On April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a historic speech at Riverside Church in New York City, which has become known as “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”
In a powerful and inspiring speech, Dr. King declared that his deep religious faith would no longer allow him to confine himself to the domestic struggle for civil rights. Instead, he was compelled to denounce the war in Vietnam because it was wrong and because of what it was doing to America and the rest of the world.
He declared that “[a] time comes when silence is betrayal.” Today, ignoring Dr. King’s warnings, our country is engaged in foreign wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, silence on these disastrous wars is betrayal.
Dr. King knew well the daunting task he faced. “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.”
Early in his speech, Dr. King made the immediate connection between the cost of war abroad and the unmet needs of the people at home. Recalling the hopes and “new beginnings” of the poverty program, Dr. King bemoaned “the buildup in Vietnam” as he 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. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
In words so achingly true today, Dr. King spoke of his deep concern for “our 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 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 an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Consequently, in words we so yearn to hear today from President Barack Obama, Dr. King declared: “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. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”
But Dr. King refused to leave it there. “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. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.”
Dr. King foretold that 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 To get on the right side of history, Dr. King called for “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.”
As if he could hear President Obama boasting about “spreading democracy in Afghanistan,” Dr. King warned that 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 veins of people 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.”
Analyzing the obsession with anti-communism, in terms we would be wise today to apply to the obsession with anti-terrorism, Dr. King said that “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 modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out 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, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. “
With an insistence as compelling today as it was over 40 years ago, Dr. King declared: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…’ We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”
Dr King urged us to “move past indecision to action” and find “new ways to speak for peace and justice” for 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,” Dr. King concluded. “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.”
Can we do any less in the face of the monstrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? Are the odds too great to end these war now? Is it too hard to speak to loyal Americans who have yet to see that their government has lied to them? Shall we just send our regrets to the families here and around the world who will lose their children, husbands and wives today and tomorrow while we remain silent and inert?
As it was for Dr. King then, it is for us now a “crucial moment of human history.”
Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and author, is Chair of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, a group of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and others formed in the wake of 9/11.