Editor’s Note: The 1960s marked a potential turning point for the United States — a chance to turn away from what President Dwight Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex” and toward what President John F. Kennedy called “a strategy of peace.” But Kennedy was killed and the United States sank deeper into the Vietnam War.
Then, another brave voice spoke up, arguing against the war machine and for a more constructive approach to the world’s poor and powerless, as Gary G. Kohls notes in this guest essay:
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” warned Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, 43 years ago this Easter Sunday.
The speech was titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” It was delivered exactly one year to the day before his 1968 assassination in Memphis.
The people who heard that speech recognized it as one of the most powerful speeches ever given articulating the immorality of the Vietnam War and its destructive impact on social progress in the United States. In explaining his decision to speak out, King said:
“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. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
But King went further, diagnosing a broader disease of militarism and violence that was afflicting the United States.
“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,” King said.
King added that this disease of violence was killing not just social progress in America, but the nation’s soul as well. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam,” he said.
King urged his fellow citizens to take up the cause of the world’s oppressed, rather than taking the side of their oppressors. He said:
“I am 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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
In a segment of the speech, which is often cited by President Barack Obama, King added: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. …
“We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace 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.”
In conclusion, King pointed toward an alternate path into the future: “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter – but beautiful – struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response.
“Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?”
In hearing the speech, some of King’s followers understood that he was, most likely, signing his own death warrant by denouncing so forcefully the war crimes that the U.S. military was committing daily in the killing fields of Vietnam.
But King was speaking from a deep sense of moral outrage over the horrible suffering of the millions of Vietnamese civilians.
He knew that women and children were the main victims of modern warfare, especially wars that utilized so indiscriminately the massive arsenal of highly lethal weapons, including one of the U.S. Air Force’s favorites, napalm, which burned the flesh off whatever part of the body the flaming, jellied gasoline splashed onto.
King also connected the killing of dispensable “gooks” and “slants” on the battlefields of Southeast Asia to the oppression, impoverishment, imprisoning and lynching of dispensable blacks in America.
In his critique of American society, King linked the violence of racism to the violence of poverty to the violence of militarism. He traced them to the same sources, fear of “the other” and the perceived need to defend one’s own wealth and privilege, no matter how unjustly acquired.
King knew, too, that fortunes are made in every war, with the Vietnam War no exception. That, in turn, meant that his Riverside Church speech threatened not just the powerful interests already arrayed against his civil rights movement but also the interests of the national security establishment.
As the Vietnam War wore on, weapons manufacturers thrived. With their money, they financed battalions of industry lobbyists and pro-military propagandists to surge over Washington’s political battlements to claim even more billions and billions of dollars for weapons research and manufacture.
With the funding secured, armies of workers were hired to staff hundreds of weapons factories, strategically located in congressional districts around the nation. Thus, arms manufacturing and wars became vital for the personal budgets of millions of Americans who directly or indirectly benefited.
King’s strong anti-militarism stance – and his standing as an international icon for peace – made him a particularly dangerous threat to the military-industrial complex. There was a powerful motive to discredit and then silence him, first by smear campaigns and later by an assassin’s bullet.
Now, more than four decades after his speech and his death, it’s clear how prophetic King’s observations were. Violence has become an American epidemic, especially the “triple evils” that King preached against: poverty, racism and militarism.
Gun violence results in world record-breaking levels of homicides and suicides in the United States. Yet, the influential gun industry has sabotaged even the most modest and common-sense handgun and assault-rifle controls.
Both upper- and middle-class Americans have succumbed to the addictions of predatory capitalism, looking for get-rich-quick schemes made possible by economic bubbles that burst with increasing regularity, wiping out many small investors and leaving the taxpayers to clean up the mess.
For Americans who didn’t have the wealth to get into the big-money Wall Street casinos, there were lower-end addictions: entertainment, gambling, shopping, drugs (both legal and illegal), sports and religious fundamentalism.
And besides the many millions of victims inside America, there also were the tens of millions of people around the world who suffered from U.S. military interventions and the greedy exploiters whose interests invariably got protected – in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
The hundreds of billions of American tax dollars wasted annually for war, war preparations and the massive, endless costs of the physical and mental health care that are needed by the combat-traumatized veterans is money that is then unavailable for programs of “social uplift,” including hunger relief, poverty reduction, affordable housing, education, health care and meaningful jobs.
The federal debt reached a crippling $7 trillion during George W. Bush’s open-ended wars of the past decade, and that was before the economic crash of 2008, which pushed the debt to $12 trillion. This unsustainable debt obligation will make social projects worth paying for unaffordable in the future.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street financiers and members of the investor class still profit handsomely from war – partly because federal borrowing to pay for war pays interest mostly to the upper classes (and foreign investors) – but the extravagant bill will eventually have to be paid back by the taxpayers, or at least by their children and grandchildren.
Regarding King’s warning of America’s spiritual death, many observers feel that corpse has already been placed on the idolatrous altars of the Gods of Wealth and War.
American churches (whether fundamentalist, conservative, moderate or liberal, with very few exceptions) have failed King’s vision. “Patriotic” churches have refused to take a consistent stand for peace, especially when wars have been “popular” with church-goers.
On a political level, warmongering administrations, particular George W. Bush’s, have been eliminating, one by one, the individual rights and noble ideals that America’s Founders articulated more than 200 years ago.
Yet, it may not be too late for a resuscitation of America. But that can only happen if the people stir from a long slumber and stop being distracted by the trivia that fills up their waking hours.
True democracy also would require rejection of the clever political ad campaigns designed to get Americans to buy answers that further empower corporations and the military-industrial complex. There needs to be sharper awareness, too, of the slick propaganda that often masquerades as mainstream “news.”
There are other necessary steps as well: shaking off addictions to dangerous substances and behaviors that prevent clear-headed action; demanding the restoration of lost freedoms, especially from the latest Bush years; supporting the few true peace patriots hanging on in a broken Congress, most of whom have survived in the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
But perhaps most importantly, King’s central warning must finally be heeded. There must be an end to the financial and moral hemorrhaging from the many hot and cold wars that have entangled the United States around the globe with hundreds of budget-busting military bases in scores of countries.
The Pentagon budget lately averages around $700 billion per year which amounts to about $2 billion per day with no visible return on investment, except for the military contractors, the oil industry and Wall Street financiers.
And, if peace doesn’t happen soon – if King’s 43-year-old warning continues to be ignored – America’s future is bleak. It holds the dark seeds of economic chaos, hyperinflation, worsening poverty, hunger, armed rebellion, street fighting, and perhaps ultimately a totalitarian police state.
Martin Luther King Jr. pointed toward a very different future in 1967. At that time, many Americans considered his vision too idealistic, the task too great, the obstacles too imposing. But many of them probably wish now they could turn the clock back and give King’s path a try.
Today, the task is seemingly even tougher, the obstacles all that much more imposing, but the path remains.
Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician who writes about peace, justice, militarism, mental health and religious issues.
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