See also Dr. King Opposes Vietnam War and Vietnam War & Civil Rights Movement for web links.
[Eleven days after publicly declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War in Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Dr. King gave this address to 125,000 protesters who had marched from New York City's Central Park to the United Nations building. This was the first of the many mass (100,000+) marches against the Vietnam War that occurred between 1967 and 1975.]
I come to participate in this significant demonstration today because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this mobilization because I cannot be a silent onlooker while evil rages. I am here 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." In these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for sober thinking, mature judgment, and creative dissent.
In all our history there has never been such a monumental dissent during a war by the American people. Polls reveal more than ten million explicitly oppose the war. Additional millions cannot bring themselves to support it, and millions who do assent to it are half-hearted, confused and doubt-ridden.
Tens of thousands of our deepest thinkers in the academic and intellectual community are adamantly opposed to the war; distinguished church and theological leaders of every race and religion are morally outraged by it; and many young people in all walks of life believe it a corruption of every American value they have been taught to respect. Let no one claim there is a consensus for this war — no flag waving, no smug satisfaction with territorial conquest, no denunciation of the enemy can obscure the truth that many millions of patriotic Americans repudiate this war and refuse to take moral responsibility for it.
Nor can the fact be obscured that our nation is increasingly becoming an object of scorn around the globe. The respect we won when our course was right is rapidly being lost as even our closest allies leave our side embarrassed with our pretense that we are bearers of a moral crusade.
The physical tolls of this bloody, costly and futile war literally stagger the imagination. We see the nightmare in our living rooms in all their tragic dimensions on television screens. We see the rice fields of a small Asian country trampled at will and burned at whim, We see grief-stricken mothers with crying babies clutched in their arms as they watch their little huts burst into flames; we see fields and valleys of battle painted with mankind's blood; and the ultimate horror is that we see little children mutilated and incinerated with napalm.
Even closer to us in our own neighborhoods and in our own families we learn of American youth destroyed and maimed in savage combat. American mothers and fathers are given coffins and medals, crippled sons, and pious praise. And yet, many of them are bold enough to declare their sacrifice has no meaning. They have suffered the ultimate loss and from it feel a sense of no gain. There is a quiet terror in the home of every draft-eligible boy as families contemplate possible death that waits in jungle depths for our sons and husbands.
The American people have freely given their lives in many struggle where genuine American interests were threatened. In its deepest sense the immorality of this war lies in the tragic fact that no vital American interest is in peril or in jeopardy. We are waging war in a contest that is fully capable of resolution by peaceful means. American and Vietnamese lives are being snuffed out in terrifying and unspeakable combat when issues can be settled by political methods.
I express here not merely my own opinion, but many of the thoughts of some of our nation's foremost statesmen, leading newspapers, outstanding historians, and political scientists. This judgment is shared by heads of nations who have been our allies in peace and war; by the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant; by Pope Paul and countless eminent world figures. This war cries out to be brought to an end. Yet we are told it must be continued because in some mysterious manner if we make a move toward peace without significant concessions from Hanoi, a catastrophic world defeat awaits us.
There is not a shred of substance in this argument. The power we possess is titanic. It can neither be lost nor diminished by unilateral initiatives for peace on our part. It is hard to believe, in the words of U Thant, "That the United States, with power and wealth unprecedented in human history cannot afford to take this initiative."
We took the initiative to enlarge the war on land, on the sea, and in the air. We are strong enough to take the initiative to end it. I am not absolving Hanoi nor the Viet Cong of their responsibilities, nor do I condone certain rigid attitudes. I am not naive enough, however, to think that they will come to a conference table while clouds of bombs are driving them into bomb shelters. As an American my duty is to speak to my government. Even if my philosophy is not welcomed in an other country, I must constantly strive to make it welcomed in Washington.
Recently one of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam wrote these words: "Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instincts. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibility of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."
Whether we realize it or not, our attitude toward a negotiated settlement of the war in Vietnam places us in the position of obstructing the principles of self-determination. By entering a war that is little more than a domestic civil war, America has ended up supporting a new form of colonialism covered up by certain niceties of complexity.
A brief look at the background and history of this war reveals with brutal clarity the ugliness of our policy. It is a well-known fact that we participated in sabotaging the Geneva agreement calling for elections in South Vietnam and providing that the 17th parallel was but a temporary military line. We helped install Premier Diem and watched with approval as he engaged in ruthless and bloody persecution of all opposition forces. After Diem's death, we actively supported another dozen military dictatorships, all in the name of fighting for freedom. At this very moment, we are supporting the notorious General Ky, who was a mercenary of the French against the Algerians, who acknowledges Hitler as his hero-figure, and who supervised the strangulation of the nonviolent Buddhist movement.
When it became evident that those regimes could not defeat the Viet Cong, we deliberately stepped up the war, transforming advisors into soldiers, increased the soldiers from some ten thousand to a half-million and launched bombing raids upon the North on a scale as vast as that in World War II. This is no longer a small war. It is the third largest in American history and it dominates our lives with its evil consequences.
All of this reveals that we are in an untenable position morally and politically. We are left standing before the world glutted with wealth and power but morally constricted and impoverished. We are engaged in a war that seeks to turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism. The greatest irony and tragedy of it all is that our nation which initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of this modern world, is now cast in the mold of being an arch anti-revolutionary.
One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society.
[In this context, "Great Society" refers to LBJ's "War on Poverty" and the promises of large-scale domestic investment in education, infrastructure, housing, medical care, job training, and so on.]
This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Despite feeble protests to the contrary, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed the promised dimensions of the domestic welfare programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens both at the front and at home.
While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously supervised and required to be an instant success, billions are liberally expended for this ill-considered war. The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Vietnam explode at home, they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.
It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill, while we spend in the so-called War on Poverty in America only about $53 for each person classified as "poor." And much of that $53 goes for salaries of people who are not poor. We have escalated the war in Vietnam and de-escalated the skirmish against poverty. It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives we could transform if we were to cease killing.
I do not say as some have charged that our nation cannot support both war and adequate anti-poverty programs. We can do both, but I warn that it is inevitable that the men of power who never wanted a struggle for civil rights and the elimination of poverty will use the burden of the war to scuttle constructive social programs. Their voices arc already loud and effective, and they will put a false and immoral choice between the cost of progress and what they call the cost of survival. This all too prevalent thinking is being used to escalate the war and de-escalate the importance of civil rights.
I do not suggest that there can be no progress toward equality even if the war continues, but I do believe that the struggle is made harder and more complex. I will continue my civil rights activities not with diminished vigor but with increased energy because I know the war has compounded our difficulties financially, morally and psychologically.
I might also state at this point for clarification that I have not urged a mechanical fusion of the civil rights and peace movements. There are people who have come to see the moral imperative of equality but who cannot yet see the moral imperative of world brotherhood. I would like to see the fervor of the civil rights movement imbued into the peace movement to instill it with greater strength, but I am not urging a single organizational form.
I believe everyone has a duty to be in both the civil rights and peace movements; but for those who presently choose but one, I would hope they will finally come to see the moral roots common to both. I hope they will understand that brotherhood is indivisible, that equality of races is connected with the equality of nations in a single harmonious co-existence of all human beings.
A further casualty of the war in Vietnam is the humility of our nation. Through rugged determination, scientific and technological progress and freedom from wars fought on its soil, America has become the richest and most powerful nation in the world. This year our national gross product will reach the astounding figure of 780 billion dollars. All of this is a staggering picture of our great power.
But honesty impels me to admit that our power has often made us arrogant. We feel that our money can do anything. We arrogantly feel that we have everything to teach other nations and nothing to learn from them. We often arrogantly feel that we have some divine, messianic mission to police the whole world. We are arrogant, as Senator Fullbright has said, to think ourselves "God's avenging angels." We are arrogant in not allowing young nations to go through the same growing pains, turbulence and revolution that characterized our history.
We are arrogant in our contention that we have some sacred mission to protect people from totalitarian rule while we make little use of our power to end the evils of South Africa and Rhodesia, and while we in fact support dictatorships with guns and money under the guise of fighting communism.
We are arrogant in professing to be concerned about the freedom of foreign nations while not setting our own house in order. Many of our senators and congressmen vote joyously to appropriate billions of dollars for war in Vietnam, and these same senators and congressmen vote loudly against a fair housing bill to make it possible for a Negro veteran of Vietnam to purchase a decent home. We arm Negro soldiers to kill on foreign battlefields, but offer little protection for their relatives from beatings and killings in our own South.
We are willing to make the Negro 100% of a citizen in warfare, but reduce him to 50% of a citizen on American soil. Of all the good things in life the Negro has approximately one-half those of whites; of the bad he has twice that of whites. Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing and he has half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences of life, the Negro has a double share. There are twice as many Negroes unemployed as whites, there are twice as many Negro soldiers dying in action in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their numbers in the population.
All of this reveals that our nation has not yet used its vast resources of power to end the long night of poverty, racism and man's inhumanity to man. Enlarged power means enlarged peril if there is not concomitant growth of the soul. Constructive power is the right use of strength. If our nation's strength is not used responsibly and with restraint, it will be, following Acton's dictum, using power that tends to corrupt and absolute power that corrupts absolutely. Our arrogance can be our doom. It can bring the curtain down on our national drama. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. We are challenged in these turbulent days to use our power to speed up the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain. "
Another reason why I vigorously oppose the war in Vietnam is that its continuation deeply threatens the prospect of mankind's survival. This war has created the climate for greater armament and further expansion of destructive nuclear power. President John F. Kennedy said on one occasion; "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."
Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There may have been a time when war served as a negative good preventing the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.
In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment. A world war — God forbid! — will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
Let me say finally that I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it 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. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster.
To return to the road of peace, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war , Many sincere people argue that we should withdraw unilaterally, and I understand the logic of their position. I understand that when France withdrew from Algeria, she benefited not only the Algerians but herself. France earned far more prestige from withdrawal than she might have gained from total military victory. But France was fighting in Algeria for many years before her people learned that this way out was honorable. The majority of Americans have not yet learned this lessen. Realism compels us to look for a program they can support and which can end the fighting. I think there is such a program.
Distinguished statesmen the world over believe the end of bombings to be the key to peace. A large minority of Americans want the bombings terminated. I firmly believe that if it were clear to all Americans that this is a practical move to peace, 90% of the nation would enthusiastically endorse it.
On December 19th, Washington officially asked U Thant to take whatever steps were necessary for a cease fire. U Thant responded, "Stop the bombing." Why have we not yet done it? We asked for an answer and were given it. Let us demand insistently that our government honor its word. If Washington0n did not hear U Thant, let us say it loudly and often enough so that the deaf can hear it — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let us save our national honor — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let us save American lives and Vietnamese lives — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let us take a single instantaneous step to the peace table — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let us put an honorable peace on the agenda before another day passes — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let us be able to face the world with a concrete deed of genuine peace — STOP THE BOMBING.
Let our voices ring out across the land to say the American people are not vainglorious conquerors — STOP THE BOMBING.
During these days of human travail, we must not permit ourselves to lapse into pessimism. We must organize for peace. We all owe a debt to those student body presidents, Peace Corps volunteers and others who have raised their voices to question the war. I would like to urge students from colleges all over the nation to use this summer and coming summers educating and organizing communities across the nation against the war. I have already talked with students who are organizing in this vein from such schools as Harvard University on the banks of the Charles River in Massachusetts and my own Morehouse College in the red hills of Georgia. We must all speak out in a multitude of voices against this most cruel and senseless war. The thunder of our voices will be the only sound stronger than the blast of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria.
I have tried to be honest today. To be honest is to confront the truth. To be honest is to realize that the ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and moments of comfort, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy. However unpleasant and inconvenient the truth may be, I believe we must expose and face it if we are to achieve a better quality of American life.
A few weeks ago, the distinguished American historian, Henry Steele Commager, told a Senate committee: "Justice Holmes used to say that the first lesson a judge had to learn was that he was not God ... we do tend, perhaps more than other nations, to transform. our wars into crusades ... our current involvement in Vietnam is cast, increasingly, into a moral mold ... it is my felling that we do not have the resources, material, intellectual or moral, to be at once an American power, a European power and an Asian power."
I agree with Dr. Commanger, and I would suggest that there is, however, another kind of power that America can and should be. It is a moral power; a power harnessed to the service of peace and human beings.
All the world knows that America is a great military power. We need not be diligent in seeking to prove it. We must now show the world our moral power. It is still not too late for our beloved nation to make the proper choice. If we decide to become a moral power, we will lead mankind in transforming the jangling discords of this world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we make the right decision, we will be able to transfer our pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. This will be a glorious day. In reaching it we can fulfill the noblest of American dreams.
Copyright © Martin Luther King, 1967.