Fifty years ago this week, speaking at New York’s famed Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of his most historic and powerful addresses, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” In his remarks Dr. King declared his support for the growing movement against the war in Vietnam and explained why it is necessary to link the struggles against racism, poverty and militarism.
Dr. King was vilified for speaking out against the war. The New York Times, Washington Post and many other newspapers editorialized against him, urging him to stay in his lane and focus on civil rights. An angry President, Lyndon Johnson cut off King’s access to the White House. Leaders of established civil rights organizations groups rebuked him.
Dr. King understood that he would pay a price, but he felt compelled to speak out. He could see that militarism and war abroad were undermining the struggle against poverty and racism at home. He watched the Johnson administration’s antipoverty program “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.” He knew that America would never invest the necessary funds to help the poor as long as the war in Vietnam continued to draw resources “like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
Dr. King described the war in Vietnam as “a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit,” an arrogance and indifference to strivings for freedom around the world, a pattern of military interventionism and support for reactionary regimes that suppress justice. He warned that a nation continuously spending more money on the military than on social uplift “is approaching spiritual death.”
Today we face similar challenges. The White House proposes to increase military spending by $54 billion, while slashing spending for social programs at home and reducing U.S. support for development assistance and diplomacy abroad.
The United States remains bogged down in a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan. U.S. forces are being sent back to Iraq. American troops are operating in support of foreign forces in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Our warplanes and drone aircraft are conducting bombing raids across the region.
The President calls for “massively” increasing nuclear weapons capability. Plans are proceeding to spend $100 billion to rebuild hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles—despite the advice of former Defense Secretary William Perry that these weapons can be safely scrapped as an unnecessary and dangerous relic of the cold war.
Like King before us we are called today to break our silence on the madness and folly of a national policy that prioritizes weapons and war, while neglecting those in need here at home and abroad. As we speak out against war and militarism, it is important to remember another lesson from Dr. King, that our dissent is motivated by patriotism—as Dr. King said to an antiwar rally soon after his address at Riverside Church:
I oppose the war in Viet Nam 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. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, extreme materialism and militarism. … Those of us who love peace must organize as affectively as the war hawks. … We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.