This Jan. 13 the Pentagon commemorated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with an address by Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department’s general counsel.
In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson told a packed auditorium. However, he added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings. “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.” Really?
Dr. King’s first antiwar speech, “Declaration of Independence From the War In Vietnam,” delivered on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, is not only eloquent and passionate but also carefully reasoned and as unmistakable in its message as its title. Dr. King knew his call for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would bring challenges to his leadership from his enemies, alienate many of his friends in the civil rights movement, and lead to increased FBI harassment. He spoke at a moment when U.S. officials from the president down warned that communism’s triumph in Vietnam would lead to victories across Asia and beyond, and made Americans as fearful of communism as they are of today’s terrorists.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal,” King said. He minced few words, referring to “my own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Has much changed today when the U.S. boasts the largest military budget in history, one larger than all other countries around combined? The United States still has bases on every continent, and its armed forces fight in and occupy Iraq and Afghanistan for longer than it fought in World War II. Weekly we hear the government contemplates air strikes against Iran’s nuclear building sites, or even an invasion.
Would Dr. King have called for withdrawal from Vietnam and, had he lived, not called for a withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan? Would he have failed to see parallels that are as obvious as they are frightening?
Early in his address, Dr. King pointed out that “our leaders refused to tell us the truth” about our war in Vietnam. Can we ever forget that the U.S. attack on Iraq was initiated to destroy weapons of mass destruction that never existed and to retaliate against a Saddam Hussein and Iraq that had no part in the 9/11 attacks on the United States? In the name of Iraqi freedom our leaders ordered the torture of prisoners and promoted democracy by supporting corrupt leaders who lack popular support. The people of Vietnam, King said, “must see Americans as strange liberators.” In Afghanistan today those who suffer from drone attacks directed from afar and other deadly searches for terrorists do not see us as liberators. They see a distant power occupying and oppressing innocent civilians, and they see the United States as doomed to fail as earlier foreign invaders.
“The madness of Vietnam,” Dr. King said in 1967, will “totally” poison “America’s soul.” He told how U.S. involvement in Vietnam “eviscerated” its war on poverty begun by President Lyndon Johnson, which instead had its “funds and energies” and “men and skills” drawn into a war “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” What happens to “America’s soul” as the U.S. budget spins out of control and joblessness and hopelessness reach proportions known only during the Great Depression?
Dr. King emphasized how the Vietnam War was “devastating the hopes of the poor at home” and “sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population.” In 2011 a volunteer army draws even more heavily on the poor, those without jobs, men and women losing hope of finding meaningful work. Dr. King said then, “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.” Would the man who organized a Poor People’s Crusade before his assassination be silent now?
Toward the end of his address at the Riverside Church, Dr. King said, “Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam…. The great initiative in the war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”
Was not Martin Luther King Jr. reaching beyond Vietnam when he warned of “approaching spiritual death” and called for “a significant and profound change in American life and policy” and insisted “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values”? Was he only speaking of Vietnam when he said, “War is not the answer?”