Chapter 31: Beyond Vietnam
Today, young men of America are fighting, dying, and killing in Asian jungles in a war whose purposes are so ambiguous the whole nation seethes with dissent. They are told they are sacrificing for democracy, but the Saigon regime, their ally, is a mockery of democracy, and the black American soldier has himself never experienced democracy.
All my adult life I have deplored violence and war as instruments for achieving solutions to mankind's problems. I am firmly committed to the creative power of nonviolence as the force which is capable of winning lasting and meaningful brotherhood and peace. As a minister, a Nobel Prize holder, a civil rights leader, a Nagro, a father, and above all as an American, I have wrestled with my conscience.
Despite this - whether right or wrong - in the summer and fall
of 1965, after
President Johnson declared himself willing to negotiate, I believed
that it was essential for all Americans to publicly avoid the debate
on why we were waging war in the far-off lands of Vietnam. I believed
that the crucial problem which faced Americans was how to move with
great speed and without more bloodshed from the battlefield to the
peace table. The issues of culpability and morality, while important,
had to be subordinated lest they divert or divide. The President's
strong declaration to negotiate, to talk peace, and thus end the
death and destruction, had to be accepted, honored, and implemented.
Accepting this premise,
my public statements, while condemning all militarism, were directed
mainly to the mechanics for achieving an immediate cessation of
hostilities. I did not march, I did not demonstrate, I did not rally.
I petitioned in direct meetings with the President, and at his invitation
with U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg. In my meeting with Ambassador
Goldberg, in September 1965, I
urged that our efforts to seek peace by negotiations
could be speeded by agreeing to negotiate directly with the National
Liberation Front, by admitting Red China to the U.N., and by halting
the bombing of North Vietnam.
For a while, knowing that
my wife shares my passion for peace, I decided that I would leave
it to her to take the stands and make the meetings on the peace
issue and leave me to concentrate on civil rights. But as the hopeful
days became disappointing months, I began the agonizing measurement
of government promising words of peace against the baneful, escalating
deeds of war. Doubts gnawed at my conscience. Uncertain, but still
trusting, we watched setbacks in the search for peace and advances
in the search for military advantage.
Some of my friends of both
races and others who do not consider themselves my friends expressed
disapproval because I had been voicing concern over the war in Vietnam.
In newspaper columns and editorials, both in the Negro and general
press, it was indicated that Martin King, Jr., is "getting out of
his depth." I was chided, even by fellow civil rights leaders, members
of Congress, and brothers of the cloth for "not sticking to the
business of civil rights."
I agonized a great deal
over this whole problem. I went away for two months to do a lot
of thinking, but basically to write a book. I had
a chance to reflect, to meditate, and to think. I thought about
civil rights and I thought about the world situation and I thought
Something said to me, "Martin,
you have got to stand up on this. No matter what it means." I didn't
rush into it. I didn't just decide to do it on a moment's notice.
I had my own vacillations and I asked questions of whether on the
one hand I should do it or whether I shouldn't.
As I went through this period one night I picked up an article entitled "The Children of Vietnam," and I read it. And after reading that article, I said to myself, "Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands and thousands of little children in Vietnam." I came to the conclusion that there is an existential moment in your life when you must decide to speak for yourself; nobody else can speak for you.
1967, the slender cord which held
me threatened to break as our government spurned the simple peace
offer-conveyed by one no less than the authorized head of the Soviet
Union-to halt our bombing of North Vietnam, not the bombing of all
of Vietnam, in return for fully occupied seats at a peace table.
We rejected it by demanding a military quid pro quo.
As I look back, I acknowledge
that this end of faith was not sudden; it came like the ebbing of
a tide. As I reviewed the events, I saw an orderly buildup of evil,
an accumulation of inhumanities., each of which alone was sufficient
to make men hide in shame. What was woeful, but true, was that my
country was only talking peace but was bent on military victory.
Inside the glove of peace was the clenched fist of war. I now stood
naked with shame and guilt, a, indeed every German should have when
his government was using its military power to overwhelm other nations.
Whether right of
wrong, I had for too long allowed myself to be a silent onlooker.
A best, I was a loud speaker but a quiet actor, while a charade
was being performed.
So often I had castigated
those who by silence or inaction condoned and thereby cooperated
with the evils of racial injustice. Had I
not, again and again, said that the silent onlooker must bear the
responsibility for the brutalities committed by the Bull Connors,
or by the murderers of the innocent children in a Birmingham church?
Had I not committed myself to the principle that looking away from
evil is, in effect, a condoning of it? Those who lynch, pull
the trigger, point the cattle prod, or open the fire hoses act in
the name of the silent. I had to therefore speak out if I was to
erase my name from the bombs which fall over North or South
Vietnam, from the canisters of napalm. The time had come - indeed
it was past due - when I had to disavow and dissociate myself from
those who in the name of peace burn, maim, and kill.
More than that, I had to
go from the pulpits and platforms. I had to return to the streets
to mobilize men to assemble and petition, in the spirit of our own
revolutionary history, for the immediate end of this bloody, immoral,
obscene slaughter-for a cause which cries out for a solution before
mankind itself is doomed. I could do no less for the salvation of
I had lived and worked
in ghettos throughout the nation, and I traveled tens of thousands
of miles each month into dozens of Northern and Southern Negro communities.
My direct personal experience with Negroes in all walks of life
convinced me that there was deep and widespread disenchantment with
the war in Vietnam-first, because they were against war itself,
and second, because they felt it has caused a significant and alarming
diminishing of concern and attention to civil rights progress. I
had held these views for a long time, but Negroes in so many circles
urged me to articulate their concern and frustration. They felt
civil rights was well on its way to becoming a neglected and forgotten
issue long before it was even partially solved.
The great tragedy was that
our government declared a war against poverty, and yet it only financed
a skirmish against poverty. And this led to great despair. It led
to great cynicism and discontent throughout the Negro community.
I had lived in the ghettos of Chicago and Cleveland, and I knew
the hurt and the cynicism and the discontent. And the fact
was that every city in our country was sitting on a potential powderkeg.
I moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from
the burnings of my own heart-as I called for radical departures
from the destruction of Vietnam-many persons questioned me about
the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concern, this query
has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the
war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace
and civil rights don't mix," they say. And when I hear them, though
I often understand the source of their concern, I nevertheless am
greatly saddened that such questions mean that the inquirers have
not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. They seem to
forget that before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call,
and when God speaks, who can but prophesy. I answered a call which
left the spirit of the Lord upon me and anointed me to preach the
gospel. And during the early days of my ministry, I read the Apostle
Paul saying, "Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed
by the renewing of minds." I decided then that I was going to tell
the truth as God revealed it to me. No matter how many people disagreed
with me, I decided that I was going to tell the truth.
I believe that the path
from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church-the church in Montgomery, Alabama,
where I began my pastorate-leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
There is . . . a very
obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam
and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few
years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed
as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor-both black and
white-through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes,
new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched
this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political
plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America
would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation
of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw
men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction
tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy
of the poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps a more tragic
recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that
the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor
at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers
and their husbands to fight and to die
in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the
population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled
by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee
liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest
Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the
cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they
kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat
them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity
burning the huts of a poor village,
but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in
Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation
of the poor ....
As I have walked among
the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that
Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have
tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction
that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action.
But they asked, and rightly so, "What about Vietnam?" They asked
our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve
its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions
hit home, and 1 knew that 1 could never again raise my voice against
the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first
spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world
today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the
sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands
trembling under our violence, 1 cannot be silent.
Now, 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." It can
never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the
world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that
"America will be" are led down the path of protest and dissent,
working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.
But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that He died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to
explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery
to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid
I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share
with all men the calling to be
a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or
creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe
that the Father is deeply concerned especially for His suffering
and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who
deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader
and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's selfdefined
goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the
voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls "enemy,"
for no document from human
hands can make these humans any less our brothers ....
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing Clergy and Laymen Concerned committees- for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957, a sensitive
American official overseas said that it seemed to
him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.
During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression
which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors
in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investment
accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces
in Guatemala, It tells why American helicopters are being used against
guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces
have already been active against rebels in Peru.
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." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken: the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. 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, extreme 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 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 South 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 the
veins of peoples 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.
America, the richest
and most powerful nation in the world, car, well lead the way in
this revolution of values. There is nothing except u tragic death
wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so than the pursuit
of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. Then is nothing
to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo wit[ bruised hands
until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood ....
These are revolutionary
times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems
of exploitation and oppression, and, out of the wounds of a frail
world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless
and barefoot people of the land are rising up a. never before. The
people who sat in darkness have seen a great light We in the West
must support these revolutions.
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 modem world have now
become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has drivel many to feel
that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore communism
is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow
through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hop today
lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go
our into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to
poverty racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we
shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby
speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain
and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough place plain."
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies ....
We must move past indecision
to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and
justice throughout the developing, world, a world that borders on
our doors. 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.
Now let us begin. Now
let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful,
struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God,
and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the
odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?
Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against
their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will
there be another message-of longing, of hope, of solidarity with
their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost?
The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we
must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
When I first took my position
against the war in Vietnam, almost every newspaper in the country
criticized me. It was a low period in my life. I could hardly open
a newspaper. It wasn't only white people either; it was Negroes.
But then I remember a newsman coming to me one day and saying, "Dr.
King, don't you think you're going to have to change your position
now because so many people are criticizing you? And people who once
had respect for you are going to lose respect for you. And you're
going to hurt the budget, I understand, of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference; people have cut off support. And don't you
think that you have to move now more in line with the administration's
policy?" That was a good question, because he was asking me the
question of whether I was going to think about what happens to me
or what happens to truth and justice in this situation.
On some positions, Cowardice
asks the question, "is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is
it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it
popular?" But Conscience asks the question, "Is it right?" And there
comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe,
nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells
him it is right.
The ultimate measure
of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience, but where
he stands in moments of challenge, moments
great crisis and controversy. And this is where I choose to cast
my lot today. And this is why I wanted to go through with this,
because I think this is where SCLC should be. There may, be others
who want to go another way, but when I took up the cross I recognized
its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands
on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that
you bear and ultimately that you die on. The cross may mean the
death of your popularity. It may mean the death of your bridge to
the White House. It may mean the death of a foundation grant. It
may cut your budget down a little, but take up your cross and just
bear it. And that is the way I have decided to go. Come what may,
it doesn't matter now.
A myth about my views on
Vietnam credited me with advocating the fusion of the civil rights
and peace movements, and I was criticized for such a "serious tactical
mistake." I held no such view. In a formal public resolution, my
organization, SCLC, and I explicitly declared that we had no intention
of diverting or diminishing our activities in civil rights, and
we outlined extensive programs for the immediate future in the South
as well as in Chicago.
I was saddened that the
board of directors of the NAACP, a fellow civil rights organization,
would join in the perpetuation of the myth about my views. Trey
challenged and repudiated a nonexistent proposition. SCLC and I
expressed our view on the war and drew attention to its damaging
effects on civil rights programs, a fact we believed to be incontrovertible
and, therefore, mandatory to express in the interest of the struggle
for equality. I challenged the NAACP and other critics of my position
to take a forthright stand on the rightness or wrongness of this
war, rather than going off creating a nonexistent issue.
I am a clergyman as well as a civil rights leader and the moral roots of our war policy are not unimportant to me. I do not believe our nation can be a moral leader of justice, equality, and democracy if it is trapped in the role of a selfappointed world policeman. Throughout my career in the civil rights movement I have been concerned about justice for all people. For instance, I strongly feel that we must end not merely poverty among Negroes but poverty among white people. Likewise, I have always insisted on justice for all the world over, because justice is indivisible. And injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I will not stated idly by when I see an unjust war taking place without in any way diminishing my activity in civil rights, just as millions of Negro and white people are doing day in and day out.
war played havoc with the destiny of the entire world. It tore up
the Geneva Agreement, seriously impaired the United Nations, exacerbated
the hatreds between continents and, worse still, between races.
It frustrated our development at home, telling our own underprivileged
citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their most
critical needs; it greatly contributed to the forces of reaction
in America and strengthened the military industrial
complex against which even President Eisenhower solemnly warned
us; it practically destroyed Vietnam and left thousands of American
and Vietnamese youth maimed and mutilated; and it exposed the whole
world to the risk of nuclear warfare.
The Johnson Administration
seemed amazingly devoid of statesmanship, and when creative statesmanship
wanes, irrational militarism increases. President Kennedy was a
man who was big enough to admit when he was wrong-as he did after
the Bay of Pigs incident. But Johnson seemed to be unable to make
this kind of statesmanlike gesture in connection with Vietnam. Even
when he could readily summon popular support to end the bombing
in Vietnam, he persisted. Yet bombs in Vietnam also exploded at
home; they destroyed the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.
I followed a policy of
being very honest with President Johnson when he consulted me about
civil rights. I went to the White House when he invited me. I made
it very clear to him why I had taken a stand against the war in
Vietnam. I had a long talk with him on the telephone about this
and made it clear to him I would be standing up against it even
more. I was not centering this on President Johnson. I thought there
was collective guilt. Four Presidents participated in some way leading
us to the war in Vietnam. So, I am not going to put it all on President
Johnson. What I was concerned about was that we end the nightmarish
war and free our souls.
There isn't a single official of our country that can go anywhere in the world without being stoned and eggs being thrown at him. It's because we have taken on to ourselves a kind of arrogance of power. We've ignored the mandates of justice and morality. And I don't know about you, but I wish I could make a witness more positive about this thing. I wish I was of draft age. I wish I did not have my ministerial exemption. I tell you this morning, I would not fight in the war in Vietnam. I'd go to jail before I'd do it. And I say to the federal government or anybody else: they can do to me what they did to Dr. Spock and William Sloan Coffin, my good friend, the chaplain of Yale. They can just as well get ready to convict me, because I'm going to continue to say to young men, that if you feel it in your heart that this war is wrong, unjust, and objectionable, don't go and fight in it. Follow the path of Jesus Christ.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.