Remembering King as an Antiwar Icon
by Randall Amster
Martin Luther King, Jr., obviously is recalled as a champion of racial justice and civil rights. Equally fervent, yet less invoked, was King’s focus on economic justice and ending poverty. King understood the multi-layered relationship among these issues, and earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Still, despite a peace award, even far less remembered today is King’s deeply-held belief that “war is not the answer” and his outspoken opposition to the conflict in Vietnam. In retrospect, he appears as a sophisticated antiwar crusader, and had been so throughout much of the 1960s. He didn’t come late to the issue, either, after public support for the war eroded and it became safe to stand against it; and as the war escalated so too did his critical rhetoric, often to the consternation of some of his civil rights allies.
Looking back at excerpts from King’s key anti-war speeches, they remain equally relevant today, beginning with his Nobel acceptance speech in December 1964:
“Man’s proneness to engage in war is still a fact. But wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. 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. We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation.”
King was connecting the seeds of war with the essence of his ministry. While he wasn’t always a strict proponent of nonviolence in his youth, he had learned the lessons of peace from mentors like Richard Gregg. Sometimes King’s views on peace and justice reflected his youthful restlessness, as in this June 1965 commencement address:
“Anyone who feels that the problems of mankind can be solved through violence is sleeping through a revolution. We must find some alternative to war and bloodshed. So this is our challenge: to see that war is obsolete, cast into limbo. It is not enough to say we must not wage war. We must love peace and sacrifice for it. We must fix our visions not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. In short, we must shift the arms race into a peace race.”
As the decade drew on and the war moved front and center into American political life, King began to view it as a profound moral crisis, reflected in his February 1967 speech on The Casualties of the War in Vietnam:
“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. It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to return to her true home of brotherhood and peaceful pursuits. We cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars. America must continue to have, during these days of human travail, a company of creative dissenters. We need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria. Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. 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. We still have a choice today: nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation.”
Expanding and deepening his analysis in Beyond Vietnam from April 1967, King began to trace the interconnections among race, poverty, and militarism in a manner that still applies today. Indeed, replace “Vietnam” with “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” and King’s words stand as hauntingly prescient:
“No one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours. If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit 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. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.”
King went on to make specific recommendations about how to end the war, including the immediate cessation of hostilities and a date certain for full troop withdrawal. He then concluded by weaving together the strands of his perspective:
“War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. 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.”
If you replace “communism” with “terrorism,” it feels like King is speaking directly to us in this era. And in fact, I believe that’s precisely what he had in mind, as his March 31, 1968 speech — given mere days before his death — in Washington, D.C. alludes:
“We must find an alternative to war and bloodshed. President Kennedy said on one occasion, ‘Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.’ The world must hear this. I pray to God that America will hear this before it is too late, because today we’re fighting a war. I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world. Our involvement in the war in Vietnam has torn up the Geneva Accord. It has strengthened the military-industrial complex; it has strengthened the forces of reaction in our nation. It has played havoc with our domestic destinies. Not only that, it has put us in a position of appearing to the world as an arrogant nation. And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come back home they can’t hardly live on the same block together. We have alienated ourselves from other nations so we end up morally and politically isolated in the world….”
So today, in our annual commemoration of his life and work, let us remember King not only as a champion of racial equality and economic justice, but also as an icon of antiwar and pro-peace sensibilities. His essential insight that all of these forces are intimately connected still rings true, and King’s prophetic words help chart the course for future engagement with the pressing issues of our time.