Remembering Vietnam, Dr. King, and Beyond

(TFC) – On April 4, 1967, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech to the Riverside Church in New York City. In it, he laid out his position concerning the current US war in Vietnam. The title was “Beyond Vietnam,” and it was a reckoning King had hoped to depart with what he viewed as, “break[ing] the betrayal of my own silences” and he called for “radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam.” He was assassinated one year later on April 4, 1968.

A permanent state of war and militarism exist in mainstream Western society. Government policies such the AUMF and various intelligence and spying bills (C-51 in Canada) give an unprecedented ability to use violence and subvert civil rights. This is what King’s speech is really about. It wasn’t merely anti-war. It reflected a more profound warning with a broader world-view; forewarning of capitalism and its death grip on the world’s most powerful nation and how chronic poverty and militarized ideologies are ultimately destructive.

This speech was a culmination of everything in Kings political and social dissident career. It was through this address that a signal towards a broader and deeper movement was to begin. He was an organizational might, able to gather thousands to march on social, racial, and economic issues. His involvement and leadership was paramount to the ending of segregation of African Americans. King adopted a number of non-violent tactics that included boycotts, marches, and civil disobedience tactics that included voter education and voting drives. All of these tactics aided in achieving civil rights and Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Anti-war protesting was extremely marginalized in the public arena. For King to openly denounce the war and accuse the US government of war crimes was “beyond” the conventional and accepted opposition. King said, “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.”

Published documents from FBI wiretapped phone calls show that as the war progressed, King had found it increasingly harder to ignore. He also saw how the war affected everything and observed a “great hole” in Johnson’s Great Society domestic programs.

The FBI had watched King closely and even attempted to convince King to commit suicide. COINTEL PRO was employed against King and other civil rights leaders, Black Nationalists, and even women’s rights leaders.

Up until this point, King had called for a negotiated settlement between the opposing forces in Vietnam. After the official criticism from Washington and his own movement, he rescinded. It was this speech that brought King – a civil rights leader – into the realm of anti-war leader. King hoped to cure America of its “violence and militarism.”

King delivered seven reasons why he brought the violence in Vietnam into his field of, “moral vision.”

The military build up in Vietnam was a direct contradiction to the aims of establishing a lasting social strategy that would have worked toward eliminating poverty in the US. King’s position was “that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor as long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skill and money.” He saw the war as an enemy of the poor and decided to attack it as such.

As long as America used militarism to secure power and influence, it would never expend resources to support its own social and structural foundations. Americas’ true moral vision was not peace, but war.

He then clarified how he saw the use of a poor and disenfranchised labor force. Young black men who had been “crippled by our society” were sent overseas to guarantee freedoms in Southeast Asia. The freedom that they “had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.” Using the poor of the most powerful nation in the world to fight the poor of one of the least powerful poorest nation(s) in the world. He stated, “the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys…kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. 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.”

Widespread riots marked the summer of 1966. Riots – then and now – are denounced, as acts of violence from “thugs” and “animals.” These acts are then marginalized and flung to the fringe of debate, deemed as unacceptable violence. Non-violence and other “peaceful” tactics to achieve common goals for citizens are within the accepted confines of collective struggle. Yet militarism is accepted as a strategy for nation-building and democracy – in fact; it’s celebrated outright and lionized.

It was then evident that a tremendous and overwhelming contradiction existed wherein he was asking these poor and marginalized young men that violence would not aid them in their struggle for equal rights. However, the nation had efficiently exercised massive acts of violence to achieve its’ goals. He stated, “…I could never again 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.”

America’s militarism, this is perhaps King’s most ominous prophecy of America. One that is hard to ignore today.

King was enveloping and joining together, what was up until that point; separate activist groups – civil rights and the anti-war movement. King would make the moral argument that the two, as well as others, were inextricably linked. He believed that “we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear.”

“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: ‘Vietnam.’” Here King argued that as a civil rights leader he also had the duty to protest the war. As long as America destroys the “deepest hopes of men” the world over “it would never be saved.” King then said, “So it is that those of us who are yet determined that ‘America will be’ are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.”

Then he argued that the commission of the Nobel Peace Prize instituted the responsibility to act with even greater determination for “the brotherhood of man.” He saw it as, “a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.”

Then, his final reason was purely Christian. “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 … are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls ‘enemy’, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”

King would humanize the Vietnamese, something that wasn’t done by the US government. “We have destroyed their most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. […] We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.”

The United States denied Vietnamese independence. It funded the French effort to recolonize Vietnam. By the end of the war, the US funded up to 80% of the cost. After the French were defeated, the US supported a brutal dictator, Premier Diem. Resistance strengthened and increased as a result of Diem’s violent oppression. The US then justified increased troop deployments that continued to support brutal, corrupt, and unpopular South Vietnamese governments. They did this by influencing elections, assassination programs, employing mercenaries, massive bombing campaigns, and a mechanized military that invaded Vietnam.

There would be only one victim, the US. The war was often described as reluctant “police action,” “mistake,” or “unwise effort.” Or when its invading soldiers were “brutally killed” by a “savage enemy” as they attempted “pacification” of the Vietnamese. The US spoke of peace as it dropped bombs on a nation thousands of kilometers away.

Approximately 7,662,000 tons of explosives were dropped on Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia. Triple that of World War Two. Almost a million Vietnamese were killed during the war. The height of US “commitment” saw 500 000 troops deployed in Vietnam. It had suffered approximately 58 000 killed in action.

With no end in sight and amidst widespread protests plus a multitude of failed attempts to win the war, the US withdrew its forces. The South Vietnamese government was supported until 1975 when it collapsed. North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon in April of that year.

In the face of numerous violations of international agreements, as well as the Paris Agreements themselves, the US had managed to come out from that war relatively unscathed. The devastation it carried out in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was enormous.

Returning to what King had most seriously reproached, “America’s militarism.” We see America continuing to use its military might to deny nations self-determination, which includes influencing elections and implementing the systematic privatization of industry and its natural resources.

Martin Luther King, Jr with Malcom X

With almost a million dead in Iraq, torture facilities and jails, assassination programs, “surgical bombing” campaigns, green zones, and the use of mercenaries; the lessons potentially gleaned from Vietnam have been ignored. It was not that the United States destructive use of militarism was a misguided or immoral pursuit, but rather the preferred policy.

In Afghanistan and beyond we see American military power level towns, villages, wedding parties, and hospitals, often with little public condemnation. Drone strikes and special operation teams deploy lethal violence in often unchecked and unknown locations. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and other militarized adventures have cost the US up to 5.6$ trillion.

With low accountability and transparency on the course of the war, it has become the “forever war.” At 16 years, Afghanistan is the longest war in US history. The current US administration is giving no indication that they will work towards ending it. In fact, they are escalating it.

It is worth remembering Vietnam and how it relates to where we are today. It is worth remembering King’s warnings. Fifty years has marked a brutal legacy of violence and militarism, and we see no end in sight.