The United States suffers from a self-imposed amnesia. It has chosen only a few threads from the rich thoughts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to weave into the fabric of its national epic. Forgotten is King’s major address on US foreign policy, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on the night of April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination. He began, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” King had faced widespread rebuke in 1965, when he first started to publicly question US foreign policy in Vietnam. Now, two years later, he recognized that “silence is betrayal,” that he must take the risk of opposing his government and overcome “the apathy of conformist thought” and “being mesmerized by uncertainty.”
King’s words from 1967 have a haunting and piercing relevance for the United States in 2016, with lingering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, racial tension in many cities and democracy and stability threatened by the widening gap between rich and poor. King noted that Christian leaders in the US had traditionally engaged in “the prophesying of smooth patriotism,” but now was a time to move to “the high ground of firm dissent based on the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
King had been criticized for speaking out on foreign policy:
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 … I am 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.
King linked civil rights at home with international peace – an inherent and intimate connection, alarmingly evident also in 2016.
King saw that the US military campaign in Vietnam took resources that could have gone to an anti-poverty program: “I watched the 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.” (Already in 2008, we read estimates from economist Joseph Stiglitz that the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would eventually cost $3 trillion.) King recognized that the United States’ wars are “an enemy of the poor.”
The poor were paying a second price for the US war in Vietnam: “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.”
Blacks and whites were “in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village,” but they could not live on the same block in most US cities. King proclaimed, “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.”
King spoke with the angry young Black men in US cities who advocated the use of violence to achieve social justice. They asked about the US government’s use of violence to achieve its international goals. King acknowledged, “Their questions hit home, and I knew that I 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.” (In the last 15 months, US and allied military forces have flown more than 8,000 bombing runs over Syria and Iraq – still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today? How many civilians were killed? We don’t know … and don’t care.) King knew that in Vietnam, there were “hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence.”
Many Christians led the crusade to destroy communism in Southeast Asia, and King heard their criticism of his prophetic ministry:
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? … Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?
King believed that all human beings are children of the living God, who is “deeply concerned for his suffering, and helpless and outcast children” and he came “to speak for them.” Christians, for King, should hold “allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions.”
King spoke of “the madness of Vietnam,” which was driven by the “deadly Western arrogance” of paternalism. Instead of honoring the Geneva Peace Accords in 1954, the US installed a “vicious” dictator and the peasants of Vietnam “watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords.” Then they watched the arrival of US troops “who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused.” The government we placed in South Vietnam was “corrupt, inept and without popular support.” (Does this sound familiar? Think about the American puppet government installed in Iraq and the current raging insurgency by Sunni partisans to take back their homeland.) King maintained that US firepower inflicted 20 times more civilian deaths and injuries than those inflicted by North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front fighters.
King believed that the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence is “to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” He must have known that most of the Americans of his day were not mature enough to listen to the enemy, to know its concerns, or to benefit from its wisdom. Has this changed in the last five decades?
King was concerned about US troops in Vietnam, who faced “the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy.” They soon saw that we were not fighting for freedom and liberty, but rather “the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.” In exasperation, King proclaimed that “this madness must cease … The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.” King directed his comments to the American people: “The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people.” We need to “atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam.” Think about US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. Any parallels?
King saw a larger and more alarming pattern in American conduct: “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 [protesting American wars around the globe]. We will be marching … and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.” King’s vision was expansive:
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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Here King was prescient and had an understanding of the United States’ historic trajectory: “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.’ “
King looked at modern warfare and declared: “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 veins of people normally human, 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.”
We are not compelled into endless wars by destiny or necessity; Americans can shape the future: “We still have a choice: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Yes Americans, on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday of 2016, let us lay claim to our ability to discern and decide what kind of world we will leave for our children: “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world.” Let us weave new threads from the brilliant thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. into our national tapestry, so that we might be an inspiration for a new world of peace and justice.