Martin Luther King, Jr. on Vietnam/Iraq

(Today Case has its annual Martin Luther King celebration ceremony. Joan Southgate will be the speaker at Amasa Stone Chapel at 12:30pm. See here for more details.)

I have written before about the disturbing similarities between current US actions in Iraq and past US actions in Vietnam. Recently I went back and read the transcript of Martin Luther King’s speech Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City

The speech reinforced my sense of the similarities, both of the war and our responsibilities as individuals. Replace the names Vietnam with Iraq and China with Iran and the speech could be delivered today. It is quite eerie, really, showing how little we have learned from the past.

I have excerpted a few key segments below to give you a flavor of his ideas, but it was not easy because his whole speech reads like one long, smooth argument and to pick out bits is to destroy the flow of words and ideas that he had so carefully put together, so I urge everyone to read the whole thing.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. 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. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.
. . .
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
. . .
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about 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.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:

“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.

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.

Of course, even though the written words are powerful, Martin Luther King was famous for his oratory and one has to hear him speak to get the full effect. In the clip below of small excerpts of a similar speech given by him, you can sense why he was able to turn out hundreds of thousands of people to march for a cause.

The video clip begins with an annoying 30 seconds of Bill O’Reilly telling various people to shut up and that all of us who oppose the war should also shut up, before cutting to excerpts of MLK giving a speech on the Vietnam war and why it is the duty of everyone to not be quiet but to speak out against it.

Although that opening bit is annoying, the clip dramatized the sharp difference between the shallowness and meanness of people like O’Reilly and the deep and compassionate humanity of Martin Luther King.

I still cannot listen to King speak or read his speeches without feeling a deep sense of regret. That he was killed in 1968 at the young age of 39 has to be one of the greatest tragedies that the US suffered, because we missed the flowering of a great intellect. Who knows what he might have been able to achieve if he had lived a full life. He would have been just 78 now, younger than some of the people currently in public life.

King had a very rare combination of intellectual power, political activism (he was not a mere armchair theoretician), and a love of people and humanity. There is no doubt in my mind that he was the greatest American of the 20th century. No one else comes even close.

POST SCRIPT: The answer to the prayer question

On Tuesday, Mr. Deity explained why evil and suffering is necessary, on Wednesday he tried to explain to Jesus what the crucifixion was about, and yesterday, Mr. Deity finds that creating special effects is not as easy as it looks in the movies.

In today’s final episode, Mr. Deity explains to Jesus what happens to all the prayers he receives. (Take a close look at the book Mr. Deity is reading at the beginning.)


  1. Mary says

    I think King’s relationship with Thich Nhat Hahn had a profound effect on him. Hahn was very instrumental in bridging the gap between the oppression and suffering of the people in America with their counterparts in Vietnam – in King’s mind. In June of 1965, in a letter entitled “In Search of the Enemy of Man”, Hahn wrote to King and later urged him to publicly denounce the war.
    When you read Hahn’s writings and learn of his activities during that time, it is clear he and King were kindred spirits. Consequently in 1967, King nominated Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize.

  2. Hoang Thai says

    I read your speech and wonder why I should have spent my time reading a sleeping memory for 40 since 1967, which, all a sudden wakes up in 2007, talking about Vietnam war and corruption that has nothing to do with nowadays reality. Are you sure that you are holding enough depth on the Vietnam war, on Vietnamese corruption? While you are talking about Vietnamese corruption, do you know about the famous history of the disappearance of 16 tons of gold fron the Central Bank of Saigon? Who took them, when, in what circumstances?. Regarding the Vietnam war dialectics, although I am a retired college graduate teacher I think that as a man having lived this war for 30 years and thought about it for 60 years, I would be glad that you would give me a chance to debate with you in public. The buddhist monk you referred to in your writing is the one who said that he met with Dr. Martin Luther King and urged Mr. King to make the speech against the Vietnam war. What he did. Actually this monk is a controversial one in the Vietnamese Communities!
    Truly Yours
    Hoang Thai

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