The irony was striking. There was President Barack Obama on Wednesday, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarkable “I Have a Dream” speech. The irony lay not in Obama’s banality, but in the fact that as he spoke, his war council was planning to bomb Syria.
While King’s speech on Aug. 28, 1963, was about equality before the law and the plight of the poor, less than four years later (and one year before his assassination), in April 1967, he made news by denouncing the U.S. war in Vietnam. It’s not difficult to imagine how King would view fellow Nobel Peace Prize–winner Obama’s intention with respect to Syria, not to mention the broader militarism of the administration. I know such things just aren’t done — alas — but it would have been heartening had a member of King’s family criticized Obama’s war program during the tributes to MLK that day.
On April 4, 1967, King spoke at Riverside Church in New York City during a gathering assembled by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. His speech was titled “Beyond Vietnam — Time to Break Silence.” (This was not the beginning of King’s dissent from Lyndon Johnson’s war. That came two years earlier.) King’s speech was a radical critique of the savage U.S. interference in Vietnam’s attempt to be independent and Johnson’s meddling in the ensuing civil war. While King referred to American errors, he also spoke of sins and wrongdoing. It was a thoroughgoing condemnation of imperialism and militarism — and hence entirely relevant to our time.
Noting that “men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war,” King said “it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam.”
America was not his only concern, because he sought to rise above nationalism:
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
Today we’re told that America seeks freedom for the people of Syria (and Egypt, Iran, etc.). In the 1960s Americans were told something similar in justification of the war in Vietnam. King saw through the lies, noting that the U.S. government refused to recognize Vietnam’s declared independence after World War II and financially supported France’s effort to recolonize the peninsula.
The Vietnamese people “must see Americans as strange liberators,” King said.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China — for whom the Vietnamese have no great love — but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
When the French were defeated in 1954, the American state persisted, supporting “one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem.”
The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by United States’ influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
King’s references to the National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese show an earnest effort to understand the historical and contemporary context of the conflict. It is nuanced and fair, without whitewash or rationalization.
He also expressed concern for American personnel — so many of whom were conscripts, don’t forget — which makes it difficult to accuse King of failing to “support the troops.”
I am as deeply concerned about our own 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 a hell for the poor. [Emphasis added.]
This sort of radical analysis was rare among Vietnam War opponents, who preferred mostly to talk of policy blunders and miscalculations, rather than criminal opportunism. It was particularly courageous of King, for he was working with Johnson and other key politicians on the civil-rights agenda. We don’t hear enough of such criticism today.
King called for five “concrete” steps by the United States: an end to the bombing; a unilateral ceasefire; terminating military activity in neighboring countries; acceptance of the NLF, which “has substantial support in South Vietnam,” as a negotiating partner; and the setting of a date for withdrawal of all foreign troops.
He was not naïve, as can be seen by his suggestion that the U.S. government “offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front.” (He also called for U.S. reparations to Vietnam “for the damage we have done.” Obviously, taxing people who were not responsible for the war would have been wrong — King was not a libertarian — but there should have been a way to force the policymakers to personally make amends to the extent possible.)
King went beyond Vietnam and called for an end to U.S.-sponsored corporatist imperialism in the developing world. He quoted John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” This section of the speech might be mistaken for a criticism of free markets until one remembers that the U.S. government wasn’t promoting freed markets at all. It was promoting, at bayonet point, rigged-market plutocracy friendly to the U.S. government and its well-connected corporate cronies. (See U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler’s War Is a Racket.) If King identified this system with “capitalism” and then equated it with “free markets,” he should be forgiven. The blame belongs to advocates of free markets who let this confusion take hold by not loudly opposing U.S. foreign policy for fear of sounding “leftist.” King clearly saw that the West’s counterrevolutionary spirit made Marxism appear revolutionary. “Our only hope today,” he said, “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.”
King had been pressured not to denounce the war, but he ignored that advice. How could he preach nonviolence at home, he asked, while remaining silent about “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government”? How, indeed?