On the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday
The speech that Americans don’t want to hear
Most Americans remember Martin Luther King Jr. for his dream of what this country could be — a nation where his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” While those words from 1963 are necessary, his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” from 1967, is actually the more insightful one.
It is also a much more dangerous and disturbing speech, which is why far fewer Americans have heard of it. And yet it is the speech that we needed to hear then, and need to hear today.
In 1963, many in the U.S. had only just begun to be aware of events in Vietnam. By 1967, the war was near its peak, with about 500,000 American soldiers in Vietnam. The U.S. would drop more explosives on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than it did on all of Europe during World War II, and the news brought vivid images depicting the carnage inflicted on Southeast Asian civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom would die. It was in this context that King called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
Many of King’s civil rights allies discouraged him from going public with his antiwar views, believing that he should prioritize the somewhat less controversial domestic concerns of African Americans and the poor. But for King, standing against racial and economic inequality also demanded recognition that those problems were inseparable from the military-industrial complex and capitalism itself. King saw “the war as an enemy of the poor,” as young black men were sent to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
What King understood was that the war was destroying not only the assumed, mythological character of the U.S. but also the character of its soldiers. Ironically, it also managed to create a kind of American racial equality in Vietnam, as black and white soldiers stood “in brutal solidarity” against the Vietnamese. But if they were fighting what King saw as an unjust war, then they, too, were perpetrators of injustice, even if they were victims of it at home. For American civilians, the uncomfortable reality was that the immorality of an unjust war corrupted the entire country. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” King said, “part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”
In his speech, which he delivered exactly one year to the day before he was assassinated, King foresaw how the war implied something larger about the nation. It was, he said, “but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality … we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation … unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.”
King’s prophecy connects the war in Vietnam with Americ’s forever wars today, spread across multiple countries and continents, waged without end from global military bases numbering around 800. Some of the strategy for the country’s forever war comes directly from lessons that the American military learned in Vietnam: drone strikes instead of mass bombing; volunteer soldiers instead of draftees; censorship of gruesome images from the battlefronts; and encouraging the reverence of soldiers.
You can draw a line from the mantras of “thank you for your service” and “support our troops” to American civilian regret about not having supported American troops during the war in Vietnam. This sentimental hero worship actually serves civilians as much as the military. If American soldiers can be absolved of any unjust taint, then the public who support them is absolved too. Standing in solidarity with its multicultural, diverse military prevents Americans from seeing what they might be doing to other people overseas and insulates them from the most dangerous part about King’s speech: a sense of moral outrage that was not limited by the borders of nation, class or race but sought to transcend them.