Friday, January 18, 2008

What Martin Knew

On April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was murdered, Martin Luther King delivered the second most important speech of his life. It lacked the stirring cadences of the famous "I have a dream" oration and the resolute hopefulness of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Unlike his words at Selma or his address at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, it is rarely taught to schoolchildren. Yet Martin Luther King's least-known speech is uncannily relevant today.

It was called "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence." In it, Dr. King made a passionate plea for Americans to take "responsibility [for] ending a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents." He spoke from the pulpit of New York's Riverside Church to a meeting of the peace group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Condemning U.S. military policy in Southeast Asia, he called our country "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." This was a controversial position and not one he took lightly. "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 . . .. [but] my conscience leaves me no other choice."

Now, on Martin Luther King Day, 2008, we are about to enter year six of another far-off quagmire whose origins are clouded and goals obscure. It seems a good time to reconsider what Dr. King had to say on that April day 40 years ago.

Why should the Vietnam War have come into Martin Luther King's field of moral vision? Good preacher that he was, King counted "seven major reasons." Many of these are astonishingly pertinent to the U.S. involvement in Iraq, and are variations of arguments you may have heard (or may have made yourself) recently. Here are some of King’s points:

** The war was an enemy of the nation's poor:

“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."

** We are subjecting our troops not only to the brutalizing process that goes on in any war, but also to a deadly cynicism:

". . . [The soldiers] must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."

** The image of America is increasingly tarnished around the world:

To make this point, Dr. King invoked the words of a Vietnamese Buddhist leader, "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."

In King's analysis, the American government had "[fallen] victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long." He understood that extricating ourselves from "this nightmarish conflict" would be enormously difficult. Confronted with such a daunting challenge, he said, we are always in danger of being "mesmerized by uncertainty."

Halfway through the speech, Dr. King seems almost to lean over his pulpit and speak directly to us today, in our post-9/11 confusion about what is owed us and how we should behave as citizens of the world. "We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate," he said, "or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate."

Martin Luther King paid a price for becoming one of the country's most prominent opponents of the Vietnam War. The mainstream media turned against him; Time Magazine called the speech a "demagogic slander." Even some of his own followers questioned whether Dr. King's outspoken opposition to the war would hurt the cause of his people. Such doubters saddened him, he responded, as their concerns showed that they "have not really known me, my commitment or my calling." Today "Beyond Vietnam" may not be part of the Sixth Grade curriculum but its uncompromising message is central to Martin Luther King's beliefs.

We have a choice, concludes Dr. King. "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."


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