© The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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.
AUGUST 12, 1965
King calls for a halt to U.S. bombing of North Vietnam to encourage negotiated settlement of conflict
JANUARY 10, 1966
Backs Georgia State Senator-Elect Julian Bond’s right to oppose war
Urges halt to bombing on Face the Nation televised interview
APRIL 4, 1967
Delivers his first public antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church
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 Negro, 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 about America.
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.
“I was a loud speaker but a quiet actor”
In February 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 my soul.
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 powder keg.
As 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 if 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 if 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 self-defined 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 of 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 self-appointed 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.
“SO PRECIOUS THAT YOU WILL DIE FOR IT”
I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty-eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at thirty-eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice ….
Don’t ever think that you’re by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary, but you never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you, and criticize you. But you never go alone, for somewhere I read that one with God is a majority. And God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority. Walk with him this morning and believe in him and do what is right, and He’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages. Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul, but I heard the voice of Jesus saying, still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone.
Sermon at Ebenezer, November 5, 1967
This 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.