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Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘A Society Gone Mad on War’

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Posted on Jan 15, 2007

When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War, he angered those who couldn’t see the connection between segregation in the American South and burning villages in Southeast Asia.  King responded sagely (from “Beyond Vietnam”):

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.

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.

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.

Now, with our nation mired in another senseless conflict, our soldiers in harm’s way and more and more among us suffering from the tyranny of poverty, we turn once again to the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr.


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Listen to Martin Luther King Jr. explain his opposition to the war:

Code Pink’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.:


  • Beyond Vietnam - 4 April 1967
  • Read | Listen
  • Acceptance Speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony - 10 December 1964
  • Read | Listen
  • I’ve Been To The Mountaintop - 3 April 1968 (King’s last speech)
  • Read | Listen

Find more at the King Papers Project

Also, from our MLK coverage last year:

As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day against the backdrop of a war openly assailed by members of both parties of Congress, and a scandal involving wiretaps of U.S. citizens suspected of being in league with enemies of the state, it behooves us to recognize how cyclical is the nature of American politics and policy, for Dr. King was facing those very same issues in the 1960s.

Not only was Dr. King the object of a massive, illegal eavesdropping program aimed at painting him as a sexual deviant and a Communist fifth columnist, but he was also demonized for his opposition to the Vietnam War by the same media organizations that had practically canonized him a few years before.

Truthdig has assembled a selection of resources highlighting various aspects of Dr. King’s life that seem particularly pertinent to current-day discussions of liberties at home and sovereignty abroad.

Update: Download an audio Mp3 version of Dr. King’s controversial “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Right-click on this link and select “save link/target as” (file is 24 megs and runs about an hour).

MLK and Spying

  • Spying on Martin Luther King Good, brief primer on the FBI’s surveillance of Dr. King, with tie-ins to the current wiretapping scandal, written by constitutional lawyer John Rutherford.
  • King and the FBI Scroll down to the section that reads “King and the FBI” in this Wikipedia article for another brief overview of the King-FBI surveillance saga.
  • The FBI’s Vendetta Against Martin Luther King Jr. A factually rich but poorly formatted treatment of the FBI’s wiretapping activities of Dr. King, excerpted from the book “The Lawless State: The Crimes of the U.S. Intelligence Agencies,” by Morton Halperin, Jerry Berman, Robert Borosage, Christine Marwick.
  • The FBI’s Covert Action Programs Against American Citizens: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Case Study An extremely detailed report produced by the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, the so-called Church Committee, which the Senate convened in the mid-1970 to document a variety of abuses by American intelligence agencies. (Increase your font size to read the document.)
  • Presidential Power in Wartime NPR program “On Point,” from Dec. 22, 2005, in which Nixon press aide and veteran presidential advisor David Gergen talks about the FBI’s illegal surveillance of Dr. King.
  • “Suicide” Letter See the actual letter that the FBI sent to Dr. King in 1964, urging him to commit suicide or face the disclosure of surveillance tapes of his alleged extramarital affairs.
  • FOIA Documents Hundreds of pages of FBI documents relating to Dr. King released under the Freedom of Information Act.

King the “Radical”

Exactly one year before he was assassinated in 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” in which he called America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Time magazine, which had declared King “Man of the Year” in 1964, now accused him of providing succor to Hanoi. The Washington Post said that King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

Text of speech
Audio download (Right-click on the link and select “save link/target as”—file is 24 megs and runs about an hour.)

To better understand this seeming about-face, and to get a bead on why many history books leave out or paper over the last three years of Dr. King’s life, check out this article from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

Biographical Resources

Multimedia, Speeches, Misc.

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By Antwoine, January 19, 2007 at 4:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If I was not mature I would be making stupid statements like you.
Whatever MLK had to say then is not relevant today about the war in Iraq. The only thing that is the same is the rhetoric used against those who speak out against this government when they go to war for no good reason. Iraq-Vietnam….two different wars….same results….loss of life on both sides….money thrown down the drain with corporations and politicians at the bottom of that drain….more bullying by this country….
You can’t meet him down the road….he is dead.
Nothing he ever said can be added to the Bible because his speeches were always, first and foremost, centered around…..THE BIBLE!!!! He never said anything new or that anyone he was speaking to did not already know!!!! If you went to church 30 years ago, then went to church 10 years after that you will still hear what you heard 30 years ago!!!!!! It never changes, whoever the minister is will apply pieces of the Bible to what ever is going on in the world at that time!!!! You do not need a rocket scientist to figure that out, but you do need…....maturity?

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By Antwoine, January 19, 2007 at 3:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Bill Blackolive,
You are wrong. It does not matter if people think, because more often than not they will be afraid to do what their thinking tells them is the right thing to do.
People have to care. They have to care for more than themselves. If they care then they don’t have to think. Caring will move you to doing the right thing.
MLK was an educated man. He had just as much resources and time to visit the land of his ancestors. To get a better understanding of the relationship between Africa and America. To get a better understanding of what slavery, Jim Crow, and numerous autrocities had done to the black community…....but No. He wrapped himself up in the Bible. The same book used by the same people responsible for every evil laid at the black communities doorstep every day, every night!! The Bible is not the Constitution. It has not been amended and added to through the years, but it has been twisted and re-interpreted anytime a person sees fit to justify their actions. Every commandment is thrown in the face of the black people while the people doing the throwing turn around and exploit those same commandments in plain daylight!!! Virtues and character are something you build from the inside….not by attaching yourself to words and beliefs of others that do not do as they tell you to do, but the complete and total opposite!!!
You are not more violent than me. You just have more freedom to be violent if you choose to be. My violence stems from the pressures of society and the poverty I was born into. Which amazes and astounds blacks when someone white does evil things when they have so much more than most. White women keep killing their own children. Catholic priests are still molesting children. White men show up as serial killers and are kept alive to be studied. KKK, Aryan Nation, White Supremists have infiltrated the government and placed laws on the books against blacks and other minorities. You never see a bunch of black police officers beating the sh%t out of a white guy!!!! My violence stems out of self-preservation and common sense. The violence we see in the white community stems from hate, ignorance, greed, stupidity, and an arrogance that believes they are some how better because of the color of their skin, and others are worse because of the color of their skin!
MLK was in a far better position to stand up in Washington that day, and he would of left us with more than just a dream if he had…....

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By Antwoine, January 19, 2007 at 3:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How many speeches were given at the march on Washington? Go find out and see if any of those speeches sound like MLK’s speech.

Senator John Lewis spoke that day and took the government to task for the lack of their efforts in the face of viloence ignored by them in the south and elswhere. Do you know who he is? He was their first with others, beaten and jailed long before King or anyone else came around piggy-backing. Look up “Bloody Sunday”.

Do you know who organized the whole event and brought all those people together? Here are some hints…...he was a black man, and he was gay.

No MLK is not one of the most profound voices we have ever heard!!! He was a minister for crying out loud!! If you know anything about black ministers they all have a cadence! They all speak with reverberation and are articulate and are molded to all sound the same. Muhammad Ali is the most profound voice to be raised against this nation. He spoke his heart and mind, not recited parables and cliches’ from a book that gets twisted with interpretation at the whim of the man holding it in his hand!!! Ali never stood for being favored to speak as he chose. Ali was who he wanted to be. MLK was what the establishment wanted him to be. Docile, humble, non-aggressive, non-agitive, an “Uncle Tom” to a vast majority of the black community, even he should not have allowed his image to define him. In his speech he mentions the press and how they praised him before, but have now turned their backs on him for going against the war. His image was controlled by the media and the powers that be. Maybe he got caught up without knowing it. He poses the question that how could they not expect him to speak out against the was as he did for civil rights? They told him civil rights and protesting did not mix, this was different. He was so caught up in being favored that he was blind to the fact that they cared less about civil rights as they cared about him, so they all turned on him like it was nothing.

You do not live in these united states. Nothing is better than it was 50 years ago. How can the words from King’s speech be the same words we hear from this administration when someone speaks out against it? People today live in a far dangerous time because they do not know who their enemy is. Black people in America know… matter how many years go by. Native Americans know and never will forget. Living in the past is for cowards. Keep celebrating a dream, it is not the same as doing something to make that dream come true! Do you celebrate Malcom X’s birthday? I don’t know your life and your world, do not pretend to know mine through the propaganda and distorted historical facts feed to the outside world by these united states!!!

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By 127001, January 17, 2007 at 7:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

MLK said “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 ...”

This man struggled with his own journey, and spoke about it in a way and to a public that he understood far more than he is usually given credit for. I always perceived him as a man for peace, not a man for civil rights. With equality comes peace.

MLK recognized the connections, not the differences, between people. By seeing that, he was able to see more clearly the issues ... the true issues. Poverty, the government, violence treated as a solution to resolve differences.

He said: “Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

Americans don’t understand the world, not even the world of their daily lives. The awareness may be inconvenient, or too painful, or simply unpopular midst family and friends.

It’s easy now for Americans to speak out against the war in Iraq (which I do as well and fully agree with). It helps ease those feelings of helplessness when looking around at the less publicized but more important issues that are happening in the daily lives of so many.

In the family, in the community, with the corruption of the legal and political systems. MLK recognized that for every moment you speak out against the larger systems, you must act and speak out against the injustices occurring around you daily. His words, IMHO, were more a hope for the people he walked with rather than a threat to those he stood up against. If he was a threat, then what HOPE he gave to generations that followed him.

And, at the same time, remember the words of Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

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By Bill Blackolive, January 16, 2007 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Antwoine,I am more violent than you are but I am white.  Were I black I would be dead.  Probably I am older than you, maybe not. What MLK knew, and anybody ought to calm down and know, is those with bigger guns kill more.  So he was into Christianity. He knew it would not matter were he a Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist. Stop the dogma, we have one message. Folks are the same. Exatly same at least two hundred thousand years officially today, see anthropology. Ought to be taught in first grade in this striken country, where humans can be too scared to look into the eys of a black child. Kill others, they cannot think.  King understood people have got to think. We must be larger than fear/greed.

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By rabblerowzer, January 16, 2007 at 9:26 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Democrats, beware of media moguls bearing gifts. Current Media Darling Obama is being touted as Democrat’s Great Half/White Hope, but moments after he wins the nomination and after all other Democrats have been eliminated, our plutocratic controlled mass propaganda machine will set out to destroy him. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again.

Anyone who thinks an African American can get elected president is fatally delusional. The average American white is one of the most rabidly racist voters in the Western World.

You can lead an idealistic donkey to a poisoned well, but you can’t make him drink.

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By Matt, January 16, 2007 at 12:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Martin Luther King. His speaches should make a whole new chapter in the Bible. Most of the stuff he talked about are still relevent to this day. It seems like he knew the current shit-tuation in Iraq, how more philosophical can you be.

Hope to see you whereever you are in the future, Martin.

Antwoine you will understand the man, when you finally mature; thats if it all happens!

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By Ben, January 15, 2007 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excuse me?

How the hell could you bring yourself to use the phrase “in harm’s way”?

Do you play ping pong too?

Why don’t you just call a spade a spade, and hit up some glistening imagery that’s worth a hoot….
“into the slavering jaws of death, and slaughtering claws of carnage.”

There. Now you have at least a decent phrase.

Even if I’m only an amateur, I can do that well.


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By Socrates, January 15, 2007 at 5:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Antwoine says: “I still have little respect for Dr. King…Why do we celebrate Dr. King as if he was some monumental figure in history?”

Well, clearly, you don’t get it. But to be fair to you, I would have to say that neither do most in the US.

“others went through the hell first and King and other organizations piggy-backed on them for publicity to gain favor”

Clearly, centuries of hell preceeded Dr. King. I have a hard time believing they were trying to gain favor, MLK ushered in the re-emergence of fundamental enlightenment principles that we’re all supposed to hold sacred, and the courage of their moral certainty, and in my mind that will make his work resonate for milennia.

“He stands up for the children of Vietnam. He stands against the destruction of the villiages and family untit of the Vietnamese. Why could he not do that for the four little girls blown up at church?”

The implication that he did not find the murder of innocent girls at church an absolute abomination is absurd. Did you expect him to stop it, like Superman?

“He was a minister from the south that preached the lies of a religion that did not come from his ancestor’s, but the slave master’s and plantations of the white man.”

Maybe so, but is he wrong about what he says? Is he not one of the most profound voices the US has ever heard? Doesn’t he question why the US doesn’t stand up to the highest principles considered to be foundational to the gov’t? Would you prefer some other foundational principle, rather than fighting for the things Dr King fought for?

“It has been how long since the man was killed and we still have parades, a holiday that no one takes off for”

I take off for it, and I don’t even live in the US, so you’re totally off base. Where I live now, racism is a big issue, and I think I need to stand up for the principles elucidated by Dr. King where ever I go. He is a vast inspiration for me and millions of others around the world, so please don’t act like we don’t exist.

“...the dream is still a dream…”

sadly true, though things are still better than 40 years ago.

“and will be only a dream as long as this country continues to be in existence.”

I’m curious to hear your proposed alternative. Can you think of a better country than reforming the one that is supposed to live up to what its foundational principles are supposed to have been? Was MLK trying to do anything different than just that? Of course not.

I would recommend that you don’t criticize our own Ghandi, but rather direct such angst where it is warranted.

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By CK, January 15, 2007 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Please don’t refer to him as Dr. King as it is a gross insult to those who have actually earned that title.  MLK would have been stripped of his PhD for plagiarizing over 1/3 of his doctoral dissertation if he was still alive today.  Many of his speeches and books were also rife with stolen material.

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By Antwoine, January 15, 2007 at 2:48 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I had little respect for Dr. King even though his times and experiences were difficult then. In this speech he mentions the Freedom Rides and the Sit-ins as if it was his idea alone. When others went through the hell first and King and other organizations piggy-backed on them for publicity to gain favor from the government that chose him out of all those fighting for civil rights at a time of legalized racisim. This should have been his tone when he gave his “I Have Dream” speech, but his tone was passive and docile….and the government has been force-feeding us that same rhetoric to this day!!!! This is the first time I have heard about the Vietnam speech. Now I know why he was killed. He knew that taking this path would lead to his death the same as Malcomn X met his death. Speaking out and against those that would only hear your gratitude and not you dissent. I still have little respect for Dr. King. He stands up for the children of Vietnam. He stands against the destruction of the villiages and family untit of the Vietnamese. Why could he not do that for the four little girls blown up at church? Why could he not take on Jim Crow and blast the Kennedy’s as they sat back and allowed the bloodshed from the Mason Dixon on down to Florida and the states that border South America?
It took him awhile to understand what Malcom X was saying to the powers that be. How the hell can you tell us to be non-violent when violence is being used against us in every way without any remorse??!! America has always used some form of violence to get what they want. They did it as Europeans while in England and they do it here also because the roots can all be traced back across the ocean. Whatever America tells you not to do it turns around and does the same thing it just told you not to do.
Why do we celebrate Dr. King as if he was some monumental figure in history? He was a minister from the south that preached the lies of a religion that did not come from his ancestor’s, but the slave master’s and plantations of the white man. It has been how long since the man was killed and we still have parades, a holiday that no one takes off for, and the dream is still a dream and will be only a dream as long as this country continues to be in existence.

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By imagine, January 15, 2007 at 1:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Imagine if RFK had asked Dr. King to be his running mate in 1968… where would America be today?

Instead- both of them were shot and the people behind it are still in power today.

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By trantieungoc, January 15, 2007 at 12:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If Martin Luther King was still alive we would’nt know how could he say about Iraq war ?

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By Renee Lurker, January 15, 2007 at 11:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We should listen to Dr. Martin Luther King’s message by calling our representatives to let them know that we want the troops out of Iraq and the 2000 Millenium Goals met, one of which is to combat global poverty.  According to the Borgen Project, only $19 billion is needed to feed the rest of the world for this year.

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By KatieL, January 15, 2007 at 10:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Lets remember what MLK was fighting for and not let harmful history repeat itself.  Tell your representatives that you care about the fight against global poverty today.  The Borgen Project says that a mere $19 billion is all that is needed to bring about the end to global poverty and malnutrition.  Your leaders agreed on The Millenium Development Goals, so don’t let them forget that you care about what they agreed on in 2000.

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By Bill Blackolive, January 15, 2007 at 9:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

MLK became too informed during his experience.  His saying the US is the greatest purveyer of violence on earth went on home.  Notice this statement is his least known, is left out of all the media adulation. The man today would have gone for the 9/11 truth. Today he would have had a few more alied who are cognizant of US reality, and he could maybe have been kept alive. Could have, but the few more alied cognizant now have to come out with nearly his courage.

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By LANCE, January 15, 2007 at 8:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you Martin Luther King, for giving your life to help make ALL our lives

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