RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Greenwald writes: "By King's own description, his work against US violence and militarism, not only in Vietnam but generally, was his worldview and activism, yet it has been almost completely erased from how he is remembered."

Martin Luther King at Washington DC's Lincoln Memorial in 1968. (photo: Francis Miller/Getty Images)
Martin Luther King at Washington DC's Lincoln Memorial in 1968. (photo: Francis Miller/Getty Images)

MLK's Vehement Condemnations of US Militarism

By Glenn Greenwald, Guardian UK

21 January 13


His vital April 4, 1967 speech is a direct repudiation of the sophistry now used to defend US violence and aggression.

he civil right achievements of Martin Luther King are quite justly the focus of the annual birthday commemoration of his legacy. But it is remarkable, as I've noted before on this holiday, how completely his vehement anti-war advocacy is ignored when commemorating his life (just as his economic views are). By King's own description, his work against US violence and militarism, not only in Vietnam but generally, was central - indispensable - to his worldview and activism, yet it has been almost completely erased from how he is remembered.

King argued for the centrality of his anti-militarism advocacy most eloquently on April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City - exactly one year before the day he was murdered. That extraordinary speech was devoted to answering his critics who had been complaining that his anti-war activism was distracting from his civil rights work ("Peace and civil rights don't mix, they say. Aren't you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?"). King, citing seven independent reasons, was adamant that ending US militarism and imperialism was not merely a moral imperative in its own right, but a prerequisite to achieving any meaningful reforms in American domestic life.

In that speech, King called the US government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today", as well as the leading exponent of "the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long" (is there any surprise this has been whitewashed from his legacy?). He emphasized that his condemnations extended far beyond the conflict in Southeast Asia: "the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit." He insisted that no significant social problem - wealth inequality, gun violence, racial strife - could be resolved while the US remains "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift" - a recipe, he said, for certain "spiritual death". For that reason, he argued, "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." That's because:

"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."

Working against US imperialism was, he said, "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." For King, opposing US violence in the world was not optional but obligatory: "We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy . . . ." The entire speech is indescribably compelling and its applicability to contemporary US behavior obvious. I urge everyone who hasn't already done so to take the time to read it.

Barack Obama's grand inaugural ceremony will take place today on the holiday memorializing King's birthday. Obama will always be linked in history to King because his election (and re-election) as America's first African-American president is, standing alone, an inspiring by-product of King's work on racial justice. But this symbolic link has another, less inspiring symbolic meaning: Obama's policies are a manifestation of exactly the militaristic mindset which King so eloquently denounced. Obama has always been fond of invoking King's phrase "fierce urgency of now", yet ironically, that is lifted from this anti-war speech, one that stands as a stinging repudiation of the continuous killing and violence Obama has spent the last four years unleashing on many countries around the world (Max Blumenthal suggested that Obama's second inaugural speech be entitled "I have a drone").

What I always found most impressive, most powerful, about King's April 4 speech is the connection he repeatedly made between American violence in the world and its national character. Endless war wasn't just destructive in its own right, but is something that ensures that America's "soul becomes totally poisoned", fosters "spiritual death", perpetuates the "malady within the American spirit", and elevates "the Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them." In sum, to pursue endless war is "to worship the god of hate" and "bow before the altar of retaliation".

This is the overarching point that drives our current debates about war and militarism through today. The debasement of the national psyche, the callousness toward continuous killing, the belief that the US has not only the right but the duty to bring violence anywhere in the world that it wants: that is what lies at the heart of America's ongoing embrace of endless war. A rotted national soul does indeed enable leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul, exactly as King warned. At times this seems to be an inescapable, self-perpetuating cycle of degradation.

The way in which "America's soul is totally poisoned" is evident in virtually every debate over US policies of militarism. Over the weekend, several pro-war national security "experts" argued: "I'd pay closer attention to critics of drone strikes if they explained their recommended alternative." This is a commonly heard defense of Obama's drone assaults: I support drones - despite how they constantly kill innocent adults and children - because the alternative, "boots on the ground", is worse.

Those who argue this are literally incapable even of conceiving of an alternative in which the US stops killing anyone and everyone it wants in the world. They operate on the assumption that US violence is and should be inevitable, and the only cognizable debate is which weapon the US should use to carry out this killing (drones or "boots on the ground"?). Even though they have no idea who the US government is killing, they assume, with literally no evidence or basis, that those being killed are "terrorists" who want to attack the US and that therefore they - and anyone close to them - must be killed first. As Jonathan Swartz noted on Sunday, they have literally embraced the same mindset as the Terrorists they claim to loathe: we must use violence and killing, even if it means we kill innocents, because we simply cannot conceive of any alternative.

Never once do they stop and wonder: why are there so many people in the world who want to attack the US? Never once do they do what King so bravely and rather subversively urged: "the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence" is it "helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves". King explained: "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." King thus urged the nation to "understand the arguments of those who are called enemy."

Adhering to King's prescription - "understanding the arguments of those who are called enemy" - would clearly reveal the obvious "alternative" to Obama's global assassination program: namely, ceasing the endless violence that is what drives so many people to want to bring violence to the US in return, combined with prosecutions of the handful of people who possess both the intent and capability to attack the US.

Arguing that "we must drone-bomb people in order to stop terrorism" is the equivalent of arguing that "we must continue to smoke cigarettes in order to stop lung cancer". As ample evidence proves, the so-called "solution" to Terrorism - endless violence and killing - is actually its primary cause. As the Yemeni blogger Noon Arabia put it this weekend after a series of multiple drones strikes on her country: "For those arguing effectiveness of drones, let me explain: civilians killed => animosity towards US = Qaeda members increase = Vicious [circle]!"

King made the same argument about Communists: that western militarism is not a solution to that ideology but is precisely what drives people to embrace it. He quoted a Vietnamese Buddhist leader who wrote that "each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct"; that "the Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies"; and that "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." That Buddhist leader, quoted King, warned that "the image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism."

Citing the massive violence brought by the US to the world, King urged: "How can they trust us when now we . . . 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." Anticipating the predictable smears of him that he knew were coming from making this argument - from pointing out the US's own responsibility for the violence and extremism it claimed to be fighting - he said: "We must not call everyone a Communist or an appeaser who . . . recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers to the problem of these turbulent days."

But a citizenry whose "soul becomes totally poisoned" by endless war is incapable of considering nonviolence as an alternative. It loses its capacity for empathy (to understand what motivates others' actions), for self-assessment (to acknowledge the role one's own actions play in perpetuating this violence), for rationality (to consider whether those being killed are actually implacable foes), and for communion (to see "the enemy" as anything more than dehumanized Others who must be extinguished). Thus do we hear - in the face of endless reports of dead children and innocent adults from US violence - this morally stunted defense: I can't think of an alternative other than boots on the ground. That's the mantra of a degraded citizenry trained to recite from a script of endless war.

Exactly the same mindset instantly arises if one points out the severe and escalating suffering from the sanctions regime which the US and its Nato allies are imposing on Iranians. The inevitable defense one will hear is identical to the drone defense: it's better than boots on the ground and all-out war.

Here we find the same stunted worldview. US aggression and belligerence toward Iran are and should be inevitable, and the only Serious debate is which weapons should be used to perpetuate it: sanctions or bombing? Questioning whether Iran is pursuing a bomb, or a negotiated settlement with its leaders, or containment if they do proliferate, are not even acknowledged as alternatives. It doesn't even enter the imagination. A citizenry that has been fed a steady diet of war and aggression and demonization is understandably incapable of even entertaining "alternatives" that do not involve causing the deaths of others, and of expressing nothing but pure callousness when confronted with the human suffering of the policies they support.

One of the best decisions the US ever made was to commemorate King's birthday as a national holiday. He's as close to a prophet as American history offers. But the distance between the veneration expressed for him and the principles he espoused seems to grow every year. When it comes to King's views on US militarism, nothing more potently illustrates that distance than the use of King's holiday to re-inaugurate the 44th president. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-10 # Martintfre 2013-01-21 12:57
weird how Ron Paul and MLK are so similar on so many issues.
+3 # futhark 2013-01-21 22:00
Because Ron Paul chose to identify himself as a Republican, he gets scant respect among RSN readers and commentators. However, imagine the new Ron Paul administration taking office today, shutting down all the American military adventures overseas, canceling the drone assassination programs, ending the war on drugs, reining in the surveillance state apparatus, and vetoing PATRIOT Act renewals. These are all issues that interest RSN readers and are all ones upon which Ron Paul has made unequivocal statements. But there is the insurmountable problem of the "R" after his name...
+4 # futhark 2013-01-22 10:03
Excuse me for omitting that President Paul would be releasing and dismissing all charges against Bradley Manning, who he has lauded as a patriot and a hero. Also, the Wall Street big bailout gang and Ben Bernanke would have to look elsewhere than the Federal government for quick cash.
+2 # dkonstruction 2013-01-22 12:37
Quoting Martintfre:
weird how Ron Paul and MLK are so similar on so many issues.

If you honestly believe that Ron Paul and MLK are "so similar on so many issues" than i don't think you really understand either one. Superficially, Paul and MLK seem to share an "anti-militaris t" stance but Paul's come out of his libertarian isolationism while MLK's was out of a critique of the role of the US military abroad and an understanding that the fight of the North Vietnamese was in many ways the same fight (for justice, freedome and self-determinat ion) as that of African Americans back home. King never proposed that the US become isolationist but as Paul does. And, as for domestic policy, Paul is against the government (the federal gov't in particular) doing almost anything by way of social programs or the welfare state more broadly defined while King's critique was that it did not go nearly far enough in providing help to those that needed it. Finally, Paul has all but come out and sided with the South (and against Lincoln and the North) in saying that sesession is legitimate for any state that wants out of the union and for supporting a "states rights" position on many issues (including voting rights) which King fought against his entire career.
+22 # engelbach 2013-01-21 13:07
It took almost three years, from the time M L King received his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 until his speech in 1967, for him to come out against the Vietnam War.

Black militants for civil rights had come out against the war earlier, marching with signs that proclaimed, "No Vietcong ever called me n----r."

Better late than never. When King did speak out against the War, it was with a vehemence that pulled no punches.

It took three years for King to deserve his Peace Prize. Barack Obama has never deserved his and never will.
+9 # Martintfre 2013-01-21 13:09
Obombya has killed more then all the rest of the Nobel prize winners combined!
+4 # hd70642 2013-01-21 13:34
Smedely butler once said war was a racket and Although I find david Swanson arguments are bit extreme stated war was a lie
-1 # DaveM 2013-01-21 13:49
In a strange irony, Ayn Rand, of all people, published an essay that same year which blasted American involvement in Vietnam. The title is "The Lessons Of Vietnam" and it can be found in one of her collections.

It is indeed curious how many similarities there are between those who were once condemned as "anti-American" and any number of right-wing figures.
+27 # tomtom 2013-01-21 13:51
Gandhi, King, Kucinich and millions more have the solution, focus on resolving conficks without bullying. Establish a Department of Peace! There are infinite ways to end dissagreements, respectfully, with calm and thoughtfullness . War is the method of waste and cruelty. Because money walks, in Washington, we need to combine our efforts and resources to finance more peace lobbyists in those halls.
+1 # cwbystache 2013-01-22 06:09
I try to keep as much of my money as possible from walking to Washington. Since the moment of that opening salvo we reigned down on Baghdad, I've refused to accept as pay for my labor any salary above the level that will incur federal income tax. This means doing without an awful hell of a lot over these mounting years--but I figure that if an Iraqi child can learn to live without the feet she lost by a "smart bomb", I can learn to live without boots though I've wondered what it'd feel like to have spurs upon my bare feet in the stirrups. It hasn't yet come down to that, but at times that reality hovers more closely. Apocryphal it may be, but the statement attributed to Alexander Haig rings in my head every April 15th:

"Let them march all they want, as long as they continue to pay their taxes."
0 # cwbystache 2013-01-22 08:16
akk ... "rained" down on Baghdad ...
+17 # jmac9 2013-01-21 14:17
The King walked among us
pointed out who America really was and is

America the Great Hypocrite; preaching freedom yet perpetuating severe racism. Bull Connor, George Wallace, KKK, etc.

America preaching Freedom yet
supporting and creating dictatorships that crush human rights.

America's Frankenstein monsters: Israel,Diem Vietnam, Noriega Panama, Shah of Iran, military junta in Guatemala, Samosa Nicaragua, Batista Cuba, Sam Doe and Charles Taylor Liberia, Pinochet Chile, Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Mubarak Egypt, Saddam Hussein Iraq (Reagan supported), Saudi Arabia, even the Taliban - the US gave $40 million to them just a month before 9-11 in gratitude for their 'war on drugs' efforts...(the Taliban chopped off the arms of drug users)...Mexico , Honduras...

and that's just the political - how about the corporate criminals: Exxon, Chevron, AMGEN, Tyco, bankers, countrywide, Enron...

Martin Luther King jr. would be arrested by the FBI-US government and thrown in a cell without trial as a 'domestic terrorist.' - by the Bush-Cheney - and Obama new police state rules.
+21 # marigayl 2013-01-21 14:23
King's Riverside Church speech is what marked him for death a year to the day later, I believe. The military /industrial complex brooks no contradiction. Their dictates pervade our culture, as Greenwald eloquently points out. In your local video game arcade you'll find an offering from the US Army testing your ability to shoot whatever moves. And have you ever tried to find a tv movie with no violence in it, especially including movies made for kids? Great, great article, Glenn Greenwald!
+2 # Nominae 2013-01-23 00:07
Quoting marigayl:
King's Riverside Church speech is what marked him for death a year to the day later, I believe. The military /industrial complex brooks no contradiction. Their dictates pervade our culture ........Great, great article, Glenn Greenwald!

Well SAID, marigayl ! I agree, sadly, with your opening assessment of King's' Riverside Church Speech, and join you in gratitude not only for Greenwald's article but for his LINK TO that *stunning* Speech !

I was a member of the U.S. Military from 1967 to 1971, and I *NEVER* heard a coherent explanation from my government regarding WHY we were ever even IN Viet Nam ! WOW ! King just LAID IT OUT ! Incredibly detailed and ACCURATE account in such concise order and common sense connectivity !

No WONDER the U.S. Government had no answers to my questions as an enlisted man. And no WONDER there was "blow back" (sorry) from this *incredible* SPEECH ! Damn !

The government could not afford to have the SOLDIERS hearing this great man speak Truth To Power, let alone the average civilians whose taxes, and sons, husbands, brothers, et al were being expended to SUPPORT that seemingly endless evil !

"What the HELL were we doing there?" is a question that has haunted ME since I got out of the military in 1971.

Mr. Greenwald, thank you SO MUCH for the link that has FINALLY and *honestly* answered that long-festering personal query after Forty One years of wrestling with it.
+2 # mjc 2013-01-21 14:32
It did take King a few years to actually focus on the Vietnam war and what it was doing to blacks in particular. Maybe that is why even Barack Obama doesn't really seem to hear that part of the message that King issued about non-violence and peace.
0 # Nominae 2013-01-22 22:48
Quoting mjc:
It did take King a few years to actually focus on the Vietnam war and what it was doing to blacks in particular. Maybe that is why even Barack Obama doesn't really seem to hear that part of the message that King issued about non-violence and peace.

Yeah .... what a slacker. Bcuz it wasn't as if he had to maintain focus on any OTHER problems at the same time. :)
+9 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-01-21 14:41
King linked Slavery Racism, Poverty & War: which is why he had to die.
+6 # beachboy 2013-01-21 15:23
Glen: Thanks for letting me see the beautiful arguments King made, which uniquely tell the context of American national thinking. Ever since my youth ( Vietnam ) I have been formed by the foreign policies of the USA - from a fan to a saddened and outraged opponent...prec isely because of the inhumanity and brutality - and the unholy lies - of the US elites! You are so right: Let's resurrect the accurate and beautiful content of MLK's speeches, so carefully left out of his memory, in order to help show the hopeless pathology of the US militaristic mindset. Hope never dies. MLK: Peace is the presence of justice! For peace ********
+9 # Scotty44 2013-01-21 15:30
Since our government has failed to bring justice for the Kennedy assassination, we should assume those responsible for it still control our government. His opposition to the war mongers motivated his assassination. The war mongers are still in control, doing whatever is necessary for power, glory, and profit. Obama is just a pawn in their game, as we all are. It takes more than pawns for a checkmate. Time to stop the game - stop being the cannon fodder.
+10 # Third_stone 2013-01-21 15:59
I think you have hit on the cause of King's murder. A powerful advocate for peace who is developing a following is in somebody's eyes a threat to militarism and needed to be disposed of. Who made the decision? I would like to know.
+2 # Rita Walpole Ague 2013-01-21 21:27
"...exactly one year before he was murdered..." Oh, how I grieved the day he was shot. Please forgive Irish intuition, but immediately I somehow knew this do-away with my hero, MLK, had been a longtime coming. A martyr, up there with countless saints, he was and still is. And...

I think of him each time I blog with a hard blow against our so evil war, war war, for $$$$$ into the coffers or our also so evil greed and power addicted villainaires.

Pray I do, for my precious, disabled son and brother, that they not be harmed in any way with me speaking truth, or as I call it: FIGHT BY WRITE. Yes, sad but so true, any and all of us who dare to JUST SAY NO to all the greed and power addiction, leak Wikileaks (a.k.a. telling truth journalists, whistleblowers, peace and justice activists, environmentalis ts, and condemners of MIC biggies, Big Oil Bastards, Wall Street thieves, etc., evil etc., and their bought off puppet clown minions), are much hated and silenced, such as truly people serving enemies of the villainiares, MLK, RFK, JLK).

Eager I'm not to be a martyr, even though speak up and out I do, raise Irish hell against loss of liberty and justice for all, and say yes to going onto the legal team of Hedges, et. at. v. Obama, et. al. Can't let fear overtake us in this battle to overcome evil greed and power over all addiction.
0 # hoodwinkednomore 2013-01-23 21:02
...exactly why the Great Dr. King was murdered--b/c he took on the US military/imperi alist establishment AND he had millions of followers who would've done anything he suggested! The 'official' story of some lunatic shooting him is a complete fabrication.... And as hopeful as we all are about our current President, he is no Dr. King. Sadly. Though, he might actually listen to some speeches of King's for some important insight into matters of war...

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.