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  Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Source: King, Martin Luther Jr. Beyond Vietnam and Casualties of the War in Vietnam. New York: Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, 1986.
November 1967, National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace

Mr. Chairman, distinguished () guests, my brothers and sisters of the labor movement, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here this afternoon and to be some little part of this extremely significant assembly. And I want to try to talk very honestly and frankly about this great problem this great issue that we face as a result of the war in Vietnam. Some of my words may appear to be rather harsh but they will be as harsh as truth and as gentle as a non-violent devotee would be.

I want to use as a subject "The Domestic Impact of the War in America." This conference is historic because it is an affinic expression of the conscience of the labor movement. As has been said already this afternoon, tens of millions of Americans oppose the war in Vietnam. Never in our history has there been such a passionate, popular resistance to a current war. In addition to the millions upon millions of ordinary people, eminent scholars, distinguished senators, journalists, businessmen, professionals, students, and political leaders at all levels have protested the war and offered alternatives with an amazing tenacity and boldness. But one voice was missing. The loud clear voice of labor. The absence of that one voice was all the more tragic because it may be the decisive one for tipping the balance toward peace. Labor has been missing. For too long the moral appeal has been flickering, not shining as it did in its dynamic days of growth. This conference, a united expression of varied branches of labor reaffirms that the trade union movement is part of forward looking America. [Applause]

That no matter what the former resolutions of higher bodies may be, the troubled conscience of the working people can not be stilled. This conference speaks for millions. You here today will long be remembered as those who had the courage to speak out and the wisdom to be right. [Applause]

Now what are some of the domestic consequences of the war in Vietnam? It has made the Great Society a myth and replaced it with a troubled and confused society. The war has strengthened domestic reaction. It has given the extreme right, the anti-labor, anti-Negro, and anti-humanistic forces a weapon of spurious patriotism to galvanize its supporters into reaching for power, right up to the White House. It hopes to use national frustration to take control and restore the America of social insecurity and power for the privileged. When a Hollywood performer, lacking distinction even as an actor can become a leading war hawk candidate for the Presidency, only the irrationalities induced by a war psychosis can explain such a melancholy turn of events. [Applause]

The war in Vietnam has produced a shameful order of priorities in which the decay, squalor and pollution of the cities are neglected. And even though 70% of our population now live in them the war has smothered, and nearly extinguished the beginnings of progress toward racial justice. The war has created the bizarre spectacle of armed forces of the United States fighting in ghetto streets in America while they are fighting in jungles in Asia. The war has so increased Negro frustration and despair that urban outbreaks are now an ugly feature of the American scene. How can the Administration, with quivering anger, denounce the violence of ghetto Negroes when it has given an example of violence in Asia that shocks the world. [Applause]

The users of naval guns, millions of tons of bombs, and revolting napalm can not speak to Negroes about violence. Only those who are fighting for peace have the moral authority to lecture on non-violence. [Applause]

Now I do not want to be misunderstood. I am not equating the so-called Negro violence with the war. The acts of Negroes are infinitely less dangerous and immoral than the deliberate acts of escalation of the war in Vietnam. [Applause] In fact, the Negroes in the ghetto goaded and angered by discrimination and neglect have for the most part deliberately avoided harming persons. They have destroyed property. But even in the grip of rage the vast majority have vented their anger on inanimate things, not people. If destruction of property is deplorable, what is the word for the use of napalm on people. What would happen to Negroes if they not only set fires but killed people in the vicinity and explained blandly that some known combatants had to die as a matter of course. Negroes would be called savages if we were so callous. But for generals it is military tactics.

In the past two months unemployment has increased approximately 15%. At this moment tens of thousands of people and anti-poverty programs are being abruptly thrown out of jobs and training programs to search in a diminishing job market for work and survival. It is disgraceful that a Congress that can vote upwards of $35 billion a year for a senseless immoral war in Vietnam cannot vote a weak $2 billion dollars to carry on our all too feeble efforts to bind up the wound of our nations 35 million poor. This is nothing short of a Congress engaging in political guerilla warfare against the defenseless poor of our nation. [Applause]

Thank God we have John Conyers is Congress, I only wish that we had more like him. [Applause]

The inflation of war cuts the pay of the employed, the pension check of the retired and the savings of almost everyone. Inflation has stopped creeping and has begun running. Working people feel the double impact of inflation and unemployment immediately. But Negroes feel its impact with crushing severity because they live on the margin in all respects and have no reserve to cushion shock. There is a great deal of debate about the nation's ability to maintain war and commit the billions required to attack poverty. Theoretically the United States has resources for both. But an iron logic dictates that we shall never voluntarily do both for two reasons. First, the majority of the present Congress and the Administration, as distinguished from the majority of the people, is single mindedly devoted to the pursuit of the war. It has been estimated by Senator (Harkey) that we spend approximately $500,000 to kill a single enemy soldier in Vietnam. And yet we spend about $53 for each impoverished American in anti-poverty programs. Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to the war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.

Second, the government will resist committing adequate resources for domestic reform because these are reserves indispensable for a military adventure. The logical war requires of a nation deploy its well fought and immediate combat and simultaneously that it maintain substantial reserves. It will resist any diminishing of its military power through the draining off of resources for the social good. This is the inescapable contradiction between war and social progress at home. Military adventures must stultify domestic progress to ensure the certainty of military success. This is the reason the poor, and particularly Negroes, have a double stake in peace and international harmony. This is not to say it is useless to fight for domestic reform, on the contrary, as people discover in the struggle what is impeding their progress they comprehend the full and real cost of the war to them in their daily lives.

Another tragic consequence of the war domestically is its destructive effect on the young generation. There can not be enough sympathy for those who are sent into battle. More and more it is revealed how many of our soldiers can not understand the purpose of their sacrifice. It is harrowing under any circumstance to kill but it is psychologically devastating to be forced to kill when one doubts it is right.

Beyond the tragedy at the front, at home the young people are torn with confusions, which tend to explain most of the extremes of their conduct. This generation has never known a severe economic crisis. But it has known something far worse. It is the first generation in American history to experience four wars in twenty-five years, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam. It is a generation of wars. It shows the scars in widespread drug consumption, alienation, and the feverish pursuit of sensual pleasures. Yet we can not call this generation of the young the 'Lost Generation.' We are the 'Lost Generation' because it is we who failed to give them the peaceful society they were promised as the American Heritage. [Applause]

And finally the whole nation is living in a triple ring of isolation and alienation. The government is isolated from the majority of the people who want either withdrawal, de-escalation, or honest negotiation. Not what they now given, steady intensification of the conflict. In addition to the isolation of the government from its people there is our national isolation in the world. We are without a single significant international ally. Every major nation has avoided active involvement on our side. We are more alone than we have been since the founding of the Republic. Lastly, and more ironically, we are isolated from the very people whom we profess to support, the South Vietnamese. In their elections the pro-war forces received less than 1/3 of the vote. In the countryside most of the area of South Vietnam is in the hand of the Vietcong. And the army of South Vietnam has so reduced its role in the fighting it may shortly become the first pacifist army on the warfront. [Laughter - Applause]

The war that began with a few thousand Americans as advisors has become almost totally an American war without the consent of the American people. This is an historic isolation that can not be rationalized by self righteousness or the revival of unproved dangers of imminent aggression from China. China's incredible internal turmoil suggests it presently threatens only itself. The war domestically has stimulated a profound discussion of the nature of our government. Reported members of Congress and distinguished political scientists are questioning the trend towards excessive executive power.

Senator George McGovern has summed up these views in the following words, "Congress must never again surrender its power under our Constitutional system by permitting an ill-advised, undeclared war of this kind. Our involvement in South Vietnam came about through a series of moves by the Executive Branch. Each one seemingly restrained and yet each one setting the stage for a deeper commitment. The complex of administration moves involving the State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon and various private interests, all of these have played a greater role than has Congress. Congress can not be proud of its function in the dreary history of this steadily widening war. That function has been one largely of acquiescence, in little understood administrative efforts. The surveillance, the debate, and the dissent since 1965, while courageous and admirable, came too late in the day to head off the foolish course charted off by our policy makers." "For the future," the senator concluded, "members of Congress and the Administration will do well to heed the admonitions of Edmund Burke, distinguished legislator of an earlier day, 'A conscientious man would be cautious, how he delve in blood.'"

The nature of our government is also under scrutiny by the young generation. I have spoken in recent years before hundreds of thousands of young people in their colleges, in the slums, in churches and synagogues. Their comments and questions reflect a sharply rising body of opinion that the inability to influence government to adopt urgent reforms is not a consequence of any superficial ignorance, lethargy or prejudice, but is systemic. There is more serious discussion today about basic structural change in our society, that I can recall, over a decade. We have thus far avoided a recrudescence of McCarthyism. It is constantly threatening but it has not yet been able to gain a secure foothold. It is not for lack of trying by the ubiquitous Congressional committees. They are trying to bring down a blanket of intimidation, but a healthy resistance holds them in check. We must constantly be alert to this danger because if its evil is added to all the others, we will have opened the door to other national disasters. It is worth remembering that there is a strong strain of dissent in the American tradition even in time of war. During the Mexican War, the intellectual elite of the nation, Emerson, Thoreau and many others were withering critics of our national policy. In the Congress, a relatively unknown first term congressman made a scathing address on the floor denouncing that war. The young congressman was Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. At the same time a young army lieutenant, almost decided to resign his commission to protest the war. His name was Ulysses Grant. So we must keep dissent alive and not allow it to become another casualty of the war in Vietnam. [Applause]

As I move to my conclusion, let me ask you to indulge a personal reference. When I first decided to take a firm stand against the war in Vietnam, I was subjected to the most bitter criticism, by the press, by individuals, and even by some fellow civil rights leaders. There were those who said that I should stay in my place, that these two issues did not mix and I should stick with civil rights. Well I had only one answer for that and it was simply the fact that I have struggled too long and too hard now to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to end up at this point in my life segregating my moral concerns. [Applause]

And I made it very clear that I recognized that justice was indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And then there are those who said 'You're hurting the civil right movement.' One spoke to me one day and said, 'Now Dr. King, don't you think you're going to have to agree more with the Administration's policy. I understand that your position on Vietnam has hurt the budget of your organization. And many people who respected you in civil rights have lost that respect and don't you think that you're going to have to agree more with the Administration's policy to regain this.' And I had to answer by looking that person into the eye, and say 'I'm sorry sir but you don't know me. I'm not a consensus leader.' [Laughter - Applause] I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of my organization or by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus. [Applause]

On some positions a coward has asked the question is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question is it right? And there come a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right. [Applause]
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