MLK: Declaration of Independence from the War

The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of PeaceThe sixteenth chapter of The Power of Nonviolence: Writings by Advocates of Peace contains Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech  Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam. The speech, which is also known as Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence ,was given in the Manhattan’s Riverside Church exactly one year before King was assassinated.   It is sad to realize that Dr. King’s 45 year old attempt to seek freedom from war applies equally to the Vietnam War as it does to the wars that the United States is now waging in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.

Through the lens of history, it is hard to understand how controversial the speech was in 1967.  It is common wisdom today that the Vietnam War was a mistake, despite the US government’s recently started 10-year plan to rehabilitate American’s view of that war.  In 1967, all the major media backed the Vietnam War.  Dr. King was regularly attacked in national newspapers such as the New York Times for speaking out against the Vietnam War.  Peace activists are still attacked in today’s media for opposing today’s wars for the same reasons that Dr. King cites.

Dr. King responds to his critics who say that he should only speak about the domestic issue of civil rights, and keep silent on the VietNam War.  The critics make the lesser evil argument that Dr. King is hurting the cause of civil rights by speaking out against the war.  Dr. Kings explains in the introduction of his speech that those critics misunderstand both who he is , and misunderstand”the world in which they live.”  Dr. King gives seven reasons why he must speak out: 

  1. Economic. The Vietnam War drains federal funds that could used to alleviate poverty.  It becomes useless to speak out against poverty as a civil rights issue when the funds to resolve it are being diverted to war.  The same goes for the US today where we are told we cannot afford single-payer universal health care, to fight global warming  or save homes from foreclosure, yet 53% of the federal budget goes to war.
  2. Segregation. The people most likely to be sent to war are those who have the fewest rights back home.  Dr. King spoke of Blacks and Whites “brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago.”  There is still segregation today, and those victims of segregation are still the most likely to serve.  The only difference is that in 1967 the wealthy could manipulate the draft exemptions in order to avoid serve, while today’s voluntary military has an economic draft where those same victims of segregation are given no other choice to survive but to enter the military.
  3. Nonviolence. Dr. King was asked by angry young men how he could preach nonviolence to them when the government used violence to solve its problems.  In response, he swore to never “raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”   This is the part of the speech that always touched me the deepest because it seemed to involve the most personal soul searching.
  4. Civil Rights.  Dr. King addresses the question of whether being a civil rights leader excludes him from speaking about peace.  he explains that when they organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that their motto was: “To save the soul of America”.  Their concern was not limited to the needs of African-Americans or through the sole perspective  of civil rights.They understood that they must approach change as the betterment of all.  Dr King came to see that “if.America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’”
  5. “Brotherhood of Man”  First, Dr. King discusses the secular commitment place on him by being awarded the Nobel peace prize to work not just to save the soul of america, but to work for the betterment of all humankind.
  6. Ministry Moving to his responsibility as a Christian pastor, he is astounded that anyone can even question his duty to work for peace: Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? 
  7. Christianity.  Lastly, as an individual who believes that all humanity are children of God, Dr. King feels a calling to speak out: We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only after explaining his reasons for speaking out against the war does Dr. King move on to reviewing the history of the conflict.  First, he explains the death and suffering caused to the ordinary people of Vietnam by the governments of France and the Unites States engaging in three decades of war.  Part of the litany of terror is:

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food.
Dr. King asks a series of  questions aloud what the ordinary Vietnamese citizens must think of our intentions:
What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?
Dr. King then turns to what must be the most difficult section of his talk, but the one that he felt the greatest calling to address as a Christian:
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies.
He details the history of betrayals as the Vietnamese fought a series of wars of independence from the Japanese, then the French, and finally America.  He chronicles the lies that paved over the missed opportunities to make the Vietnamese an ally of the French and the Americans instead of a battleground.
Dr. King then returns to the concern he first raised in his second reason for opposing the war:
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else.
He regrets the physiological nad physical damage we have imposed on our fellow Americans for no good reason:
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 a hell for the poor.
Surely 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 destroy, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt 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 one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
Reflecting Dr. King’s own call for an end to the war he quotes a “great Buddhist leader from Vietnam.”
Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts 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.
I have always imagined quoted Buddhist leader to be Thich Nhat Hanh, who had urged Dr. King to speak out against the Vietnam War and who Dr. King, in turn, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
Dr. King sets out a five-step plan to disengage from the Vietnam War and issues a call for others to join.  He then looks at the war as merely a symptom of a larger problem with America.

It is with such activity that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” 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 immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, 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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see than an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”…

He contininues with a call to look inside our soul as a nation.

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 hand 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 the veins of peoples 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.

Dr. King looks to the path we should take in the future.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism.  War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war.

The same can be said for the new name menace that has become the new excuse for war, hatred, and oppression: Terrorism.  Dr. King warns us of how we will be judged if we do not leave our destructive path:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. 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.


2 thoughts on “MLK: Declaration of Independence from the War”

  1. If you’ve listened to this–it used to be on the tubes of you–it’s got a lot more power than I have a Dream. Oh hell yeah. Here we be and what’s happened? Oooo the irony is so deep it doesn’t bear stating.

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