A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” –Martin Luther King
Those were the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous April 4, 1967, Riverside Church speech, 43 years ago this Easter Sunday. The speech was titled “Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break Silence.” It was delivered exactly one year to the day of his1968 assassination in Memphis.
The people who heard that speech recognized it as one of the most powerful speeches ever given articulating the immorality of the Viet Nam War. Some also saw that King was signing his own death warrant by exposing so forcefully the war crimes that were being committed daily in what the courageous Jesuit prophet Daniel Berrigan, who personally witnessed what was going on in the killing fields of Viet Nam, described as “an overwhelming atrocity.”
King and Berrigan were speaking out from their deeply felt sense of moral outrage and anguish over the horrible suffering of the millions of innocent, unarmed Vietnamese civilians. They both knew that women and children were the main victims of modern warfare, especially wars that utilized so indiscriminately the massive arsenal of highly lethal weapons, including one of the US Air Force’s favorites, napalm, which burned the flesh off of whatever part of the body that the flaming, jellied gasoline splashed on. Berrigan often used the phrase “The Land of the Burning Children” when he wrote and spoke about what he had seen in Viet Nam.
Both of these courageous prophets knew about the atrocities that American soldiers and Marines were ordered to commit in the name of “anti-communism.” And King saw the connections between the killing of dispensable “gooks” and “slants” on the battlefields of Southeast Asia and the oppression, impoverishment, imprisoning and lynching of “dispensable blacks” in America. Racism was alive and well in the US military and it didn’t differentiate between foreign or domestic targets.
King was being faithful to the nonviolent teachings of Jesus of Nazareth by speaking out against injustice wherever he saw it. He knew that the willingness to use the violence of racism or the violence of orchestrated poverty or the violence of militarism had the same sources: fear of “the other” and the perceived need to defend, by the use of violence if necessary, one’s own wealth and privilege, no matter how unjustly they were acquired.
King knew that the opposition to his civil rights movement – and now his outspoken anti-Viet Nam War stance – was formidable: from indifferent or frightened bystanders everywhere (whose silence gave consent to the violence) to privileged white Christian churches in the south who wanted the movement to “go slow” to cruel racists, including the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils in the south to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in the north. Those groups were dangerous enough, but by speaking out he was opposing entrenched systems of racism, economic oppression and militarism, each of which had the power to unleash lethal violence against any and all perceived enemies, especially those of the powerless underclass.
Tremendous fortunes are made in every war, and the Viet Nam War was no exception. Weapons manufacturers thrived, becoming more deeply entrenched as each batch of industry lobbyists and their media propaganda became more and more successful. Hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, all tax-and-spend or tax-and-borrow expenditures, were spent for weapons research and development.
Large numbers of workers were hired to work in hundreds of huge weapons factories in every legislative district in the nation, and the economy boomed — but it boomed on tax money that then couldn’t be spent for other projects. And so the war-making and the wars were popular with the investor class, the power elite, the Pentagon, the CIA, most politicians, the defense industries and, of course, the people who needed the jobs.