The call for nonviolence started in the Deep South and ended in Vietnam
No real telling when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his public opposition to the Vietnam War.
For Dr. King, joining the peace movement was tantamount to walking a political tightrope. On one hand, the civil rights movement had a great supporter in President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But LBJ was also at the heart of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and many believed Dr. King’s anti-war statements could and would be used against the civil rights movement.
But Dr. King — who in 1964 received the Nobel Peace Prize — was a preacher at heart, and he saw the same moral issues in the Mekong Delta as he did in the Deep South.
By March 1965, his opposition started slowly leaking out. After delivering a speech at Howard University, Dr. King answered a few questions and told reporters that the war in Vietnam was “accomplishing nothing.” Dr. King also called for a negotiated peace settlement.
A month later, just four days after LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), announced that he was launching his own peace mission. King urged leaders of all of the nations involved in the war, including LBJ and North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, to start serious negotiations.
Despite threats of funding cuts by SCLC donors, King still was determined to have his say on the war. During the August 1965 annual SCLC convention, Dr. King called for a halt to bombing in North Vietnam, and urged that the United Nations be empowered to mediate the conflict.
“What is required,” he told the crowd, “is a small first step that may establish a new spirit of mutual confidence … a step capable of breaking the cycle of mistrust, violence and war.”
Given the racial climate of the day, coupled with the mass opposition to President Johnson’s Vietnam policies, Dr. King expected to be criticized.
“At times you do things to satisfy your conscience,” he told a friend in a conversation taped by the FBI at the time, “and they may be altogether unrealistic or worn tactically, but you feel better. I will get a lot of criticism and I know it can hurt the SCLC.”
But, he insisted, “I can no longer be cautious about this matter. I feel so deep in my heart that we are so wrong in this country. The time has come for real prophecy in this country and I’m willing to go that road.”
That road triggered all sorts of damnations from members of Congress and other critics — many of whom, both white and black, argued that his opposition to the war would threaten progress in the civil rights struggle. What Dr. King didn’t expect was the depth of Johnson’s conniving.
According to Stewart Burns’ book, “To the Mountaintop,” Johnson had Dr. King briefed by United Nations Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, who told King that peace was near. Interactions with other Johnson minions were not so rosy and, in fact, left Dr. King with the distinct impression that he should know his place — and that wasn’t in Vietnam.
“They told me that I wasn’t an expert in foreign affairs, and they were all experts,” Dr. King told the late journalist David Halberstam in an interview that appeared in Harper’s magazine in 1967. “… [They told me that] I knew only civil rights and I should stick to that.”
Dr. King would later tell friends that he didn’t mind critics disagreeing with him, but that they should at least respect his right to have an opinion.
In a September 1965 telephone call, also recorded by the FBI, Dr. King talked about being on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“The press is being stacked against me,” he complained. “They accuse me of being power drunk and that I feel that I can do anything because I got the Nobel Peace Prize and it went to my head. I really don’t have the strength to fight this issue and keep my civil rights fight going. They have all the news media and TV and I just don’t have the strength to fight all these things. The deeper you get involved, the deeper you have to go, and I’m already overloaded and almost emotionally fatigued. I think we have to admit that I am going too far.”
They dropped the protest and the war continued to escalate. Peace talks were just that — talk. The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam increased from about 17,000 in 1964 to about 130,000 in 1965. By 1966, the force was up to 317,000 troops. In 1967, Johnson had nearly 452,000 soldiers on the ground, and the number reached its highest point in 1968 at 537,000.
Despite those incredible numbers, the groundswell of opposition was equally as strong, as antiwar demonstrations spread across the country. According to Halberstam, some of Dr. King’s brightest lieutenants were pulled away from the civil rights movement to the peace movement, a drain that underscored the war’s sinister effect — “taking all the time, money, energy and resources of America away from its ghetto problems and focusing them thousands of miles away on a war the wisdom of which he doubted in the first place.”
At best, King was a reluctant war protestor, but protest he did.
Part of his rationale for opposition stemmed from a January 1967 occurrence at the airport in Atlanta, where he purchased a magazine that showed graphic photographs of Vietnamese women holding their dead babies, killed by U.S. troops and napalm bombs.
An even more poignant point was made two years earlier, when a Buddhist monk wrote King a letter in 1965 in which he tried to explain why his brother monks were setting themselves on fire to protest the war. The monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, pleaded with King to oppose the war loudly.
“The Vietnamese monk,” wrote Hanh, “by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest sufferings to protect his people. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction, but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and die for the sake of one’s people.”
Hanh continued: “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people.
“The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent,” Hanh wrote. “You yourself cannot remain silent. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because in you, God is in action too.”
King led his first anti-war march in Chicago on March 25, 1967, and blurred the lines between injustice at home and abroad.
“The bombs in Vietnam explode at home,” he declared, “they destroy the dream and possibility for a decent America.”
By 1967, King had become the country’s most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 — a year to the day before he was murdered — King called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
If the speech cleared Dr. King’s conscience, it rankled those of the media and other critics, who dumped all sorts of venom on him.
Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post declared two days after the speech that King’s “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” caused “grave injury to those who are his natural allies.”
“Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence,” the Post wrote. “He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy.”
Life magazine was even worse. “In linking the civil rights movement with total opposition to our position in Vietnam,” Life editorialized, “[King] comes close to betraying the cause for which he has worked so long. He goes beyond his personal right to dissent when he connects progress in civil rights here with a proposal that amounts to abject surrender in Vietnam …”
The mainstream media drowned out the black press and even liberal black columnists were opposed to King’s outspokenness on Vietnam. In a Reader’s Digest article, black columnist Carl Rowan, the former director of the U.S. Information Agency, condemned King’s “tragic decision” to oppose the war and blamed King’s hubris and his communist ties. The NAACP also gave King the cold shoulder.
King marched on. Two weeks after his Riverside speech, on April 15, 1967, King led 10,000 demonstrators on an antiwar march to the United Nations. He continued his opposition until his assassination on April 4, 1968.
In his final Sunday sermon, delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, King said that he was “convinced that [Vietnam] is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world.”
Whether everyone understood Dr. King’s opposition to the war at the time didn’t really matter to one of his most trusted advisers — his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.
“A lot of people don’t understand what he’s doing and don’t like it, and I tell them he has to do these things, things that aren’t popular,” Daddy King told Halberstam. “Prophets are like that, they have special roles. Martin is just a 20th-century prophet.”
|Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (third from right) leads a march against the Vietnam conflict during a parade on State Street in Chicago on March 25, 1967. Joining King and the other protesters is legendary pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock (tall, white-haired man with glasses), who also served as co-chairman of the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. (AP photo)
(top) President Lyndon B. Johnson (right) talks with civil rights leaders in his White House office in Washington, D.C. The black leaders are (from left): Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP; James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Dr. King; and Whitney Young, executive director of the National Urban League. (AP photo)
(bottom) Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963, to protest the alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. In a 1965 letter entreating Dr. King to voice his opposition to the war, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explained that his brethren set themselves on fire in protest as an expression of their willingness “to suffer and die for the sake of one’s people.” (AP photo/Malcolm Browne)