Monday, April 5, 2010

Beyond Vietnam to Iraq & Afghanistan

Beyond Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan; Martin Luther King, Jr., a passionate protagonist for peace and Barack Obama, a pragmatic political warrior

MLK: A Call to Conscience, produced and hosted by Tavis Smiley on PBS on March 31, explored Martin Luther King Jr’s plea for peace in 1967, a year before his assassination in 1968. The program looked at the relevance of King's anti-war position to the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the significance of the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor bestowed upon both King and President Barack Obama. Dr. King gave his carefully scripted and controversial "Beyond Vietnam" speech calling for peace in Southeast Asia at Riverside Church in NYC. While King had led the cause of peaceful, non-violent action to accomplish racial and economic justice, his uncompromising eloquence for peace at Riverside was too much even for many of those who supported his work to help poor people and blacks to overcome injustice. A Call to Conscience examines the forgotten agenda of King’s passionate plea for peace which led to an abrupt loss of his popularity in the last year of his life and probably furnished another motive for his martyrdom. Obama, our “post-racial” President has picked up popularity among war hawks by touting the US’s role in “peace making” wars in his Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech and by dispatching 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan.

The image of King as a Santa Claus figure who dreams and goes with the flow is flawed, since he was a protagonist for peace who seemed courageously aware of his impending martyrdom for the cause of peace and social justice. In his call for peace in 1967 he said “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.”

Obama is the self-professed possessor of the audacity of hope and change you can believe in who would put racial injustice and war crimes behind us as our first ever post-racial, military commander-in-chief who now presides over two nation-building wars at once.

Among those interviewed by Smiley were Dr. Vincent Harding who drafted King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Cornel West, the outspoken proponent for racial justice, Marian Wright Edelman, who was an organizer along with King in the poor people’s campaign, and Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize winning King historian and others closely associated with King. King's closest advisors discussed the divisions within the civil rights movement over King's opposition to the war in Vietnam and the political and public fallout from his criticism of American foreign policy. Harding said King's inner circle worried about the ramifications of the speech, before and after he gave it. Harding said, ”We were concerned, he was concerned, but he had really come to the point, as the speech is trying to say, where if he was to be a man of conscience, a man of compassion, he had to speak,"

Harding added, "But it was precisely one year to the day after this speech that that bullet which had been chasing him for a long time finally caught up with him. And I am convinced that that bullet had something to do with that”.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King spoke of the "creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice" and that he was "mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered." The civil rights movement was a deployment unlike any other. King's mindfulness of the long journey ahead toward peace is one that Obama decided to mimic in his several references to King in his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize.

Americans hearing our president talk about "just wars" should remember that King never mentioned the idea of "just racism." Obama referred to King's commitment to nonviolence as something he, as a world leader, doesn't have the luxury of pursuing. Yet all too often we forget that King had a dream beyond desegregation. He also believed that we can overcome war itself, as he hinted at in Oslo in 1964.

In Oslo Obama said,

We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’… But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by examples (of King and Gandhi) alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.

Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest -- because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others' children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Interestingly, Obama never mentioned Vietnam in bragging about bringing people peace and prosperity, democracy and global security in all our wars from WWII to the present.

Speaking on morality and rules of war, Obama said,

And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is why I prohibited torture. That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed. And that is why I have reaffirmed America's commitment to abide by the Geneva Conventions.

But Obama failed to mention the disregard for rule of law shown by the previous administration, as well as his own administration's failure to correct such disregard. Obama’s critics, including David Swanson, who correctly concluded that torture was illegal internationally and in the U.S. code of law before Obama became president. Obama publicly instructed the attorney general of the United States not to enforce those laws. He claimed the power to "rendition" people to other nations where they might be tortured. His CIA director and a top presidential advisor have claimed the president has the power to torture if he chooses to. And President Obama has claimed the power to either prohibit torture, or not, which flies in the face of the idea of the rule of law. The prison at Guantanamo is still open, and moving those prisoners to Afghanistan, or other U.S. prisons, will not bring the US into compliance with the Geneva Conventions. Swanson wrote that Obama whitewashed US military history. Swanson also noted that though the president insisted that "America has never fought a war against a democracy," we sure have overthrown more than our fair share of countries with democratically elected officials.

On her blog Meg White contended that Obama reflected the cynicism of today rather than what King called his "audacious faith in the future of mankind." Obama insisted war is a natural human state. The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense.

In his 1967 speech King said:

Another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- to work harder than I had ever worked before for ‘the brotherhood of man.’ This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.

In that same speech, when he talks about the war's effect on the people of Vietnam, he could just as easily be talking about those in Afghanistan and Pakistan

He continued:

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow Vietnamese --the real enemy.

Now there is little left to build on -- save 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?

And of the enemy King said this:

Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them -- the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

And of our troops:

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 hell for the poor.

The striking parallels to our current conflicts aside, King finished this speech with a call to a "true revolution," one which would invalidate the spirit of American militarism.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

Meg White concluded, “Though he (King) was a few years late with these words, I would venture to say that is the way you accept a Nobel Peace Prize.”

King’s cause of racial justice does not appear to substantiate any semblance of “post racialism” with white Americans now experiencing 8.8 percent unemployment rate and African-Americans 16.5 %. .

On the whole, the economic news is mixed, but for African Americans, it is particularly troubling. The unemployment rate for whites holds steady at 8.8 percent compared to February and went down for Asians from 8.4 percent to 7.5 percent. But it rose to 16.5 percent for blacks from 15.8 percent. Hispanics show a slight increase as well, from 12.4 percent to 12.6 percent.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Peter Edelman, a former Clinton administration official who directs the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at the Georgetown University.

While there have long been disparities in white and minority employment, Edelman said, the latest unemployment numbers from the Labor Department show that while “some white people got jobs, some black people and Latinos actually fell behind more.”

Men with less than 12 years of education are more than twice as likely to die of chronic diseases (e.g., heart disease), more than three times as likely to die as a result of injury, and nearly twice as likely to die of communicable diseases, compared to those with 13 or more years of education. Women with family incomes below $10,000 are more than three times as likely to die of heart disease and nearly three times as likely to die of diabetes, compared to those with family incomes above $25,000. African Americans are more likely than whites to die of heart disease; stroke; lung, colon, prostate, and breast cancer, as well as all cancers combined; liver disease; diabetes; AIDS; accidental injury; and homicide. In all, the lower you are in a social hierarchy, the worse your health and the shorter your life is likely to be.

In a 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, University of Michigan researchers found that African-American females living to age 15 in Harlem had a 65% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as women in India. Meanwhile, Harlem's African-American males had only a 37% chance of surviving to age 65, about the same as men in Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Among both African-American men and women, infectious diseases and diseases of the circulatory system were the prime causes of high mortality.

While comprising substantially less than one-half the US population, blacks and Hispanics account for 70 percent of the 2 million people imprisoned in the US, which has the highest incarceration rate of any major industrial country. More young black men are currently imprisoned in the US than attend colleges or universities.

King’s cause of economic justice to uplift the quality of life for poor people also needs to be addressed by our pragmatic warrior president. The gap between rich and poor in the United States has widened exponentially over the past three decades. The Congressional Budget Office reports that since 1979, the average income for the bottom half of American households has grown by 6 percent. In contrast, the top 1 percent of earners have seen their incomes shoot up by a 229 percent during that same period. The average income of top wage earners (those above the 95 percentile range) has increased from $324,427 in 2001 to $385,805 in 2006. Only one other year has seen a comparable income gap: 1928, the year before the Great Depression.

Should our pragmatic political warrior President heed the advice of MLK, JR, the passionate protagonist for peace and move us beyond our imperialistic adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan?



  1. I have no way of really describing how completely this piece reflects my EXACT thoughts and feelings.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    David M.
    Seattle, WA

  2. Thanks, David.

    Its encouraging that you feel that way. Hopefully, if enough of us spread the word about making peace, fighting poverty, and ending US imperialism we can get make the world a better place.


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