The use of war in international relations is one of the contested issues in American politics. Will a new US administration in 2017 scrap the negotiated agreement with Iran to halt its nuclear development program in favor of a military attack? Will reductions in nuclear weapons be reversed in preference for a new round of weapons development?
As the pendulum swings in a politically polarized and disillusioned electorate, many Americans yearn for a reliable and firm foundation for governance of the nation. Each January, we have an opportunity to remember the prophetic wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and consider his words and actions as a beacon across our conflicted landscape. In the last 15 months of life, King spoke repeatedly about war and the role of the US in the world. His words on war are often forgotten in an effort to sterilize and domesticate his legacy. One of his major addresses was in Los Angeles in February 1967.
Dr. King’s decisive words continue to echo through the decades: “A war in which children are incinerated, in which American soldiers die in mounting numbers is a war that mutilates the conscience.” He was concerned about long-term injury to the US’s morality. Casualties in terms of basic principles and values were disastrous and injurious: “Indeed they are ultimately more harmful [than body casualties] because they are self-perpetuating. If the casualties of principle are not healed, the physical casualties will continue to mount” … through the decades.
This address to The Nation Institute contains King’s analysis of the impact of war on US society. In addition to many thousands of human casualties, King saw that the American War in Vietnam had also brought “casualties of principles and values” in six areas. First, he charged that the United States had blatantly violated its obligation under the charter of the United Nations to “refrain in its international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” This violation had an impact: “As Americans and as lovers of Democracy we should carefully ponder the consequences of our nation’s declining moral status in the world.” (Consider also in the last 15 years the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.)
A second casualty of the war for King was the principle of self-determination. “By entering a war that is little more than a domestic civil war, America has ended up supporting a new form of colonialism covered up by certain niceties of complexity.” King continued, “Whether we realize it or not our participation in the war in Vietnam is an ominous expression of our lack of sympathy for the oppressed [and] … reveals our willingness to continue participating in neo-colonialist adventures.” (Has American neocolonialism continued these last 50 years?) With a historical perspective, King said: “We are engaged in a war that seeks to turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism.”
A third casualty was the Great Society program under the Lyndon Johnson administration: “This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” King saw that domestic and international policies were intimately linked: “The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities.” The bombs of foreign wars explode at home: “they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” (Estimates of the US cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq range between $2 trillion and $5 trillion. How many youth could have been taken out of the school-to-prison pipeline and put on the path to productive citizenship for that price tag?) King recognized that, “Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession.”
A fourth casualty was the humility of the nation: “We are arrogant in our contention that we have some sacred mission to protect people from totalitarian rule, while we make little use of our power to end the evils of South Africa and Rhodesia, and while we are in fact supporting dictatorships with guns and money under the guise of fighting Communism.” King saw the arrogant use of American economic and military power and warned that, “Enlarged power means enlarged peril if there is not concomitant growth of the soul … Our arrogance can be our doom.” (George W. Bush, your rationale for invading Iraq was what? To bring a stable democracy to the Middle East? Arrogance?)
The fifth casualty of the war was the principle of dissent. King was alarmed by “An ugly repressive sentiment to silence peace-seekers,” who were often depicted as “quasi-traitors, fools and venal enemies of our soldiers and institution.” When those who seek peace are vilified “it is time to consider where we are going and whether free speech has not become one of the major casualties of the war.”
The final casualty of war was the prospect of human survival: “This war has created the climate for greater armament and further expansion of destructive nuclear power … The large power blocs of the world talk passionately of pursuing peace while burgeoning defense budgets bulge, enlarging already awesome armies, and devising even more devastating weapons.” (The US in 2017 spends as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Is this a compulsion that has no relationship to global reality?)
King maintained that an honest look at history shows: “Wars are a poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” He spoke personally in Los Angeles: “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world … I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster.”
In the midst of a highly polarized US in 1967, King issued a call to active peacemaking: “Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humane-ness.” (Today, in 2017 our foundations have been shaken, but many doubt that we are headed toward a “high destiny … compassion … humane-ness.”)
In this holiday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us extend the depth of his analysis and the breadth of his vision. Here indeed is a reliable and firm foundation for governance of the nation. His words and actions are a beacon across our conflicted political landscape.