In January of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., en route to Jamaica for a vacation, picked up a copy of Ramparts magazine and sat down to read a story about the plight of Vietnam’s children. According to his assistant, Bernard Lee, King froze as he saw the photos — including one of a Vietnamese mother holding her dead child — that accompanied the story. It was then, Lee claims, that King made up his mind to forcefully oppose the war in Vietnam.
The story of King’s conversion into an anti-war activist is one worth considering today, amid war rumblings over Syria and commemorations in Washington of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and King’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Had he not been assassinated, King may well have woken up one day last week and been equally horrified at the images of dead Syrian children in the arms of their mothers.
While King had always been broadly opposed to the war in Vietnam, the tactical realities of the civil rights movement made outspoken opposition to the war dangerous. King and his broad coalition of civil rights groups were reliant on a cooperative federal government to enforce anti-discrimination provisions in recalcitrant Southern states. Wary of antagonizing his allies in the White House — during both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations — King bit his tongue as the war in Vietnam escalated.
But realities on the ground — both in the United States and in Vietnam — soon changed King’s calculus. The waning of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s — and the rise of a more militant Black Power movement hostile to King’s message of non-violence — freed King from the tactical considerations that had made opposition to the war difficult. And as a larger number of black Americans were sent to Vietnam to defend freedoms that they were denied at home, King could no longer stay silent in the face of what he viewed as a deeply immoral war.
Prior to his anti-war activism, King had adopted a more sweeping worldview that foreshadowed his stance on Vietnam. The Atlanta minister was well aware that he lived in revolutionary times. By this he meant not just the push for racial equality in the United States, but also the broader anti-colonial struggle playing out against the background of his own efforts. Around the world, oppressed people were throwing off the yoke of colonialism, and King fully embraced the movement. Early in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, for instance, King saw the protest as part of an "overall movement in the world in which oppressed people are revolting against … imperialism and colonialism." In short, black liberation in the United States and in Africa were movements against similar forces.
It is intriguing to consider, then, what King would have made of today’s revolutionary times. As during the period of decolonization, the Arab Spring has unleashed a new wave of revolutions in which oppressed people have clamored for rights long denied them. Though the toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen did not stand for outright racist oppression, the yearning for freedom and the speed with which the revolutions spread bear similarities to the 1960s.
King may have found common cause with anti-colonial efforts, but he also grew disappointed with the violent turn that accompanied decolonization. Early in his career, King had traveled to India and tried to absorb the lessons of Gandhi’s non-violent, anti-imperialist struggle — rules that he applied to his own movement and hoped would spread around the world. When they did not, King’s views became more radical. His commitment to non-violence remained, of course, but the violent reactions to the civil rights movement in America and armed struggles for independence elsewhere convinced King that the problems he sought to eradicate — racism, poverty, and militarism — were more deeply rooted than he had realized. This led him to conclude, in 1967, that there existed the "need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society."
In April of that year, King delivered his well-known denunciation of the American war in Southeast Asia — a semon given at the Riverside Church in New York City and titled, "Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence." In a speech that may have had as much to do with uniting his sputtering civil rights movement with the anti-war movement as it did with shedding his reluctance to make the war a central element of his activism, King condemned the United States as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Vietnam, King argued, threatened to corrupt the soul of America, as nowhere was the stark divergence between American values and actions more evident.
The speech generated the anticipated reaction at the White House. Upon reading the sermon, one aide reportedly exclaimed, "My God, King has given a speech on Vietnam that goes right down the commie line!"
For its time, King’s speech was certainly radical. By openly sympathizing with Ho Chi Minh, King made no friends among the Washington establishment. But King had few options in denouncing the war: Expanding war-time expenses threatened to defund Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and undermine the central achievement of the civil rights movement. As he put it later in 1967: "Here we spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight this terrible war in Vietnam and just the other day the Congress refused to vote forty-four million to get rid of rats in the slums and the ghettoes of our country." In his desire to ensure that war-time expenditures would not cannibalize social programs, King has something in common with President Obama, who has worked to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to "focus on nation-building here at home."
But amid soaring casualties and allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, would King support airstrikes against the Assad regime? Like Obama, King would in all likelihood have sympathized with the rebels working to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But he would also have deplored their tactics. In King’s day, the idea of humanitarian intervention had not yet taken hold, so it’s difficult to evaluate how King would have responded to the use of nerve gas against civilians. He certainly would have been outraged, but would he have supported the use of retaliatory force? Given King’s commitment to non-violence, it seems unlikely.
Still, it is important to remember that King was no outright pacifist. He was an avid student of the theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who argued that in the face of tyranny and violence an armed response can sometimes be justified. Niebuhr is also one of Obama’s favorite philosophers. In 2007, when asked what he had taken away from Niebuhr, Obama offered something of a prescient preview of his often-militarist foreign policy: "I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world"; that "we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things, but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction"; that "we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism."
It’s a foreign policy King might have gotten behind.