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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

Conscience, Nonviolence, and Anti-Militarism

Martin Luther King Jr. was a steadfast advocate of nonviolence. Peaceful civil disobedience was a cornerstone of his civil rights activism. In his 1967 speech delivered at New York’s Riverside Church, Reverend King vehemently criticizes the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The speech’s wide-ranging importance includes his attention to the impact of militarism in extending violence.

The need for each individual to act based on conscience is a cornerstone of this speech, and King’s anticipation of the criticism he would receive is encapsulated in his rejecting one common claim that people often had made: “ ‘Peace and civil rights don’t mix,’ they say.” Instead, King strongly asserts that the two are unbreakably tied.

The core of the speech is still his sharp criticisms of the current war, saying that it has killed a million people in Vietnam and that most of them were children. Through its involvement in the Southeast Asian and other conflicts, the United States had become the “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” King also expresses concern about the moral damage to Americans caused by their participation in activities that kill innocent people.

The importance of speaking out and acting against “the apathy of conformist thought” is an important component of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. To be confused by uncertainty and to avoid speaking out against the war would be as damaging as actively advocating for the war: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

King implicitly draws on traditions of American anti-war philosophy, including that of Henry David Thoreau. He stresses the difficulty of taking a pro-peace position, which includes but is not limited to opposing official government policy. He also emphasizes the need to act based on one’s own conscience, as each person is “pressed by the demands of inner truth.” The collective actions of many Americans, each motivated by conscience, can offer strength to people who still feel torn. The path that the war’s opponents are following lies along “the high grounds of a firm dissent.”

Justice and Social Welfare

King identifies the war “as an enemy of the poor.” A significant part of King’s argument is based on the idea that achieving justice requires financial commitment. The US government is expending millions of dollars in support the war, King points out. As the country’s financial resources are not unlimited, vast expenditures in one area can only be supported by reducing funds spent in other areas. Supporting the costly war overseas means that the domestic “War on Poverty” will be negatively affected. African Americans and other minorities are those who are most affected by reductions in spending on “social uplift” programs. Therefore, continuing the Vietnam War means neglecting the well-being of the Americans most in need.

Money is not everything, however. The US domestic anti-poverty programs had been important not merely because of financial incentives, but because of the idealism they embodied, the “shining moment” of optimism that the programs would have wide-ranging effectiveness. King bemoans seeing those hopes dashed as the programs have been “broken and eviscerated.” The war’s damaging effects have been all-encompassing, as it has drawn in “men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” Continuing on this path also affects the spiritual health of all Americans: King predicts that the nation is “approaching spiritual death.”

Independence and Colonization

Addressing Vietnamese autonomy, King explores colonialism conceptually and practically. He raises questions about the US commitment to independence that the country views as its own bedrock. In supporting the...

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French, before Vietnam became independent, the United States had undermined authentic efforts at independence. The current war perpetuates that mentality, recolonizing Vietnam by making it dependent on the United States and ignoring popular will.

King further links overseas military spending and corporate activity to a reduction in development programs that would help the majority of the populations. He criticizes the predatory quality of foreign corporate investment, which widens the gap between rich and poor. Again emphasizing his concern over injustice, he criticizes the huge amounts that capitalists are investing, saying their primary or even sole motivation is “to take the profits out” of the foreign countries with total lack of concern for those countries’ “social betterment.”