“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. . . . 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.” — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967
Fifty years ago on April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic address at Riverside Church declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. He spoke at a time when the war still enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in Washington. Today, as the Trump administration seems to be doubling down on endless wars, King’s courage should inform us all.
King delivered the speech at a time of great turmoil — both personal and professional. The stunning victories of the civil rights movement were in the past. The backlash had begun. Black-power advocates scorned his nonviolent tactics and his integrationist goals. His Southern Christian Leadership Conference was struggling with staff rivalries and financial troubles. King knew that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had targeted him personally.
Many had warned King not to give the speech. Yet he felt he had no choice but to speak out. The war had “broken and eviscerated” a promising poverty program, he declared, making it clear 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.” Also, King told the Riverside congregation, he could not credibly preach nonviolence to African Americans when the nation practiced massive violence to reach its ends. “Racism, extreme materialism and militarism” were inextricably linked. “A nation,” he warned, “that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
The reaction was fierce. President Lyndon Johnson never forgave him. His speech was greeted with a barrage of editorial disapproval. The Post wrote that many “who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people.” The New York Times rebuked him, arguing, to “divert the energies of the civil rights movement to the Vietnam issue is both wasteful and self-defeating.” The NAACP’s board of directors agreed, passing a resolution labeling any attempt to merge the civil rights and peace movements as a “serious tactical mistake.” Major foundations that had supported the SCLC were shaken. Hoover redoubled his efforts to discredit King and disrupt SCLC operations. The Nation, I’m proud to say, got it right, supporting King, who had been its civil rights correspondent for nearly a decade: “King’s Riverside Church speech will rank as one of the most significant of his career, laced with eloquence, and morally uncompromising.”
Fifty years later, King’s warning is both chilling and prescient. From Afghanistan to Somalia, the United States is slowly escalating its endless wars, without strategy or sense. The administration and the Pentagon seem to believe that it must be prepared to attack any place in the world that offers a potential sanctuary to those who would threaten us or our allies. Now we’re told we have a vital security interest in the civil war in Yemen. Montenegro is embraced as a NATO member. We maintain an empire of more than 800 bases abroad in 70 countries with 25 percent of the world’s population. Our special forces deployed to a stunning 70 percent of the world’s countries last year.
The Pentagon consumes about 40 percent of the world’s military spending; together with our allies, we spend about 80 percent of the world military budget. President Trump not only wants those allies to increase spending but also seeks to add another $54 billion to the military budget this year. To sustain his spending plans in future years, he will have to gut domestic investment in public schools, medical and scientific research, affordable housing, infant nutrition and more.
The blame is not limited to one side. Trump’s military spending plan is obscene, but it is only 3 percent more than President Barack Obama’s last budget. And Obama’s budgets projected that spending on domestic programs outside of the shared security mandates of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid would decline to unprecedentedly low levels as a percentage of gross domestic product. This bipartisan approach is a recipe for ruin.
Global commitments require global policing. Global policing uncovers infinite threats. Infinite threats mire us into conflicts in far corners of the world. The violence births more of the hatred and terrorism that then leads to yet more violence. Continuing on this road, as King warned, is to approach a “spiritual death.”
King’s warning speaks to us now. In the last year of his life, he struggled valiantly to bring the civil rights movement, the poverty movement and the antiwar movement together. This week, the activists of Black Lives Matter will join with the Fight for $15 movement to demonstrate for raising the minimum wage. It is time to revive a peace and justice movement that can join them, calling for the United States to stop its endless wars and to turn its resources and attention to rebuilding our own country. “A time comes,” King told us, “when silence is betrayal.” Silence on the folly of America’s current course surely is a betrayal, both to our stated values and to our children.