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50 Years Since Dr. King's "Declaration of Independence"

By Joe Miller

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..."I should make it clear that while I have tried...to give a voice to the voiceless Vietnamese...I am as deeply concerned about our own 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 enemies 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...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." — (4 April 1967)

During our commemoration of the establishment of VVAW in 1967, it is fitting and more than appropriate for us to recognize the powerful statement against the war in Vietnam made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Riverside Church in New York that same year.

For nearly two years, Dr. King witnessed, with growing concern, how the growing war against the Vietnamese people undermined domestic policies and plans to eradicate poverty and improve civil rights in this country. As far back as July 1965, King made short statements against the war, but he was always criticized by others in the civil rights struggle and by some in the Johnson Administration. He was told not to get involved in issues outside of the civil rights realm.

However, he was not deterred. More and more, as he related in the speech at Riverside Church, he saw greater financial resources being sucked into the war machine. He saw more and more young men, black and white and brown, being dragged off to war through an increasing draft. In February 1967, in a California speech titled "The Casualties of the War in Vietnam," he reviewed the history of the conflict and challenged the US government to be more concerned about peace and the protection of humanity.

On March 25, King led a march of 5,000 down State Street in Chicago in his first appearance at an anti-war demonstration. He upped the ante as the war dragged on. At the rally that day, he stated:

"Poverty, urban problems, and social progress generally are ignored when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent slogans."

A week and a half later, King spoke to some 3,000 people, sharing the stage with academics and other religious luminaries at the Riverside Church event organized by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CLCV).

His speech opened with support for the CLCV's call to break the silence on the war in Vietnam. "A time comes when silence is betrayal." He recognized how difficult this would be, to oppose government policy during wartime.

"Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path."

King then elaborated on seven reasons for bringing the war in Vietnam into his "moral vision". Four of the seven are overtly political and social. Simply stated:

He saw the war as an enemy of the poor that had to be attacked as such:

  1. Sending poor "Negro and white boys" off to Vietnam was a "cruel manipulation" of the poor that decimated their communities;
  2. How can violence in the ghettos be stopped when "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world [is] my own government"?
  3. To save the soul of America. "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam'."

The remaining three reasons are put in more overtly religious terms.

Following this section, King goes through an elaborate review of the history of US intervention in Vietnam's affairs, back to the days just after the end of World War II, when the US refused to accept Vietnamese independence, resulting in the First Indochina War (1946-54). Then, America manipulated the Geneva Conference to ensure that a unified Vietnam would not result. Then Diem. Then the military junta. And on and on. Bombing, increased US troops, "fortified hamlets" or concentration camps. Why should the Vietnamese people trust us, he asked? Why should we be surprised at the rise of the Vietnamese opposition we called the Viet Cong? Why should we be surprised that the leadership in Hanoi does not trust our talk about peace talks?

He then listed five "concrete things" that the US should do to begin the process of ending this awful adventure.

  1. End the bombing, North and South;
  2. Declare a unilateral cease fire;
  3. End our military buildup in Thailand and Laos;
  4. Accept the National Liberation Front's role in a future Vietnamese government;
  5. Set a date for the removal of all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Agreement.

In the end, he argued, the US must 'undergo a radical revolution of values." We must correct this "malady of spirit" or we will see more and more Vietnams in our future. We will see more interventions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America if we do not allow for peaceful revolutions in those regions. We must learn to curb our tendency to place our own economic interests above others.

"A true revolution of values will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, 'This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, 'This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just."

Overall, King laid out a program in this speech that called for a recognition of human interests, as opposed to sectional interests. If we only saw each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of race, creed, nationality, etc., then we might avoid other Vietnams.

On April 15th, King joined hundreds of thousands in New York City for a march to the United Nations. At the rally he touched on many of the themes he raised in Riverside Church. In attendance at that march and rally was a small group of Vietnam veterans marching under a hastily-made banner announcing "Vietnam Veterans Against the War".

A revolution in values?

The earliest publication of a condensed version of King's speech is found in "Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," Ramparts Magazine, May 1967. [This is the version I first saw while still in the Navy].

The complete text of the speech is found online under the title "Beyond Vietnam". The quotations in this piece are from Claiborne Carson and Kris Shepard, Edited, A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Warner Books, 2001, pp. 139-64.

Joe Miller is a VVAW board member.

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