Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam”
In late 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. joined 100 other clergy members to form a multi-faith organization to challenge the American government’s involvement in Vietnam. King was the only Southerner and one of only a few black members of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV) (“Clergy and Laymen…”). After sending an advisor to Senator George McGovern (McGovern 135), a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War (“George McGovern”), King decided to give two speeches in opposition to the war, one in February and another in April (“Clergy and Laymen…”). On April 4, 1967, King delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech to a CALCAV meeting (King 139) at Riverside Church (King 139; Carson and Shepard 164) in New York City (Carson and Shepard 164). Almost 3,000 people attended the heavily publicized event (“Clergy and Laymen…”).
By 1967 Riverside Church had been open thirty-seven years. Founded by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and liberal Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1930, Riverside Church was “conceived as a complex social services center” from its inception (“Riverside Church”) and was a church in which King had preached in almost every year since 1958 (King 139). In addition, King had “scoured” Fosdick’s sermons in graduate school (Miller “Second Isaiah…” 406). After King’s speech, Dr. John C. Bennett, Dr. Henry Steele Commager, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel all spoke in opposition to the Vietnam War (“Commager, Henry Steele”). Bennett was a theologian, educator, and social activist, considered by theologians as one of the “unheralded prophetic voices of his time” (“Bennett, John C. (John Coleman)”). Commager was a historian and scholar-activist who spoke on contemporary social issues (“Commager, Henry Steele”), and Heschel was a Jewish theologian and philosopher who believed that the Hebrew prophets set precedents for social action in the United States (“Abraham Joshua Heschel”). As King described them, Bennett, Commager, and Heschel were “some of the distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation” (139).
In “Beyond Vietnam”, King was willing to be a dissident while the Vietnam War was still popular (Miller). Life magazine reported that the speech “sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi” while the NAACP called the speech a “serious tactical error” (Fox). Because he had been traveling and needed someone who knew who he was, what his position was, and who could write an in-depth and intense speech that clearly stated his viewpoint (Miller), King had Vincent Harding write most of the speech (Fox; Miller). The speech has three main parts: King’s true audience, a history of conflict in Vietnam and how America should exit that country, and the sickness King sees in American society. His thesis is that making “the right choice” (King 163) of “reordering [American] priorities” in the “pursuit of peace” (King 159) will defeat communism (King 159), “save the soul of America” (King 144), and restore America’s “image of revolution, freedom, and democracy” while destroying its current “image of violence and militarism” (qtd. in King 154).
King begins by referencing Bennett, Commager, Heschel, CALCAV, and the “large numbers” gathered for the speech (King 139), but he says that they are not his audience. He agrees with the CALCAV committee’s statement that “A time comes when silence is a betrayal” (King 140), states that this truth “is beyond doubt” (King 140), and says the difficult action before the audience at that moment is to “oppose… their government’s policy” (King 140). He is, therefore, there “to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation” (King 141) and “fellow Americans” (King 142). King uses extensive details about the war to show that he understands the situation and to diminish potential criticism of his movement from sermonic speechmaking to a speech that focuses on government policy details (Miller). He addresses concerns others have regarding the joining of civil rights and war dissent by explaining his path (King 141) to opposing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, and he calls the government and activists to specific nonviolent action (King 162) as part of a broader message related to humanity (Miller).
In addressing his true audience, the American government and those who do not understand his seemingly sudden movement into politics, King weaves together four tropes. They are the conscience trope, the path trope, the truth trope, and the commitment and calling trope. He weaves these together as he details seven reasons that Vietnam must be in “the field of [his] moral vision” (King 142), that his “conscience leaves [him] no other choice” but to disagree with the government (King 139), that his “firm dissent [is] based upon the mandates of conscience” (King 140), and that he must “break the betrayal of [his] own silences” and “speak from the burnings of [his] own heart” (King 141). He says that he is “compelled [by conscience] to see the war as an enemy of the poor”, that he “could not be silent” because of his “conviction” in “nonviolent action”, and that he must “raise [his] voice” and “first [speak] clearly” (King 141) and he “cannot be silent” (King 142) so as to “be true to [his] conviction” (King 145) which is “to speak for the weak” (King 146).
Within the conscience trope, King weaves the trope of a path and movement. He talks about how Americans may be “mesmerized by uncertainty” “[b]ut we must move on” (King 140). He says the religious leaders of CALCAV “have chosen to move beyond” patriotism and that if “a new spirit is rising among us . . . [we must] . . . trace its movement” because “we are deeply in need of a new way” (King 140). King then states that he has tried “[o]ver the past two years” (when CALCAV formed) to move against his own silence on the subject. He now details why “the road … leads from Montgomery to this place” (King 145), this “magnificent house of worship” (King 139), and “down the path of protest and dissent” (King 144).
King interweaves the tropes of conscience and path with the trope of truth. He accords “truth [to] . . . these words” of the CALCAV’s executive committee (King 139) and discusses the “demands of inner truth” (King 140). He discusses the failed “good faith of the United States” in dealing with the North Vietnamese and the requirement of “trustful give and take on both sides” for peace to occur (King 142). But he had a “recognition of reality [truth]” (King 142) and a “deeper level of awareness” (King 143) that “hit home” (King 143) of the “cruel irony” (King 143) that is so “incandescently clear” (King 144) to him: black and white men are fighting “in brutal solidarity” for civil liberties in Vietnam that they are not guaranteed in America (King 143).
Finally, within the speech’s first section, King adds the trope of commitment and calling. Situational awareness creates a crisis of conscience that causes King to move to a dissident position (path). This unpopular path is also part of “[his] commitment, or [his] calling” (King 141) as a “minister… of Jesus Christ (King 145), as a Nobel Peace Prize winner (King 145), and as a “calling to be a son of the living God” (King 145). This calling is to help the “suffering and helpless and outcast children” (King 145). In other words, King’s religious commitment requires that he see the Vietnam War as silencing poor blacks and poor whites and (later) poor Vietnamese, as it “draw[s] men and skills and money” away from the “rehabilitation of its poor” (King 142) in pursuit of financial gain eight thousand miles away from America (King 152).
In the second section of his speech, King gives a history of the conflict in Vietnam and suggests solutions to the various issues. Here King focuses on the peasants of Vietnam and land reform. He includes the “Western arrogance” (King 146) that determined that the Vietnamese were unable to make their own decisions, how the American government displaces the Vietnamese peasants into “concentration camps we call ‘fortified hamlets’” (King 149), and the “Western words” (King 151) that falsely assure peace and land, but King’s focus is a land trope.
In 1945, King says, “this new government meant real land reform” (King 147). The Vietnamese “proclaimed their own independence” and used America’s Declaration of Independence to draft their own “document of freedom” (King 146). But America intervened, and from 1945 until 1954, America supported the French in its neocolonial aims. With the Geneva Agreement, “independence and land reform” would come, but again, the United States supported “extortionist landlords” at the expense of unifying the nation and helping the poor (King 147). King continually refers to “[the peasants’] need for land and peace” (King 148), “the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform” (King 148), peasants being “herd[ed] … off the land” (King 148), and the destruction of their water, crops, and trees (King 148). America allies itself with the landlords, refuses to act on land reform, destroys the family and the village (the poor and the land), destroys the land and the crops (King 149), and sends “every new weapon of death into their land” (King 150). In addition to “pummel[ling] the land, and . . . endanger[ing] the waterways” (King 151), America has convinced the North Vietnamese, who “control . . . major sections of Vietnam” (King 150) “to give up the land they controlled . . . as a temporary measure” (King 151). All of this occurred in a land “eight thousand miles away from [America’s] shores” (King 152).
The history of Vietnam is a history of land control and the need for land reform, and the two times it seemed possible that land reform and freedom would occur, America began “to build on political myth again” (King 151). America is not interested in helping the poor. If it were, it would not support “the most vicious modern dictators”, says King (King 147). It would not say it was building a country of freedom and free elections while building “concentration camps” (King 148, 149) and testing new weapons “just as the Germans” did during the Holocaust (King 149). Thus, King says, because the poor of Vietnam are so similar to the poor of America, he must “give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam” (King 152); he must speak for both the poor and the guerrilla fighters of the National Liberation Front, whom the United states helped bring “into being as a resistance group” by failing to support actual peace, actual land reform, and a truly unified Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh (King 151). King has reverted to his conscience trope and says five times that “I speak” as a Christian, as a “brother to the suffering poor”, for those who have no land, for the poor of America fighting both at home and abroad, as a world citizen who loves America (King 153) that America must stop this “violence and militarism” (qtd in King 154). King then names five specific actions the American government can take “to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment” (King 155), and he names a specific action those of draft age can take to protest America’s “own folly”: register as conscientious objectors (King 156).
It would not appear that King’s land trope is connected to the four tropes of the first part of his speech. However, King makes it clear that he speaks about Vietnamese peasants’ need for land reform because he is called to speak for humanity’s “weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our own nation, for those it calls ‘enemy’” (King 146). King’s conscience and “commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ” (King 145) have lead him to a dissident path where he sees with “moral vision” (King 142) the truths of America’s brutality in maintaining “the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments” (King 157). Determining “[America’s] chosen man”, its favored leader, in Vietnam (King 147) and maintaining a leadership that helped American interests hurts the peasants, and because such choices hurt those least able to ensure their own survival, America is “on the wrong side of a world revolution” (King 157). Land is not just the land itself; it is also a symbol of wealth in a country. America’s own need for land and wealth destroys the “real promise of hope for the poor” in America by taking funding away from rehabilitation programs (King 142) and also destroys the hope the poor of other countries have because America supports measures that ensure “extortionist landlords” (King 147) maintain their power and their own wealth.
After discussing his path to dissent and the history of American intervention in Vietnam and five solutions to get America out of Vietnam (King 154-5), King says American involvement in Vietnam is indeed “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit” (King 156). In the final section of his speech, King acts as an Old Testament prophet, calling Americans to repentance, “to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam” (King 154). He agrees that it is tempting to stop and send the audience in protest of American involvement that protects “our investments” in half a dozen countries in Asia, South America, and Africa (King 157), but he says there is a “sobering reality”, a truth, Americans must admit to (King 156). The reality is that America is “on the wrong side of a world revolution” (King 157). The nation that is “the richest and most powerful nation in the world” (King 159) must move “beyond Vietnam” but not beyond the commitment and “calling as sons of the living God” (King 156). King returns to the tropes of the path and truth in this final section of his speech. He talks about “life’s roadside” and transforming the “whole Jericho Road” as humans “journey on life’s highway” (King 158) and says that a “radical revolution of values” must occur (King 157). America is involved in more countries than just Vietnam in an effort to maintain its profits. America’s violent interference in Guatemala, Peru, Thailand, Cambodia, Mozambique, South Africa “and a dozen other names” (King 156) demonstrates just how far from “the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy” (qtd. in King 154) America is as it focuses on calculating “carefully on the possibilities of military victory” (qtd. in King 154) to protect “individual capitalists of the West [who invest] huge sums of money . . . only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries” (King 158).
King quotes Isaiah 9:2 and Matthew 4:16, saying that “[t]he people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (KJV). The poor of other countries realize they are in unjust circumstances and are revolting against their oppressors. King says that as the wealthiest and most powerful nation we “can well lead the way in this revolution of values” (King 159). We need “not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy” by removing the systems that cause “poverty, insecurity, and injustice”, places where “communism grows and develops (King 159). America, King prophesies, “still [has] a choice today” as it faces “the fierce urgency of now” (King 162). He cautions his audience that “there is such a thing as being too late” and that “procrastination is the thief of time” (King 162). Time is passing quickly, but America can leave “this self-defeating path of hate” by choosing to act for justice now (King 161).
If America acts now with a revolution of values recognizing the “supreme unifying principle of life” that is “ultimate reality” (King 161) it will be saved. This truth called love, King says, is “an absolute necessity for the survival of man” (King 161). He repeats three times that we need “A true revolution of values” (King 158), that we must have a “radical revolution of values” (King 157), and we must lead “in this revolution of values” which is a “positive revolution of values" (King 159). King then ties together the revolutions occurring throughout Asia, Africa, and South America as a series of “revolutions that we initiated” (King 160) and prophesies that the only hope for America is to surrender to “unconditional love for all mankind” (King 161). By focusing on humanity instead of its current “self-defeating path of hate” (King 161), America will avoid “the pathetic words, ‘Too late’” and will avoid prophetic judgment. He quotes Omar Khayyam in “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on” (King 162). This, though, is also an unfreezing of a “closed memory” (Miller “Second Isaiah …” 409) of the moving finger in the Book of Daniel in which a pagan king sees a hand writing that country’s destruction on the wall and which Daniel interprets for the Babylonian king (Daniel 5 KJV). Martin Luther King, Jr. reinterprets that story and says that America “still [has] a choice today” (King 162); this speech is the writing on the wall promising the destruction of America as a country of hope for the poor. By choosing “brotherhood” with the world (King 164) America will struggle to allow others’ “arrival as full men” (King 163). Here, King has connected the American black man’s struggle for equal rights to the Vietnamese people’s struggle for self-determination to the “broader message of humanity” (Miller) that America, which began revolutionizing the world with its Declaration of Independence (King 146), must continue or it will never again possess the “image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but [will have] the image of violence and militarism” (qtd. in King 154).
Unless America follows its conscience in a path that recognizes the truth of its policies, unless America sends “another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause” (King 163), unless America admits “that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people” (King 154), and unless America stops protecting extortionists, both its own and those of other countries, America will be “dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time” (King 162), a path reserved for countries and people who act without conscience. Unless America matures it will face “judgment against our failure to make democracy real” (King 160). America must choose, King says, “the creative psalm of peace” (King 163) so that justice finally prevails (King 164) and the myth of American democracy (King 151) becomes a reality for the whole world.
King’s speech makes an effective argument. He weaves his tropes together to create a pattern that cannot be unwoven; these events, the civil rights movement, the situation in Vietnam, and America’s sickness, are related, and for King the only way forward is to renounce the nation’s complicity in violent actions throughout the world. Correlatively, 1968 became the most explosive time period in American history since the Civil War with a summer of protests that overcame the nation and caused antiestablishment Americans to “dream… of an impossible future” and “most . . . [to long] for an irretrievable past” (Durstin). During 1968, North Korea captured a navy ship, North Vietnam launched its Tet Offensive, King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, Tommie Smith and John Carlos looked down and raised their fists in protest against racial discrimination during the National Anthem at the Summer Olympics, and Star Trek aired the first televised interracial kiss (between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura) (McLaughlin). Americans demonstrated, and America was never the same. Within two years of the speech, the government began troop withdrawals in Vietnam (“Vietnam War Allied Troop Levels 1960-73”). But this America was not the one King prophesied about. America was still involved in Asia, South America, and Africa and still watched its assets closely. Even in 2016, the call to “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society” that through love prevents “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” (King 156-7) is apropos. For all his charisma, King (with Vincent Harding’s help) gave a speech that may have initiated protest, but it still speaks to America’s current materialism and its failure to change its values.
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