“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
“Progress is a nice word,” wrote Robert F. Kennedy in his little-known book The Pursuit of Justice, “but change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”
We are often, wittingly or not, afraid of change.
We like comfort and routine as biological beings, even those of us who like to see ourselves as spontaneous, progressive, and unpredictable.
As such, when someone comes along to shake us out of our complacency, the population tends to run in two directions: Either full, passionate support of this figure or movement, or vehement opposition. The shock-value of change alone is exciting for some and terrifying for others.
Martin Luther King Jr. was undoubtedly a prime example of this kind of polarizing figure who dared to shake the established traditions of the time, and to challenge what most thought were inevitable aspects of our society.
Most associate Martin Luther King Jr. with the movement for racial equality, and rightly so. The change he sparked in this area is immeasurable.
But he also had important things to say about war, and about the dangers of conformist thought in general, which cannot be neglected.
Notably, his stance on the Vietnam War.
As someone who preached nonviolence, King Jr. was strongly opposed to the war, calling it a “demonic, destructive suction tube” and “an enemy of the poor,” both at home and abroad.
For MLK, the Vietnam War was not merely an isolated incident; rather, it was indicative of a mindset that we had as a people, a mindset of conformity and blind acceptance of the reassurances of high-ranking government officials.
Many accepted that the war was necessary, and even that it was just and that it was our duty as Americans.
This passivity and acceptance in and of itself was complicity; but, for those fighting for justice, silence was no longer an acceptable tactic.
Dr. King fearlessly broke the mold of conformity, claiming that the United States government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” and that he could not in good conscience speak out against oppressors’ actions at home without also speaking out against the injustices being committed overseas.
“‘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 perplexing as they often do…, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.”
Dr. King understood the psychological mechanisms that underlie the public’s perception of war, and how this perception is radically transformed by the media and other influences over time.
Fear, confusion, and anxiety about an imagined future that may come if we don’t invade this or that country are tools that the press and our high-ranking political officials use to coax the public into passive acceptance of disturbing acts of cruelty and violence.
War is transformed into a numbers game, a mere abstraction, and it’s just a game we have to participate in for the safety of our own.
“Political language ,” wrote George Orwell, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
And the only way to directly oppose war and other disturbing government policies is to speak up, loudly, and to then act on these words.
“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.”
Many of Dr. King’s supporters were confused by his strong opposition to the war, claiming that issues of foreign policy didn’t have anything to do with the civil rights movement at home.
But he quickly put a stop to this claim.
“There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America.
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program…Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.
And 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….
It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.
So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”
Foreign policy is an emotional topic, one which both sides of the political fence debate fiercely without end. Questions of whether or not we should go to war are often the most heated of these policy debates.
But Dr. King invited us to step back from the debate and look at the impact that war has both at home and overseas. It’s easy to get caught up in the political nuances and to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.
War, almost by definition, forces us to neglect the greatest problems that we face domestically, and all money and aid is diverted to a project in another country, a project which also involves slaughtering foreigners and destroying the homes of thousands of innocents.
War may be a necessary evil in some cases, but if there is ever a case to be made against the necessity of a war, it should be listened to with great attention, given the devastation that typically results for all parties involved.
“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 dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path ewe 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…”
As you would expect in hindsight, the opposition MLK received was incredible, even by his own standards.
Many of his supporters abandoned him, and president Lyndon Johnson, who agreed with King Jr. on civil rights issues, reportedly slammed King Jr. with racial slurs because of his anti-war views.
But Dr. King was undeterred.
His promotion of a mindset and value-shift is perhaps the most important lesson here:
“We must rapidly bring…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.”
Once again, to echo Robert F. Kennedy, systemic change is what is needed, not progress.
Change in mindset, change in structure, change in the way we think about our government’s actions both at home and abroad, and ultimately, change in our actions.
This combination is what brings about meaningful improvement, not conformity and passive acceptance.