Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1220
Delivered in New York at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, “Beyond Vietnam” is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s powerful call to America to end the Vietnam War, as well as to change the values that lead to all such morally dubious wars. King begins his argument with the statement that though opposing his government’s policy at a time of war is difficult, his conscience “leaves him with no other choice.” As a leader of the civil rights movement, his choice to denounce the Vietnam War may seem paradoxical to many—after all, King exhorts people to “fight” for their rights—but in fact, opposing the war is a natural progression of King’s beliefs. King goes on to present seven reasons why he condemns the war.
Firstly, King argues, the war came at a time when the American government had just launched a poverty program which promised to alleviating the suffering of the poor, especially minorities. However, the “buildup” in Vietnam diverted the government’s attention and funds away from this program. Thus, the war in Vietnam is actually a war against two sets of disadvantaged people: the peasants of Vietnam and the impoverished minorities of the United States.
In his second point, King highlights the irony in the false narrative of interracial brotherhood among soldiers, while segregation continues at home. Black soldiers are regularly conscripted to the Vietnamese countryside to die and kill next to their white brothers, whereas the truth is that in a city like Chicago, the two communities “would not live on the same block.” To King, the propaganda of solidarity appears a “brutal manipulation of the poor.”
King’s third objection arises from a deeper, personal conflict with his own self. As a Christian minister and a proponent of nonviolent protest, King often advises angry, embittered youth to shun violence. But King’s advice rings hollow to his own ears, considering his nation is waging a brutal war on a poorer country. Thus, to resolve the anomalies in his own ideological position, King condemns the Vietnam War.
Fourthly, King states that he must oppose the war because he considers himself a true patriot whose mandate is to “save the soul of America.” To this end, he poses a rhetorical question: how can he be a true American without protecting the integrity of American values? To those who think his views on Vietnam might distract from his work for civil rights, King says his project is not just to free an enslaved people, but also to rescue America from the very tradition of slavery.
As the fifth reason for opposing the war, King presents his commitment to his Nobel Peace Prize, which he recognizes not just as an award but a directive to work for global peace.
Further, as a Christian minister, peace and love toward mankind are his only logical action. So crystal-clear is the convergence of his political views and his Christian duty that King marvels at those who ask him why he is speaking out against the war in Vietnam.
Finally, he truly believes that God wants him to speak out for the rights of His helpless and outcast children, irrespective of nationality. Christ wants His minister to partake in universal “brotherhood and sonship” beyond borders; therefore, King is compelled to advocate for the disadvantaged.
Having laid out his reasons for protesting the war in Vietnam, King proceeds to succinctly deconstruct its realities for his audience and urges them to view the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people. Thus, King appeals to both the intellect and the emotions of his audience. King contends that...
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Americans—both soldiers and civilians—have been fed a cocktail of lies about the war effort in Vietnam. Were Americans to unpack the propaganda behind the war, they, too, would join King in condemning it.
King first describes the futility of the US joining the Vietnam War. Although the Vietnamese people had liberated themselves from French and Japanese rule in 1945, America decided to support France in its reconquest of its former colony. This position, of course, arose because of an arrogant and “deadly” Western assumption “which has long poisoned the international atmosphere”: that non-Westerners like the Vietnamese are not “ready” for independence.
Fearing that the indigenous government in Vietnam was being backed by communist China, the US lent support to the French war effort. Even after French troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, the US remained involved in Vietnam, supporting the vicious dictator Premier Diem and resisting popular revolutionary Ho Chi Minh’s attempts to unite North and South Vietnam. After Diem was removed, one foul dictator kept replacing another, and voices of resistance were quelled.
King notes that this unfair war has led to the destruction of the two things closest to the heart of the Vietnamese: the family and the village. Combing the countryside in search of members of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who back Minh, American troops have bombed entire villages with deadly napalm. Their actions have led to a million people being killed, children being orphaned, and women being forced to prostitute themselves.
Since it is American troops who have turned Vietnam into a hellscape, the people no longer consider other Vietnamese their enemy, says King. The enemy now is America. Ignorant about the reality on the ground in Vietnam, American governments have often backed wealthy dictators who prey on the poor and the landless. Further, King questions the shadowy threat built around the NLF, which the Americans insist on calling the Viet Cong. He argues that though the actions of the NLF may be questionable, the US must acknowledge that their violence is partly a result of being pushed into a corner.
As a true patriot, King also deplores the condition of the American soldiers sent to the front line in Vietnam. King argues that the wool is pulled from troops’ eyes within weeks of landing in Vietnam. Realizing that the “nobility” of their mission is a lie and they are involved in a bloody yet banal war, the soldiers become embittered. In a remarkably perceptive observation, King fears the emotional toll on soldiers of fighting a cynical war.
Having successfully argued why Americans must oppose the war in Vietnam, King proposes five concrete suggestions to right America’s wrongs. He proposes ending all bombing in North and South Vietnam; declaring a unilateral ceasefire; de-escalating military buildup in other Southeast Asian nations, such as Thailand and Laos; accepting the popular base of the NLF and letting them participate in negotiations with future Vietnamese governments; and lastly, setting a firm date for the complete withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.
King ends his speech by moving beyond Vietnam to future American policy. Vietnam is a symptom of a larger malaise in American polity, which is the excessive focus on rapacious capitalism. In a statement that rings true over fifty years later, he says:
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
Thus, what America needs is a revolution of values. When heartless materialism which exploits poor people and vulnerable ecosystems ends, there will never be another war like this one—and America will have truly moved “beyond Vietnam.”