A recent hurricane postponed the dedication ceremonies in Washington, D.C., for the long-awaited monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the first time a man who was not a president, not white, not a war leader has been so honored on the National Mall of the Capitol. Major corporations contributed to the monument, which raises the question: How will King’s work be represented to the public and remembered by children? One clear indication was evident on Jan. 13, when the Pentagon commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with an address by Jeh C. Johnson, the Defense Department general counsel.
In the final year of his life, King became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Johnson frankly told a packed auditorium of Defense Department officials. However, Johnson hastily added, today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation‘s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
King’s first anti-war speech, Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam, which he delivered on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York, is eloquent, passionate, carefully reasoned, and as uncomplicated in its message as is its title. King knew his call for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam would bring challenges to his leadership and his moral purpose by his enemies, as well as many of his friends in the civil rights movement, and would lead to increased FBI harassment. He was denounced by the New York Times and the Washington Post in addition to his usual foes. He had dared to speak at a moment when U.S. officials from the president down warned that a communist triumph in Vietnam would lead to such victories across Asia and beyond—warnings that made Americans as fearful of communism then as they are of terrorists today.
But King was resolute: “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he said. He referred to “my own government” as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Has much changed, when the United States boasts the largest military budget in history, one larger than those of all other nations combined? The United States still has military bases on every continent and has waged war in Iraq and Afghanistan for longer than U.S combat forces fought in World War II. Every week we are told our government contemplates air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites, or even an invasion of that nation.
King called for withdrawal from Vietnam. Had he not been murdered, if he were alive today, would he not also call for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan? Would he fail to see the obvious, frightening parallels between the invasion of Vietnam and those of Iraq and Afghanistan?
Early in his address, King pointed out “our leaders refused to tell us the truth” about the war in Vietnam. Do we forget the U.S. attack on Iraq was initiated to destroy weapons of mass destruction that never existed, to retaliate against the Iraqi government, which had no part in the 9/11 attack on the United States? In the name of Iraqi freedom, our leaders have ordered the torture of prisoners and promoted what they claim is democracy by supporting corrupt leaders who lack popular support. The people of Vietnam, King said, “must see Americans as strange liberators.” The people in Afghanistan who suffer from drone attacks directed from afar, who are the innocent victims of deadly searches for terrorists, do not see us as liberators. They see the United States as a distant occupying power that oppresses them, which is doomed to fail as did earlier foreign invaders.
“The madness of Vietnam,” King said in 1967, would poison America’s soul. He explained the U.S. war on Vietnam had eviscerated our nation’s war on poverty President Lyndon Johnson had begun, that our funds and energies and men and skills had been drawn into a war “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” What happens to “America’s soul” as the U.S. budget spins out of control, as joblessness and hopelessness approach the depths of the Great Depression?
King emphasized how the Vietnam war was “devastating the hopes of the poor at home” and “sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population.” In 2011, a volunteer army draws even more heavily on the poor: men and women without jobs, who have lost hope of finding meaningful work. He said, “I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.” Would the man who organized a Poor People’s Crusade soon before his assassination be silent now?
Toward the end of his address at the Riverside Church, King said: “Somehow this madness must cease. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam and the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. ... The great initiative in the war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”
King was reaching beyond Vietnam when he warned of “approaching spiritual death” and called for “a significant and profound change in American life and policy” insisting “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.” He was not speaking only of Vietnam when he said, “War is not the answer.”
We the people must make sure it is not the Pentagon version but the real legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that inspires us. We owe that to future generations. His entire Riverside Church speech can be read and heard at americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence2.htm.
William Loren Katz is the author of 40 books on American history and is a visiting scholar at New York University. See williamlkatz.com. Send comments via the opinion editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.