Exactly one year before his death, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York City. Though this speech is not the first time his views against the war were expressed, King scholars indicate it is the first time he linked the struggle against war abroad with the struggle for equality at home.
Since waging peace against war is once again on the front burner of struggle in our country, we should reexamine the content of the Riverside Church speech, which is entitled “A Time to Break Silence.”
King begins by acknowledging that it is difficult to go against the grain. To dissent against one’s government is not an easy challenge, but when one’s government is dreadfully wrong, one must break silence and stand up.
“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. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. But we must move on.
“Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
Dr. King asserts defiantly that he had many reasons for addressing the question of the Vietnam War drive, in particular, and U.S. foreign policy in general. His concerns are still relevant to the war drive today.
King explains that the war in Vietnam would drain the federal budget leaving decreased funding for social programs; that the sons (and today daughters) of the poor were disproportionately represented on the frontlines of battle; that being silent about war as an unacceptable method of resolving conflict abroad was in direct contradiction to the advocacy of non-violence in resolving conflict at home; and, that one could not be concerned about the quality of character of America and ignore that the war in Vietnam represented imperialist colonialism and national chauvinism.
But, he also explains that he was worried about the morale of our young soldiers once they figured out the real purpose of U.S. aggression.
“I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.”
As if speaking of the Bush Doctrine of perpetual war today, King warns that the war drive would not stop in Vietnam, but would continue through out the world until the interests of wealth were secured.
This is particularly telling since right-wing political pundits are just beginning to admit openly that the war on Iraq is not only about oil in Iraq, but the stability of U.S. oil interests in the region.
Though Dr. King understood the inequality of wealth and poverty and the role of profit seeking in promoting imperialist war, he was not a communist. He was a passionate and grand defender of democracy in domestic and foreign policy.
“… but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
“The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. and, if we ignore this sobering reality … for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru, Thailand and Cambodia … about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
“In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia, and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. 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, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.
“One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars, needs restructuring.
“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, ‘This is not just.’ It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, ‘This is not just.’ The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
“A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war,
‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
“There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”
Dr. King was truly prophetic and profound. Words spoken more than 30 years ago resonate with a crystal clarity that is still extremely instructive. We should all join him in rededicating ourselves not just in word but also in deed to the struggle for peace and for a better world. The words of Dr. King are truly worth remembering!
Dee Myles is the chair of the Communist Party’s Marxist education commission and can be reached at email@example.com