[News] MLK - Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 11 17:21:12 EST 2007

Martin Luther King Jr.: "Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam"

Sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967:

Real Audio file hosted here.

The sermon which I am preaching this morning in a sense is not the 
usual kind of sermon, but it is a sermon and an important subject, 
nevertheless, because the issue that I will be discussing today is 
one of the most controversial issues confronting our nation. I'm 
using as a subject from which to preach, "Why I Am Opposed to the War 
in Vietnam."

Now, let me make it clear in the beginning, that I see this war as an 
unjust, evil, and futile war. I preach to you today on the war in 
Vietnam because my conscience leaves me with no other choice. The 
time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. In 
international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most 
nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the 
incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that 
blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial 
patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. 
Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. "Ye 
shall know the truth," says Jesus, "and the truth shall set you 
free." Now, I've chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I 
agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for 
those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. 
There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

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 in the case of this dreadful conflict, we're 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. And we must rejoice as 
well, for in all our history there has never been such a monumental 
dissent during a war, by the American people.

Polls reveal that almost fifteen million Americans explicitly oppose 
the war in Vietnam. Additional millions cannot bring themselves 
around to support it. And even those millions who do support the war 
[are] half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden. This reveals that 
millions have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth 
patriotism, to the high grounds of firm dissent, based upon the 
mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Now, of course, 
one of the difficulties in speaking out today grows the fact that 
there are those who are seeking to equate dissent with disloyalty. 
It's a dark day in our nation when high-level authorities will seek 
to use every method to silence dissent. But something is happening, 
and people are not going to be silenced. The truth must be told, and 
I say that those who are seeking to make it appear that anyone who 
opposes the war in Vietnam is a fool or a traitor or an enemy of our 
soldiers is a person that has taken a stand against the best in our tradition.

Yes, we must stand, and we must speak. [tape skip]...have moved to 
break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings 
of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the 
destruction of Vietnam. Many persons have questioned me about the 
wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has 
often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. 
King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" Peace and civil 
rights don't mix, they say. And so this morning, I speak to you on 
this issue, because I am determined to take the Gospel seriously. And 
I come this morning to my pulpit to make a passionate plea to my 
beloved nation.

This sermon is not addressed to Hanoi, or to the National Liberation 
Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an 
attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need 
for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Nor is it an 
attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front 
paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in a 
successful resolution of the problem. This morning, however, I wish 
not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather 
to my fellow Americans, who bear the greatest responsibility, and 
entered a conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.

Now, since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising 
that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field 
of my moral vision. There is...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 that there was a real promise of 
hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. 
There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the 
build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was 
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. And you may not know it, my friends, but it 
is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while 
we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, 
and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that 
are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an 
enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it 
became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating 
the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their 
brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high 
proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the 
black young men who had been crippled by 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 a 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 school room. 
So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor 
village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block 
in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such 
cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it 
grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last 
three years--especially the last three summers. As I have walked 
among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them 
that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I 
have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my 
conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through 
non-violent action; for they ask and write me, "So what about 
Vietnam?" They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of 
violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. 
Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise 
my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without 
first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in 
the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for 
the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of 
thousands trembling under our violence I cannot be silent. Been a lot 
of applauding over the last few years. They applauded our total 
movement; they've applauded me. America and most of its newspapers 
applauded me in Montgomery. And I stood before thousands of Negroes 
getting ready to riot when my home was bombed and said, we can't do 
it this way. They applauded us in the sit-in movement--we 
non-violently decided to sit in at lunch counters. The applauded us 
on the Freedom Rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They 
praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press 
was so noble in its applause, and so noble in its praise when I was 
saying, Be non-violent toward Bull Connor;when I was saying, Be 
non-violent toward [Selma, Alabama segregationist sheriff] Jim Clark. 
There's something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press 
that will praise you when you say, Be non-violent toward Jim Clark, 
but will curse and damn you when you say, "Be non-violent toward 
little brown Vietnamese children. There's something wrong with that press!

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of 
America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed 
upon me in 1964. And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was 
not just something taking place, but it was a commission--a 
commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the 
brotherhood of Man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national 
allegiances. But even if it were not present, I would yet have to 
live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus 
Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of 
peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I 
am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that 
the Good News was meant for all men, for communists and capitalists, 
for their children and ours, for black and white, for revolutionary 
and conservative. Have they forgotten that my ministry is in 
obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that he died for 
them? What, then, can I say to the Vietcong, or to Castro, or to Mao, 
as a faithful minister to Jesus Christ? Can I threaten them with 
death, or must I not share with them my life? Finally, I must be true 
to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be the son 
of the Living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is 
this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. And because I believe that 
the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and 
helpless and outcast children, I come today to speak for them. And as 
I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to 
understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the 
people of that peninsula. I speak not now of the soldiers of each 
side, not of the military government of Saigon, but simply of the 
people who have been under the curse of war for almost three 
continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to 
me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is 
made to know these people and hear their broken cries.

Now, let me tell you the truth about it. They must see Americans as 
strange liberators. Do you realize that the Vietnamese people 
proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and 
Japanese occupation. And incidentally, this was before the Communist 
revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. And this is a 
little-known fact, and these people declared themselves independent 
in 1945. They quoted our Declaration of Independence in their 
document of freedom, and yet our government refused to recognize 
them. President Truman said they were not ready for independence. So 
we fell victim as a nation at that time of the same deadly arrogance 
that has poisoned the international situation for all of these years. 
France then set out to reconquer its former colony. And they fought 
eight long, hard, brutal years trying to re-conquer Vietnam. You know 
who helped France? It was the United States of America. It came to 
the point that we were meeting more than eighty percent of the war 
costs. And even when France started despairing of its reckless 
action, we did not. And in 1954, a conference was called at Geneva, 
and an agreement was reached, because France had been defeated at 
Dien Bien Phu. But even after that, and after the Geneva Accord, we 
did not stop. We must face the sad fact that our government sought, 
in a real sense, to sabotage the Geneva Accord. Well, after the 
French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform 
would come through the Geneva agreement. But instead the United 
States came and started supporting a man named Diem who turned out to 
be one of the most ruthless dictators in the history of the world. He 
set out to silence all opposition. People were brutally murdered 
because they raised their voices against the brutal policies of Diem. 
And the peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out 
all opposition. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by 
United States influence and by increasing numbers of United States 
troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods had 
aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may have been happy, but the 
long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change, 
especially in terms of their need for land and peace. And who are we 
supporting in Vietnam today? It's a man by the name of general Ky 
[Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky] who fought with the French against 
his own people, and who said on one occasion that the greatest hero 
of his life is Hitler. This is who we are supporting in Vietnam 
today. Oh, our government and the press generally won't tell us these 
things, but God told me to tell you this morning. The truth must be told.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop 
commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, 
inept, and without popular support and all the while the people read 
our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and 
land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not 
their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and 
apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into 
concentration camps, where minimal social needs are rarely met. They 
know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go, 
primarily women, and children and the aged. 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 towns and see thousands of 
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. They see the children selling 
their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. We have 
destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the 
village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have 
cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist 
revolutionary political force, the United Buddhist Church. This is a 
role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful 
revolutions impossible but refusing to give up the privileges and the 
pleasures that comes from the immense profits of overseas 
investments. I'm convinced that if we are to get on the right side of 
the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical 
revolution of values. 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, militarism and 
economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the 
fairness and justice of many of our 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 changed 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. 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." It will look at our 
alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, "This is 
not just." 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 hands 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.

Oh, my friends, if there is any one thing that we must see today is 
that these are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are 
revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out 
of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality 
are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are 
rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a 
great light. They are saying, unconsciously, as we say in one of our 
freedom songs, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around!" It is a sad 
fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of 
communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations 
that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern 
world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven 
many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, 
communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real 
and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only 
hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit 
and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility 
to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we 
shall boldly challenge the status quo, we shall boldly challenge 
unjust mores, and thereby speed up the day when "every valley shall 
be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the 
rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places straight. 
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see 
it together."

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our 
loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation 
must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order 
to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a 
worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's 
tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an 
all-embracing, unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood 
and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of 
the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute 
necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I'm 
not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of 
that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme 
unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the 
door which leads to ultimate reality. This 
Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality 
is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: "Let us love 
one another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of 
God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is 
love. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is 
perfected in us."

Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love 
America. I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety 
and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to 
see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world. I 
speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. 
And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great 
love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and 
forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, 
and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can 
lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of 
racism and militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was 
solidly structured idealistically; its pillars were solidly grounded 
in the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage. All men are made in 
the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. 
Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has 
rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the 
State--they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to 
dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any 
home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America's 
strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion 
and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds 
distorted with irrationality.

It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come 
back home. Come home, America. Omar Khayyam is right: "The moving 
finger writes, and having writ moves on." I call on Washington today. 
I call on every man and woman of good will all over America today. I 
call on the young men of America who must make a choice today to take 
a stand on this issue. Tomorrow may be too late. The book may close. 
And don't let anybody make you think that God chose America as his 
divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. 
God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it 
seems that I can hear God saying to America, "You're too arrogant! 
And if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the 
backbone of your power, and I'll place it in the hands of a nation 
that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God."

Now it isn't easy to stand up for truth and for justice. Sometimes it 
means being frustrated. When you tell the truth and take a stand, 
sometimes it means that you will walk the streets with a burdened 
heart. Sometimes it means losing a job...means being abused and 
scorned. It may mean having a seven, eight year old child asking a 
daddy, "Why do you have to go to jail so much?" And I've long since 
learned that to be a follower to the Jesus Christ means taking up the 
cross. And my bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter. 
Before the crown we wear, there is the cross that we must bear. Let 
us bear it--bear it for truth, bear it for justice, and bear it for 
peace. Let us go out this morning with that determination. And I have 
not lost faith. I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a 
moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral 
universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We 
Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever." 
We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: "Truth 
pressed to earth will rise again." We shall overcome because James 
Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong 
forever on the throne." Yet, that scaffold sways the future. We shall 
overcome because the bible is right: "You shall reap what you sow." 
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair 
a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the 
jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of 
brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when 
justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty 
stream. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when the 
lion and the lamb will lie down together, and every man will sit 
under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid because the 
words of the Lord have spoken it. With this faith we will be able to 
speed up the day when all over the world we will be able to join 
hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at 
last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we're free at last!" With 
this faith, we'll sing it as we're getting ready to sing it now. Men 
will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning 
hooks. And nations will not rise up against nations, neither shall 
they study war anymore. And I don't know about you, I ain't gonna 
study war no more.

Text from 
Radio/KPFA/UC Berkeley Library's Media Resource Center's site. The 
sermon was at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, not the 
<http://www.publicchristian.com/wp-print.php?p=176>Riverside Church 
-- that speech is here.

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