US jets bombed villages. US soldiers machine-gunned combatants and civilians. The Vietnam War had hit a fever pitch of death when Martin Luther King Jr. stepped onto the podium at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
The speech, “A Time to Break the Silence,” cost him. Newspapers damned him. Friends distanced themselves. President Lyndon Johnson, angered by what he thought was betrayal, reportedly called King, “that goddamn n***** preacher.”
King risked isolation to speak hard truths. The US’s endless war had depleted the money needed to end poverty. The war was in support of a corrupt, authoritarian regime that suppressed a peoples’ desire to be free. The US was poisoned by its militarism; it was not the beacon of democracy but its destroyer.
The King of “A Time to Break the Silence” is more relevant today than ever. The US’s war on the world has been ongoing. Poverty has deepened. The body count has only grown.
War Is Always War Against the Poor
“America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued,” King said in the speech, “I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
King was 12 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 by the Japanese military, and the US entered World War II. As a teen, he saw Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” poster and the mass militarization of US society. He saw the US public celebrate the end of the war and embrace its newfound wealth and superpower status on the global stage. He also saw hypocrisy as Black and elderly people remained stranded in poverty.
He was 38 when he gave his anti-Vietnam War speech at Riverside, and by then the US had become the “world’s policeman,” engaging in the 1950-53 Korean War and multiple coups across the global South. The nation also had an intractable poverty. More than 20 percent of Americans were poor at the end of the ‘50s and start of the ‘60s. In ‘67, the year of King’s “Time to Break the Silence,” speech, 25.9 million people were poor in a nation of 198 million. Yet the military budget rose and rose in a jagged, upward line.
King described war’s ability to “draw men and skills and money” as “some demonic destructive suction tube.” In the 50 years since his assassination, the military has sucked up vast sums of money even as the nation remains split by wealth inequality. In 1990-91, Operation Desert Storm cost $61 billion. The US poverty rate was 13 percent or 33 million in a nation of 250 million. How many families could eat for a year from the cost of just one of the hi-tech Tomahawk cruise missile that exploded in Baghdad?
King’s memory was enlisted by the ruling class as a symbol of nonviolence even as they waged an expensive, unnecessary war. Since 9/11, the war on terror has cost nearly $5.6 trillion even as the US poverty rate has gone from 12 percent in 2001, to 15 percent after 2008’s Wall Street Crash, back to 12.3 percent today — that’s nearly 40 million people of 328 million in the country.
Peel back the numbers, and poverty is a baby crying in hunger, a family sleeping in a car or a homeless woman shivering in a tent along Los Angeles’s Skid Row. Deep human pain flows through this country. It puddles under bridges, trickles through alleyways and gathers in abandoned lots. It is the breath of people constantly roving as police kick them awake, or as they stand on corners, asking to be seen by the thousands who walk by.
The cost of alleviating this suffering is small. In 2014, Wall Street hustlers collectively got a bonus of $26.7 billion, enough to feed every hungry person in the US. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s universal health care plan would cost $1.38 trillion, which is what the federal government already pays for all its medical programs. Another part of Senator Sanders’s plan, free college for all, is pegged at $47 billion a year.
Tax the rich and reduce the military: It’s like cracking two giant piggy banks. But the ruling class always screams that it is theft, or that the nation faces threats. The powerful in the US prefer to spend massive amounts of money, killing people overseas rather than saving the lives of their own citizens.
“In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that … our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution,” King said in his Riverside speech. “This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces.”
King came of age as the US took the helm of world government; he witnessed the triumphant rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” trumpeted from the media. Racism gave him a double-consciousness to see its hypocrisy. The Black freedom movement gave him a template to sympathize with people, however far away or foreign, who fought for independence or civil rights.
He did not see the US as a defender of global democracy. Four years after his death, the US pulled out of Vietnam but in that same year, 1973, it orchestrated a coup in Chile to stop leftist President Salvador Allende from nationalizing more businesses. Allende died. General Augusto Pinochet was sworn in as president, and his forces killed thousands of Chileans. It was one part of a larger campaign called Operation Condor, where US-backed right-wing dictators swept death across South America to stop a rising left. In the killing frenzy, nearly 60,000 were murdered.
Decade after decade, the US consistently put its geopolitical interests ahead of people’s lives. In 1975, it gave the greenlight for Indonesia to invade East Timor and even provided the weapons. Around 100,000 died. In Operation Cyclone, the US poured weapons into the hands of jihadi fighters, who became, al-Qaeda. In the 1980s in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the US funded or trained right-wing forces to fight populist, left governments. The US also invaded the tiny nation of Grenada to force out a Marxist regime. In the 2000s, the US supported Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov, a human rights abuser in alignment with US interests. During the Arab Spring, the US took the Bahrain government side against protesters to insure its Fifth Fleet would keep its base. The US continued to back Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak until he was forced out but then it cozied up to the military junta that took control.
King saw the US police state crack down on the civil rights movement. He felt punches, kicks and death threats against his person. It is why he could see, so clearly, the US beating and killing the people of Vietnam.
Our military continues to pile up bodies on the altar of the “American dream.” Now it’s Yemen. Now it’s Rodrigo Duterte in Indonesia. Now it’s Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
King’s Dream Deferred
The year after King gave his speech at Riverside, he was isolated. The civil rights movement was splintering. He was tired and worn out but kept going against the increasing bitterness facing him.
The world seemed to be engulfed in war and flames and hatred. He wanted to heal it. On April 4, he stepped out to the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. He didn’t hear the shot that killed him. He didn’t know if the world he loved would come to be.