When Americans remember the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., they like to recall his “I Have A Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. It is beautifully aspirational — and no longer controversial.
But I want to recall another speech, perhaps the greatest speech King ever made. It was delivered at New York’s Riverside Church 50 years ago — April 4, 1967, a year to the day before the civil rights leader and Baptist minister would be assassinated in Memphis.
The speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” was prompted by a war that ended 42 years ago, but its message has never been more relevant than today.
King’s speech was a full-throated denunciation of the Vietnam War before that idea was widely shared. In searing detail, he outlined decades of imperialism in Vietnam and dissected a U.S. foreign policy that betrayed American values; a virulent anti-communism that masked protection of wealthy special interests; and the senseless slaughter of both Vietnamese peasants and American soldiers.
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King spoke as a Christian minister, and he called out the nation’s leaders for making immoral choices.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” he said. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“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,” he said.
King’s speech was unpopular, even with many of his supporters. It also was politically risky. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was escalating the war, was King’s most powerful ally in the fight for civil rights and against poverty. But King felt compelled to speak out. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he said.
In hindsight, King was remarkably prophetic about the Vietnam War. Still, that war would drag for on another eight years, and many of its mistakes would be repeated a generation later in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which brings us to today.
For more than 15 years we have fought an amorphous “war on terror” against “radical Islam.” Despite a huge investment of blood and treasure, we seem to be making little if any progress. I worry that Trump will make things much worse.
The United States already spends $600 billion a year on its military — more than the next seven nations combined. The U.S. military receives 54 percent of federal discretionary spending, and 37 percent of the estimated $1.6 trillion spent worldwide on war and defense.
Yet Trump, who got five deferments to avoid military service in Vietnam, wants to slash government spending that improves the lives of most Americans so he can throw an additional $54 billion at the Pentagon. At the same time, Trump de-emphasizes diplomacy, mistrusts intelligence, angers American allies and cozies up to dictators. This is a recipe for disaster.
My biggest fear is that Trump will start a war, either through sheer ignorance and incompetence or to distract public attention from the scandals swirling around him. And don’t count on his Republican sycophants in Congress to stop him. War has always been good for business.
With Trump in mind, read King’s words from 50 years ago by substituting “radical Islam” for “communism.”
“These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness,” King said. “We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”
This passage also resonates today: “These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King said. “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”