I returned home last Sunday, inspired, and stirred after a trip to North Vietnam. During the time I was there, enjoying the lush landscape, the rich history, the value of lasting friendships and the resilience of the Vietnamese people, the question that kept coming back to me was “What was the point of the Vietnam War?” (By the way, the Vietnamese refer to it as the “American War.”)
My return to the U.S. coincided with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s courageous speech “Beyond Vietnam,” which he delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly 365 days before he was assassinated. It was courageous because in speaking out against the war, many – from the White House to the black civil rights establishment – denounced King for veering off script. But King’s point was that injustice at home and military aggression in Southeast Asia were morally intertwined.
Here’s an excerpt:
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Journalist and author Tavis Smiley visited the campus of Stanford University on April 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech. The program included a screening of his 2010 PBS documentary “A Call to Conscience,” which provided a political context for King’s anti-Vietnam speech in 1967. Scholars and activists who lent their voices to that documentary included Marian Wright Edelman, Harry Belafonte, Cornell West, Clayborne Carson, Clarence B. Jones, Susannah Heschel and the late Vincent Harding. Smiley threw a bit of shade on former President Barack Obama, who acknowledged in a clip of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that he owed his political ascendence to King’s nonviolent movement, but that as commander-in-chief, he could not rule out the use of force. “Make no mistake, evil does exist in the world,” Obama said.
We were reminded of such evil this week after Syria launched another brutal chemical attack against its own people and President Donald Trump responded with a bombing raid.
These are unsettling times, but my trip to Vietnam reminded me that human beings have a capacity for unspeakable cruelty but also, yes, the audacity to hope.
But King warned us from the pulpit at Riverside Church 50 years ago of the “fierce urgency of now.”
I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, 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.