination of Shriver’s brother-in-law, Robert F. Kennedy, less than a month after the Shrivers’ arrival in Paris.
Upon his return from France in 1970, Shriver founded the Congressional Leadership for the Future (CLF). The CLF functioned as an independent organization separate from the Democratic National Committee, with Shriver serving as the Chairman. The CLF campaigned on behalf of Democratic candidates throughout the country for the November 1970 Congressional races. Shriver, along with his small staff, traveled extensively throughout the United States, particularly where races were thought to be hotly contested, delivering speeches, hosting luncheons and dinners, participating in local community events, and garnering support for candidates. The CLF collected research on the various candidates they were supporting, their opponents, and the relevant political, social, and economic issues surrounding each election. Shriver delivered many political speeches during this short time period that became part of his well-known rhetoric, including “Mature Patriotism: A Turning Point in American History,” “The Human Reality of Recession,” and “Elephantitis in the White House.”
In 1972, Shriver ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket along with presidential candidate George McGovern. Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton was nominated as McGovern’s running mate at the 1972 Democratic Party convention, but McGovern decided to run with Shriver instead after it was revealed that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy to treat depression. McGovern and Shriver lost the general election that November to Republican candidates Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
After the election, Shriver left public life to join the law firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson. In 1976 Shriver ran a short-lived campaign for president, but soon returned to his private endeavors.
Sargent Shriver died on January 18, 2011, at the age of 95.