Martin Luther King’s Speech Against the Vietnam War

One of the greatest speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break Silence," was delivered at Riverside Church, New York City, on April 4, 1967. It is a statement against war in principle, in the same sense in which King’s "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," published four years earlier, had been a statement against social injustice in principle. Yet like that extraordinary earlier appeal, "A Time to Break Silence" is also addressed to the evils of a particular time and place. It protests the command and deployment by Lyndon Johnson of almost unlimited violence against the people and the land of Vietnam for the declared purpose of protecting them from the menace of world communism.

King began by acknowledging his solidarity with the organizers of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam; and he pledged himself in full accord with their recent statement: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." In Vietnam, says King, "that time has come for us."

Yet to support concrete acts of nonviolent protest or non-cooperation remains a difficult choice.

"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world."

The trouble is all the greater in a case like this, where evil is on both sides but where America’s violence has greatly exceeded that of the enemy, since American resources for violence through the use of air power are so much greater. In such a situation, says King, "we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on."

This speech was King’s public announcement of his opposition to the war. Moral protest, which said "The war is wrong," was still, as it would remain, very much a minority position. Even the tactical objection that said, "The war cannot be won," was still a marginal view, though now steadily gaining adherents. King knew that his uncompromising dissent would draw bitter attacks. Members of the black community would charge that by his new commitment he was diluting the single-minded pursuit of civil rights for which he was known to stand. "Some of us," he confesses, "who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak."

Here King arrives at the heart of his subject:

"Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns 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. ‘Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,’ they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why 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."

His aim is to unite the protest against civil injustices with the protest against a policy of violence and domination abroad. You may (King seems to have thought) – you may, in some imagined logical universe, combine the domestic good and the foreign evil; but that is not how the minds and feelings of people in practice function. If it is logically possible to envisage a government that is wise and just to its own people while being cruel and oppressive toward others, still, in actuality this is not possible. It does not happen, because human nature is not formed for such double bookkeeping. People who fancy they can act the two parts at once are imagining a form of conduct beyond their psychological means.

King turns now to a practical observation. War is an enemy to the poor in America. By a terrible compensation we are sending blacks to fight in Vietnam when we cannot find jobs or justice for them at home. How can he preach non-violence in America while this process goes forward?

"For those who ask the question, ‘Aren’t you a civil rights leader?’ and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: ‘To save the soul of America.’ We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

"O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

"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."

Accordingly, he argues, it is fitting for him to dedicate part of his energy in the coming months to the protest against the war.

Some people thought his recent statements in criticism of American foreign policy were an abuse of the impartial honor of his Nobel Prize for Peace. A man so distinguished, they said, ought not to join a protest movement that might be seen as fractious or merely parochial. King replies now by saying that

"the Nobel Prize for Peace 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’m 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?"

And he goes on to explain his motives in explicitly Christian terms:

"Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and 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 and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

"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."

Thus in a way exceptional for an American, and for any social critic or prophet, King moved beyond a protest within his country to a work of conscience he knew must cross all national boundaries.

As Jesus Christ spoke from a care for what was done to "the least of these," King looks to a subject neglected by Americans: the history of suffering by the Vietnamese people.

"They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945, after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its re-conquest of her former colony. 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."

In a short summary, he recounts the history of the Vietnamese battle for independence from 1945 to 1965. What astonishes King about America’s conduct after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, is that, under cover of a client state with a sham democracy, we chose to make ourselves the successors of the departing French colonists:

"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.

"So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

"What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?"

Martin Luther King’s striking comparison of the Americans in Vietnam to the Germans in Europe was "extreme" by the standards of American opinion in 1967; as it would be extreme in our own time to suggest that a similar comparison is warranted by the use of phosphorous bombs in the second siege of Fallujah and of psychotropic drugs on terrorist suspects in Guantanamo. To King, the truth of a perception mattered more than its happy or disagreeable effect on the listener. This comparison did not, in fact, constitute for him a special provocation. He presents it as matter of fact: a truth about the way power and technology, once possessed, are inevitably used in the modern age. The lights of perverted science assist the experiments and protract the dominance of a military power that recognizes no restraint.

But King also here implies a subtler thought – implies it so clearly that it need not be spoken. Unlimited power will do everything it can against those it has once dehumanized as a "total" enemy (an enemy that is a beast and also a thing). The brutalization of mind always takes place before the atrocity in which it proves itself. Nor is the capacity for such acts the attribute of a single nation or race. The same part of the mind that invented Zyklon B invented napalm. The same human nature that wanted to use the poison gas as soon as it saw the ingenuity of the thing also wanted to use the lethal burning jelly.

Destruction has its own momentum and its own fascination. Things built over ages can be made to vanish in an instant under its annihilating stroke. That is what happened to the ancient culture, the farms, and the forests of Vietnam under the unleashed assault of American air power – which, by the end of the war, would subject a country the size of Italy to more than three times the tonnage of bombs dropped in all of the Second World War.

"We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

"Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call ‘fortified hamlets.’ The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers."

Thus far, the condemnation has been general, but King now moves to speak of the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam – both, in 1967, still considered off limits in public discussion, even though it was generally known that a negotiated settlement without their participation would be meaningless. Whatever our actions might say, American intentions, as all Americans agreed, were unselfish; and, though Vietnam might be the home of the Vietnamese, millions of them had been grossly deceived and misled. As for the North Vietnamese and the NLF, no good would ever come from them. Martin Luther King offered a radical challenge to each of these premises; yet the method (King believed) for showing America the false conceit of its innocence was to acknowledge the harm done to Vietnam alongside a catastrophe nearer to home. He speaks of what this war is doing to the American soldiers who have to fight it:

"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.

"Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours."

King ends this penultimate section by quoting a Buddhist leader who had once admired the United States but who, from his experience of the war, concluded that America could never again be a revolutionary country for freedom. Its fate after Vietnam would be chiefly to be known and feared for its relentless use of military power.

Having turned from inquest to prophecy, the speech concludes with five specific proposals. End the bombing; commit the U.S. to a unilateral cease-fire; curtail the build-up of American troops in Laos and Thailand; recognize the NLF as a legitimate party in negotiations; and set a date for withdrawal. It took enormous courage, a now almost unimaginable independence, for a leader so close to established opinion in America to say these things in April 1967. One year ahead lay the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the presidential campaign of 1968, after a primary in New Hampshire in which the insurgent candidate, Eugene McCarthy, said far milder things about the Vietnam war than King in "A Time to Break Silence."

How would our history, and Vietnam’s, have changed had Martin Luther King’s advice been followed in 1967? Many who are dead would have lived. An environment and a way of a life would have been spared a depth of destruction whose effects have yet to be fully measured. And the truth of the warning that followed his proposals would not have become a truth of history: that America (as King put it) was placing itself on the wrong side of the revolution for freedom throughout the world. He summoned the words of John F. Kennedy: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." The truth of that axiom seems hardly to have diminished forty years later. With one notable difference: a substantial portion of American policy makers have now inherited the Jacobin and Soviet ambition to be the fomenters of violent revolution abroad.

We would know the great Riverside Church oration of April 1967 as the work only of an inspired reformer and protest leader – not of the moral leader that Martin Luther King always also was – had it closed with this comment regarding the ultimate cost of America’s policy. Yet the speech looks beyond the Vietnam war and asks us to consider the wrong of war itself. An end to wars is a cause to which at least all Christians are called to dedicate themselves. For war is always the instrument of the powerful. It sharpens the sting of inequality, and by destruction it steals from the poor the lives they have built. As Christians, therefore,

"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 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."

The doctrine is Christian; and yet King in this speech made sure not to claim that it was exclusively Christian:

Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

Will Americans (King wondered) live according the morality of the Good Samaritan? Or will we continue on the path we have taken, and live by the ethics of the Caesars?

"There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.’

"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. 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."

With that final evocation of crisis – adding some favorite verses from James Russell Lowell about the choices both men and countries face – King left his audience to their thoughts. One year, to the day, after he delivered this speech, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Ask an American about the anti-war speech in Riverside Church – as surprising in its range of thoughts and as closely argued as anything ever written or spoken by Martin Luther King – and you are likely to find only the vaguest of recognitions. Few know more than that there was such a speech. In fact, "A Time to Break Silence" marked a crossroads in the life of Martin Luther King. President Johnson never forgave him for breaking ranks; pro-war liberal Democrats afterward often dissociated themselves from his actions; and a large part of the civil rights movement deplored his stance as a violation of an unspoken contract. Civil rights, they thought, was about black Americans, and the cause of black Americans was civil rights. The violence of the cities had nothing to do with the violence of the war.

Even some advisers close to King, as Taylor Branch recounts in At Canaan’s Edge, believed that the speech was impolitic – "too advanced," "not so balanced" as it should have been; while the political counselor of President Johnson, John P. Roche, wrote a confidential memorandum saying that King had "thrown in his lot with the commies." As for the press, the New York Times judged that King’s protest against the war was "wasteful and self-defeating" and likely to be "disastrous for both causes." The Washington Post went further. It predicted that many who had once listened to King with respect "would never again accord him the same confidence"; and it concluded: "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people." Recall that, in his speech, King said that concern for black Americans had led him to concern for America as a whole, and for the people of the world. The Post, by its gesture of severance, was returning the black minister to "his people" with the considered judgment that he was no longer of much use even to them.

Martin Luther King was disturbed, but cannot have been surprised, by the tenor of these responses; and in a "Face to Face" television interview on July 28, when asked directly about the supposed contradiction between his efforts on behalf of civil rights and in the anti-war movement, he gave his reply:

"I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And wherever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam."

He had said something like these words before, but never before so piercingly

Moral courage is rare. Still rarer is the courage to oppose a president who has helped your cause and the consensus of a party that has supported your cause. But in April 1967, King had reached a point where he knew that "silence is betrayal," and he knew that he had to act. He saw that conformity to the dogma of anti-communism had muffled free discussion in the United States; that the excuse of ideology had blinded Americans of all colors to the infectiousness of the violence we practiced. King’s greatness, at that moment, did not take the form of simple civic courage, the performing of a public duty you have come to expect of yourself. Rather, his was that "more lonely courage" William James once spoke of – courage which shows itself in leaving a secure post and taking up one more exposed, because the time and place require your presence.