On today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, KUOW played a “Speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City” entitled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. The text quoted herein was obtained at Hartford World Publishing’s World History Archives.
The speech is a sensitive, thoughtful, and carefully reasoned indictment of the war in Vietnam. It is not dogmatic or impolitic. It does not cater to fear; rather, it calls on our higher selves, our sense of responsibility, fairness, and justice.
King opens with what called him to action: “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam”
He then explains his seven reasons for protesting the war in Vietnam, which I will only briefly summarize here: 1. The war pulls away resources that would otherwise go to help the poor in the US. 2. It manipulates the poor at home by sending the races to die together who are not allowed to live together in a segregated society. 3. It undermines the message that social change can be brought about by peaceful means. 4. The war in Vietnam poisons the soul of America, and those who care about America must therefore protest. 5. King’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Peace earlier that year was “a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’” 6. And anyway, he says, even if he hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, it’s a Christian value to promote peace, to love and care for all men. 7. Finally, it is King’s calling to speak out in brotherhood for those who are “suffering and helpless.”
King then lays out a history of Vietnam’s struggles and the US’s involvement as early as 1945. He does so in the name of understanding the thought processes behind our so-called enemy. He goes to great pains to make clear that he does not condone the violent tactics of the Vietnamese. He attempts not to speak as their apologist, but to understand their side of the equation.
“Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight thousand miles away from its shores. “At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.”
King speaks here and often through the speech of the consequences of our hypocrisy. The danger of creating cynical warriors is especially poignant. Following 1945, we must have felt that we could do anything, and after so long couching World War II in the rhetoric of good versus evil, moral versus immoral, and right versus might, after seeing what effective motivation that language was, it must have been hard to stop. The war machine had been built, after all. We believed - and World War II showed - that we were a force for good, that we stood up against oppressive regimes. With the fact of our strength evident after that war, we must have thought we could do anything we wanted. And with the American people distracted by trying to put their broken lives back in order, those who wished to continue making war must not have felt under pressure to think about the consequences of their actions.
There is a problem with winning a war, you see, and the problem is what to do in peacetime with the men and women you have trained to fight. Soldiers who build the muscles and instincts necessary to fight a war have little motivation to abandon those skills. Governments throughout the ages have understood this fact. There is an argument, for example, that the French military campaign in Haiti in 1802 was part of Napoleon’s attempt to simply occupy the troops who would otherwise be drinking, carousing, fighting, and whoring for lack of anything else to do.
When we failed to provide post-war alternatives to the soldiers and generals who had planned such a successful military campaign against a clearly despicable enemy, we created a vacuum into which their capabilities and resources would naturally flow, and we abandoned our watch over the American principles which had gotten us there in the first place.
America’s failure to grasp the inherent weaknesses of a military strategy devoid of a reasoned consideration and pursuit of alternatives seems to become a theme in post-1945 conflicts. (Was it so even before then?) Certainly, King’s speech resonates loud and clear in light of our current struggles. Indeed, the following passage could refer as easily to how we squandered the global goodwill we tragically attained during the events of 9/11.
“This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words: “‘Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.’"
This was in the 1960s! Can we wonder, then, at what might have caused the resentment against Americans that exploded on 9/11? Is King again speaking to us today when he says, “It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’"
Hollow justifications for war, charges of profiteering, companies who seem to believe they can lie on their balance sheets with impunity... There have been voices warning us for decades to change our ways.
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Fairness. Justice, Compassion. Freedom. Were we not taught in school that these are the values of our democracy? Isn’t our nation founded on principles of fair and equal representation, of voices heard? Aren’t we supposed to love freedom and hate oppression? Are we to admit now to abandoning those principles for, what?.... profit?
”It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” [italics mine]
The failure to make democracy real. This is what I fear is happening. I fear that the chasm between what we do and what we claim to stand for is growing ever wider, and will one day be too wide to bridge. I worry that we will continue to squander the promise of the American Revolution to bring freedom and liberty to all. I worry most that American liberty will be the next casualty of our inaction.
I hope Dr. King will forgive me for using his speech in this way, for mixing his eloquent argument against the Vietnam War in with my own questions about our current times. I long to hear speeches like this now. I long for the kinds of leaders that can speak so beautifully and so well. I mourn the untimely losses of King, JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X. For whatever their faults, their ideas were important and the ways they presented them were powerful. I wonder if the legacy of the assassinations of the 60s was not just the silencing of these voices, but the intimidation into silence of others who might speak up for truth and justice.
Where, after all, is anyone today who might say, “If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Who calls us to action today? Who pleads today for us to be responsible? Who appeals to our higher selves? On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2004, let us hope that we will see his like again. Soon.