April 5, 2007
TomPaine.com, and a shorter op-ed version was published in: Topeka Capital Journal, KS; Hereford Brand, TX; Northwest Arkansas Times, AK; Asheville Citizen-Times, NC; Portland Observer, OR; Newberg Graphic, OR; Morris Sun Tribune, MN; Daily Globe, MN. Distributed by Minuteman Media.
Forty years ago this week, on April 4, 1967, and a year to the day before his tragic assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church to deliver one of the most controversial speeches of his life.
Entitled ” Beyond Vietnam,” the address was King’s first public antiwar speech, and he gave it only after much trepidation and prayer. Believing that silence in the face of injustice is in fact complicity with evil, King wrote in his autobiography that, “The time had come—indeed it was past due—when I had to disavow and dissociate myself from those who in the name of peace burn, maim and kill.”
As anticipated, King was roundly criticized at the time for straying from civil rights, not only by the mainstream media, but also by allies such as the NAACP. “It was a low period in my life,” he wrote. “I could hardly open a newspaper.”
Now, however, history has vindicated the truths that King so bravely spoke that day, and his testimony is rightfully seen as a prophetic masterpiece.
While still mesmerizing, listening to the speech today can also be somewhat disconcerting. It painfully reveals how little has changed and how politicians, both then and now, use the same rhetorical devices to scare the public into supporting misguided policies. By simply swapping the word ” Iraq” for “Vietnam,” and “terrorism” for “communism” King’s speech could be given today, with little need for editing.
Before describing in some depth how the U.S. betrayed the Vietnamese, first by supporting “the French in their abortive effort to re-colonize Vietnam,” then by propping up the “vicious” dictator Diem and finally by nearly wiping the country off the map through its extensive bombing and use of napalm, King said: “They must see Americans as strange liberators.”
In Iraq parallels abound. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein as he massacred his own people during the 1980s, obliterated Iraq during the first Gulf War, imposed oppressive, deadly sanctions for nearly 13 years and finally invaded and occupied the emaciated country in 2003. In place of napalm, the U.S. military has now switched to another, more effective chemical to burn Iraqis—white phosphorus. And in our noble effort to bring democracy, we’ve also generously littered the country with cluster bombs and thousands of tons of poisonous depleted uranium, which will cause dramatically increased rates of cancer and birth defects for generations. Strange liberators, indeed.
Speaking of the soldiers, King said:
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.
One can only imagine the cognitive dissonance of our soldiers today, knowing that every reason that they were originally given to kill and be killed has been thoroughly debunked, even by the mainstream press. Moreover, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority’s blatant effort to privatize nearly everything in Iraq, and our current advocacy for Iraq’s new oil law—which if passed by the Iraqi Parliament will be highly advantageous to foreign, meaning American, oil companies—can leave little doubt whose side we’re currently on.
Speaking on the bogeyman of his time, King declared: “War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons.” The greatest defense against communism, he argued,
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.
The same can undoubtedly be said for terrorism, which cannot and will not ever be defeated by violence or war. Apart from the fact that terrorism is a tactic used in asymmetric warfare, not a tangible enemy, even the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that our wars have only exacerbated the threat of another attack and fanned the flames of international extremism.
King is perhaps most relevant today, however, when he takes that extra step in his analysis to address the roots of the conflict. “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” King poignantly noted, brought on by what he called, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism” that plague our society.
Hesitantly calling his own government, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King issued a piercing warning that reaches us across the decades loud and clear: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
As the bloated Pentagon budget swells further—this year to over $600 billion—America becomes more of a one-trick pony, known the world over not for its kindness and generosity, but rather its brutality and dangerous quick trigger.
While that spiritual death seems closer now than ever, I think that King would still hold out hope that we could see the light before its too late and live up to ourselves. But to do so, we must snap out of our culturally-induced coma and lead that “revolution of values” that King called for and that we remain so desperately in need of.