Strange Liberators: Martin Luther King's Position on War
with a brief intro
by Michael R. Burch,
and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry
The speech below was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a
meeting of the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, at Riverside Church in New York City.
As you read the speech, please consider the similarities of the Vietnam War to
the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In each case,
American "hawks" justified the wars with versions of the Domino Theory.
According to the Domino Theory, if the U.S. doesn't fight and win such wars, the
other nations of the earth will topple like a row of dominoes. But when South
Vietnam finally fell to North Vietnam, there was no "toppling" of other nations.
Now that the U.S. has pulled its military out of Iraq, it is unlikely that
further problems in Iraq will cause all the other nations of the earth to fall.
The idea that communism or jihadists have the ability to "take over the world"
is clearly fallacious. The best proof is the United States itself, which with
the most powerful military on the planet and the largest economy, has not been
able to subdue relatively small, backwater nations like North Vietnam,
Afghanistan and Iraq, even after a decade or more of trying.
In my opinion, all three of the wars mentioned here were fought on false
premises. The U.S. was not trying to "defend" South Vietnam as much as it was
trying to impede the expansion of communism. But that expansionism was doomed
from the start by the very poor economics of the USSR and China. So the Vietnam
war was unnecessary and once the French and American invaders had been expelled,
the reunited Vietnamese people posed no real danger to the free world.
Afghanistan did not attack Americans prior to the war. Rather, a handful of
hard-to-find terrorists from other nations attacked the U.S. on 9-11. But
because those terrorists are not loyal to a nation, but only to an ideology, the U.S. invading and destroying
much of Afghanistan probably means little to them, other than helping them raise
recruits and money.
Iraq also never attacked the U.S. and never posed a real, immediate danger to
U.S. at any time because, as we now know, Iraq never had WMDs capable of reaching
the U.S., or any other major WMDs of any kind.
In each case, American war hawks used the possibility of worst-case scenarios to
incite fear in ordinary Americans, and that fear was used to justify wars that
could have been avoided. I think it is obvious that the
objections Dr. King made against the Vietnam War can and should be raised against
both wars in the Middle East:
(1) All three wars were the result of apathy and conformist thinking on the part
of Americans. Someone raises a flag, plays a few notes of "America the
Beautiful," and we send our children marching off to die in avoidable wars.
(2) All three wars were the result of a "smooth patriotism" that accepts
unnecessary wars without reflection, much less deep thinking.
(3) We should always question the destruction of other nations that didn't
attack us: are such wars "defensive" or highly offensive?
(4) We must recognize that such wars "suck up" oceans of money that could be
spent on positive rather than destructive endeavors.
(5) In other words, the real cost of war is much higher than it seems, because
money spent on destruction subtracts from money available for far more positive programs.
(6) We need to empathize with and understand the cries of the people whose
houses and lives we keep destroying. How would we feel if we never attacked a
vastly more powerful country, and yet it began raining down bombs on our
children's heads? Would we consider that nation's soldiers to be our "liberators"?
(7) We need to understand that most of the people killed, mutilated and left
homeless and destitute are not combatants, but completely innocent women and
(8) We need to understand that what we call "liberation" many of the victims
consider to be colonization and/or a foreign invasion.
(9) Even if our enemies are wrong, we need to understand that "our own
computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts."
(10) We need to understand that when we support governments that are "singularly
corrupt, inept and without popular support," we seem like the problem rather
than the solution.
(11) We need to understand how hypocritical we sound when we insist that
"democracy" really means "voting the way the U.S. government wants you to vote."
Over and over again in the Middle East, our government has proven that it
doesn't want "democracy" but only "allies" who will submit to our government's
dictates. Our government has propped up one anti-democratic despot after
another: the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and a series of
Israeli leaders who obviously consider Jewish babies to have infinitely superior
rights to Palestinian babies. How can anyone in the region trust our government
when it preaches "equal rights" and "democracy," yet
its actual track
record is one of preferring despots to their victims?
(12) As Dr. King pointed out, Americans seem like "strange liberators" to
their victims because
"We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the
village. We have destroyed their land and their crops." Or, as Mohandas Gandhi
put it, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and
the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of
totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?"
(13) In other words, to the victims of our attempts to "liberate" them, we often
seem worse than our enemies. Yes, the Taliban is a horrible organization, but
what about the U.S. military and the CIA? As Dr. King said, "the madness must cease" because
every day "Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies.
It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the
possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are
incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will
never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of
violence and militarism."
Is this how we want other people to see Americans: as warmongering hypocrites
who demand justice for their own women and children, but refuse to consider
justice for Muslim women and children?
[Please put links to this speech on your respective web sites and if possible,
place the text there also. This is among the least well-known of Dr. King's
speeches today, and it needs to be read by everyone.]
Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence
by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Riverside Church in New York City, on April 4,
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves
me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest
agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us
together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of
your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself
in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is
betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us
is a most difficult one. 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. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in
the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being
mesmerized by uncertainty; 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. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its
movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its
guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems
so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own
silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for
radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned
me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has
often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are
you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say.
Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask? And when I hear them,
though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly
saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me,
my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not
know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstandings, I deem it of signal importance to
try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began
my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
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 can play in a successful resolution of the
problem. While they both may have justifiable reason 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
Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the NLF, but rather to my
fellow Americans, who, with me, bear the greatest responsibility in ending a
conflict that has exacted a heavy price on both continents.
The Importance of Vietnam
Since I am a preacher by trade, 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 the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle
political plaything of 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.>
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear
to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at
home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight
and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the
population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our
society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in
Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So
we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white
boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been
unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal
solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would
never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of
such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of
my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years—
especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate,
rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles
would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion
while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully
through nonviolent action. But they asked—and rightly so—what about
Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to
solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit
home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of
the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest
purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government. For the sake of
those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of
thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby
mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In
1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we
chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we
could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead
affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself
unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles
they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard
of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that 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.
So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led
down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.>
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not
enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I
cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission—a
commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of
man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if
it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment
to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the
making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I
am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good
news was meant for all men—for Communist and capitalist, for their children
and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they
forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so
fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the "Vietcong" or to Castro
or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or
must I not share with them my life?
Finally, as I try to delineate for you and for myself the road that leads from
Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I
simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the
calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or
creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that
the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and
outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem
ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than
nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions.
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our
nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make
these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to
understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of
that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta
in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war
for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear
to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made
to know them and hear their broken cries.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed
their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation,
and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even
though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own
document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to
support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready" for
independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has
poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we
rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government
that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great
love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the
peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important
needs in their lives.>
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of
independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their
abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.
Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war
costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to
despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge
financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the
will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at
After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform
would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the
United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided
nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious
modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed
as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist
landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants
watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing
numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem's methods
had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long
line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change— especially in
terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in
support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular
support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular
promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our
bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese —the real enemy. They move
sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into
concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they
must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and
children and the aged.
They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops.
They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy
the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least twenty
casualties from American firepower for one "Vietcong"-inflicted injury. So far
we may have killed a million of them—mostly children. They wander into the
towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in
packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our
soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to
our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we
refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do
they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out
new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are
the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the
village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the
crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the
unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of
Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What
Now there is little left to build on—save bitterness. Soon the only solid
physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the
concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may
well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could
we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions
they cannot raise. These too are our brothers.
Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who
have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front—
that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists? What must they think of
us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of
Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the south?
What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking
up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of
"aggression from the north" as if there were nothing more essential to the war?
How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous
reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of
death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do
not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed
them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of
destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than
twenty-five percent Communist and yet insist on giving them the blanket name?
What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of
major sections of Vietnam and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in
which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part?
They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored
and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what
kind of new government we plan to help form without them—the only party in
real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny
the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their
questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on
political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps
us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his
assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic
weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and
profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the north, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our
mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust.
To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and
especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who
led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who
sought membership in the French commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness
of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a
second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were
persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and
seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched
us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho
Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been
When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered.
Also it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of
American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military
breach of the Geneva agreements concerning foreign troops, and they remind us
that they did not begin to send in any large number of supplies or men until
American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier
North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none
existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has
spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard of the
increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the north.
He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of
traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony
can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of
aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor weak nation more than eight
thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few
minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam and to understand the
arguments of those who are called enemy, I am as deeply concerned about our
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 hell for the poor.
This Madness Must Cease
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. 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 an
American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is
ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.>
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of
them wrote these words:
"Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the
Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The
Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is
curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities
of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring
deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never
again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of
violence and militarism."
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. It will become clear that our
minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not
refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that
we may bomb her nuclear installations. 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 horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to
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. I would like to suggest five
concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and
difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create
the atmosphere for negotiation.
Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by
curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has
substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any
meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in
accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant
asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which
included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the
damage we have done. We most provide the medical aid that is badly needed,
making it available in this country if necessary.
Protesting The War
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge
our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must
continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in
Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every
creative means of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our
nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of
conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being
chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College,
and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable
and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up
their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These
are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our
lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly.
Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his
convictions, but we must all protest.
There is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all
off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in
Vietnam. I say we must enter the struggle, 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
we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for
the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will
be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned 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. Such thoughts take us beyond
Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
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 now has justified the
presence of U.S. military "advisors" in Venezuela. This need to maintain social
stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of
American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used
against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces
have already been active against rebels in Peru. It is with such activity in
mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five
years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make
violent revolution inevitable."
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
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, 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. n the one hand we are called
to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial
act. 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 is not haphazard and superficial. 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 Latin 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 hands 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 veins of people 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.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the
way in this revolution of values. 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. There is nothing to keep us from
molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it
into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against
communism. 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 not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who
advocates the seating of Red China in the United Nations and who recognizes that
hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent
days. We must not engage in a negative anti-communism, but rather in a positive
thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism 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 People Are Important
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old
systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new
systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot
people of the land are rising up as never before. "The people who sat in
darkness have seen a great light." We in the West must support these
revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a morbid
fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations
that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now
become the arch anti-revolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only
Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgement
against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions
we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the
revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal
hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we
shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day
when "every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made
low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties
must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an
overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their
This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's
tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and
unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted
concept—so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and
cowardly force—has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I
am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the
supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the
door which leads to ultimate reality. This
Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is
beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:
Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God
and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love
one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer
afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The
oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History
is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this
self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate
force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning
choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the
hope that love is going to have the last word."
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with
the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there
is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.
Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity.
The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may
cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every
plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous
civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible
book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving
finger writes, and having writ moves on..." We still have a choice today;
nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace
in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders
on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and
shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without
compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but
beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the callling of the sons of God,
and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too
great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the
forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send
our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of
solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the
cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose
in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Off'ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.