Excerpt from his antiwar speech "Beyond Vietnam"
Delivered April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City
"[The world] demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam."
When the United States sent ground troops into Vietnam in 1964, one out of every seven (about 14 percent) of those soldiers was African American. In the time leading up to the Vietnam War, blacks tended to view military service as a very positive thing. Many African Americans joined the armed forces out of high school in order to receive training, career opportunities, and wages that were not readily available to them in civilian (non-military) society due to segregation.
At that time in American history, there were laws that segregated (separated) people by race. For example, white people and people of color were required to use separate restrooms, drinking fountains, schools, theaters, and restaurants. These laws discriminated against blacks and placed them in an inferior position in society. The military was one of the first American institutions to be desegregated. "Military service was for blacks a vehicle for social equality in which rank replaced race as a measure of respect and accomplishment," Clark C. Smith wrote in Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam.
Black and white soldiers lived and worked side-by-side in the early years of the Vietnam War, and the generally good relations between them were a point of pride for the U.S. military. But this situation soon began to change. As black soldiers faced discrimination in duty assignments and promotions, their resentment toward white officers grew. At the same time, the high number of African Americans who were killed or wounded in combat sounded an alarm through black communities in the United States.
Black leaders of the civil rights movement began speaking out against the war in Vietnam. They claimed that it was just another example of the U.S. government trying to control people of color. Empowered by changes taking place at home, black soldiers became more aggressive in demanding equal treatment in Vietnam. By the late 1960s race relations in the U.S. military had deteriorated significantly, especially in non-combat units.
Black soldiers face discrimination in Vietnam
A number of different factors contributed to the increasing tension between black and white soldiers in Vietnam. One of these factors was a decline in the qualifications of recruits. In mid-1966 the U.S. government came up with a new recruiting program called Project 100,000. It was intended to encourage poor and uneducated blacks to enlist in the armed forces by lowering the standards for induction (admission) and offering special training programs.
Between 1966 and 1968, 340,000 people enlisted in the American military through Project 100,000. More than 40 percent of these new recruits were African Americans from poor urban areas. They hoped to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam and return home with useful skills. But the government soon cut the special training programs from its budget. The Project 100,000 recruits arrived in Vietnam to find that many white officers considered them inferior to other soldiers. As a result, they were often assigned to menial tasks or to dangerous combat duty.
The poor treatment of the Project 100,000 recruits highlighted the discrimination that other African American soldiers faced in Vietnam. Many black soldiers received less desirable housing and duty assignments than white soldiers in the same unit. In addition, blacks often found themselves passed over for promotions. Only 2 percent of officers in the U.S. armed forces were black, even though blacks made up a much larger percentage of all military personnel during the Vietnam War.
The military justice system tended to discriminate against African Americans as well. One study found that black soldiers received harsher sentences than white soldiers for similar crimes committed during active service. In addition, white soldiers were twice as likely to be released without punishment for a first offense. By 1971 more than half of all U.S. soldiers held in military detention facilities were black.
But the most disturbing statistic in the minds of many African Americans was the number of black soldiers who were killed or wounded in combat. A high percentage of blacks and other minorities were assigned to dangerous combat duty in the early years of the Vietnam War. In fact, African Americans made up 20 percent of U.S. combat units in 1965 and 1966. As a result, black soldiers accounted for 25 percent of Americans killed in Vietnam during those years.
The U.S. government noted these statistics and took some steps to shift the ethnic balance in combat units. The government's efforts reduced the percentage of black fatalities (deaths) to 13.5 percent in 1967. This figure was more in line with the percentage of African Americans serving in the U.S. armed forces, but it was not enough to please black leaders in the United States.
Civil rights leaders oppose the war
The early years of the Vietnam War were a time of upheaval in the United States, as black people fought to receiveequal rights and opportunities in American society. Many leaders of the civil rights movement initially supported the U.S. government's decision to send troops to Vietnam to stop the spread of communism in Asia. Some black leaders were reluctant to criticize President Lyndon Johnson because they believed he supported their call for civil rights. In addition, some African Americans worried that opposing the war would make them seem unpatriotic. But it did not take long for such attitudes to change.
The first civil rights organization to oppose the Vietnam War was the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). One of its leaders, Stokely Carmichael (1941–1998), denounced the U.S. government's policies as "white people sending black people to make war on yellow people [Asians] in order to defend the land they stole from red people [Native Americans]."
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., began speaking out against the war in his church sermons in 1966. He made his feelings public on March 25, 1967, when he led an antiwar demonstration in Chicago that attracted more than 5,000 marchers. But his most notable antiwar statement came a few days later at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), a group of antiwar religious leaders. At this meeting, held at Riverside Church in New York City, King delivered his historic "Beyond Vietnam" speech.
In this famous and controversial speech, King explains his reasons for opposing the Vietnam War. For example, he says that the war reduces the time and money spent on social programs to reduce poverty and discrimination in American society. He also views the loss of black soldiers in combat as a disaster for the African American community. In addition, he believes that the U.S. government's policies are destroying the ideals of freedom and equality that the nation once stood for. For these reasons, King claims that Americans with moral character have a responsibility to protest against the war.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Beyond Vietnam":
- This speech marked the first time King linked the civil rights movement with the growing antiwar movement. Because the war had a negative effect on blacks both at home and in Vietnam, he felt that the two movements should forge a partnership. But many people disagreed with him. They thought that he was hurting the cause of equal rights for African Americans by speaking out against the government's policies on Vietnam. "As the war in Vietnam intensified, advocates of civil rights wrestled with the question of whether to link opposition to the war in Vietnam with their commitment to domestic justice. On the one hand, the Johnson administration had done more to advance the civil rights of black Americans than had any administration since 1865," Robert D. Schulzinger wrote in A Time for War. "On the other hand, proponents of civil rights gradually came to believe that progress stalled because of involvement in Vietnam, and unless the administration reversed course all momentum would be lost. No one felt the dilemma of reconciling support for civil rights and speaking out over Vietnam more keenly than did Martin Luther King, Jr." King addresses these concerns in his speech.
- Throughout the civil rights movement, King was known as a strong supporter of the idea of nonviolent resistance. He sponsored peaceful sit-ins and protest marches for civil rights, and he cautioned African Americans against the use of violence in their fight for equality. But as he explains in his speech, the Vietnam War made it difficult for him to justify this position to his supporters. After all, the U.S. government engaged in violence to achieve its goals in Vietnam. "[Blacks] wonder what kind of nation it is that applauds nonviolence whenever Negroes face white people in the streets of the United States, but then applauds violence and burning and death when these same Negroes are sent to the field of Vietnam," he wrote.
- In his speech King outlines some of the terrible effects American bombing and defoliation (the use of harsh chemicals to kill crops and other vegetation) had on the Vietnamese people and culture. He notes that the U.S. government supposedly became involved in the war in order to free the Vietnamese people from the threat of communism and build a new, democratic Vietnam. But he says that the American forces have done so much damage that the South Vietnamese now consider them the enemy.
Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Beyond Vietnam" speech:
Since I am a preacher by trade, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. 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.
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years—especially the last three summers. 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 the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself unless the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. . . .
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be [a land of freedom and opportunity] are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land. . . .
As I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people whohave been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries. . . .
They languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move or be destroyed by our bombs. So they go—primarily women and children and the aged.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only non-Communist revolutionary political force—the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators!
Now there is little left to build on—save [except for] bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these? Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These too are our brothers. . . .
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless on Vietnam . . . I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words: Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.
If we continue there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad China into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly clumsy and deadly game we have decided to play.
The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways.
In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war. I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
- End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
- Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
- Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing [reducing] our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
- Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front as substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future Vietnam government.
- Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement.
Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime [government] which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary.
Meanwhile we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment [shameful course or action]. We must continue to raise our voices if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative means of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service we must clarify for them our nation's role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is the path now being chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Tragically foolish behavior.
Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest. . . .
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world—a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
What happened next . . .
At first King's speech created a great deal of controversy. Some of his fellow black leaders criticized him for losing his focus on civil rights, an issue that they felt was more important than the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, members of the Johnson administration resented him for speaking out against their policies. "King's speech was immediately criticized, by both the civil rights movement and White House officials, who described King as either a fool or a Communist," Albert Marrin wrote in America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. But fellow religious leaders responded more positively to King's remarks. Within a short time, several Christian groups endorsed his views of the war.
Over time, antiwar feelings spread through the civil rights movement, and more and more African Americans began to criticize the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By 1969 polls showed that the majority of African Americans opposed the war (it would be several years before a majority of white Americans held the same view). The changing attitudes at home had an effect on the attitudes of black soldiers serving in Vietnam. Many African American servicemen began to question their roles in the conflict. They also began to speak out against discrimination and demand equal treatment in the U.S. armed forces. In the meantime, some white American soldiers grew resentful of blacks for their outspoken opposition to the war. Some whites even blamed King and other civil rights leaders for starting the antiwar movement. As a result, racial tensions increased among some groups of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
Racial tensions among U.S. troops
For the most part, race relations remained positive in American combat units. These troops shared experiences in a frightening environment, which often created strong bonds between black and white soldiers. When forced to face danger and the threat of death together, they tended to band together for protection. "When you drink out of the same canteen and eat off the same spoon, you get real tight together," a black paratrooper explained. Still, many soldiers recognized that combat was a unique situation, and that the interracial bonds they formed in the Vietnamese jungle might not last when they returned to the United States. As one wounded black soldier told black journalist Wallace Terry, "The officers, the generals, and whoever came to see you in the hospital, they respected you and pat you on the back. . . . In the States the same officers that pat me on the back wouldn't even speak to me."
In contrast to combat units, non-combat support units and base camps experienced a noticeable deterioration in race relations. In some cases, African American soldiers intentionally segregated themselves from the rest of their unit. They stuck together and often refused to associate with whites. "A year ago most black GI's [soldiers] were grateful for the chance to share a white man's foxhole," Terry stated in 1969. "But today many black GI's have become advocates of black power [a militant movement emphasizing racial pride] and want no part of a white U.S. war. The reason is not that we are losing the war here, but that we are losing the one in the ghettos of America." At the same time, some white soldiers in base camps made racist comments and displayed racially insensitive symbols, like the Confederate flag (the symbol of the slaveholding South during the American Civil War).
In some cases racial tensions exploded into violence. Some of the worst incidents included race riots at an army stockade in Long Binh, Vietnam, in 1967; at a marine base in North Carolina in 1969; and on board the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk on the way to Vietnam in 1972. Some white officers began to fear that black troops would shoot at them instead of the enemy. Many of the documented cases of attacks on officers by their own men, commonly known as "fragging," were racially motivated.
By the mid-1970s race relations began to improve in the American armed forces. This improvement happened partly because the U.S. government recognized the problem and put programs in place to reduce discrimination among troops in Vietnam. Once the American forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the military draft ended. From that point on, the U.S. armed forces were made up of volunteers who chose to serve rather than draftees who were forced to serve. As a result, soldiers tended to share similar views about the military regardless of their race. Over time, many African Americans again began to view the armed services as a good opportunity to receive education, technical training, and career advancement. In fact, black soldiers accounted for 25 percent of the American forces sent to the Persian Gulf in 1991.
Did you know . . .
- Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his controversial speech at Riverside Church exactly one year before he was assassinated.
Goff, Stanley, and Robert Sanders. Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1982.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Marrin, Albert. America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger. New York: Viking Penguin, 1992.
Mullen, Robert W. Blacks and Vietnam. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam, 1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Taylor, Clyde, ed. Vietnam and Black America: An Anthology of Protest and Resistance. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1973.
Terry, Wallace, ed. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. New York: Ballantine, 1984.