Richard Wagner seeks to further understand Dr. King by examining his warnings against the evil of militarism.
Militarism is one of the three evils Dr. King warned us about. Up until 1965, King’s focus had been on the evil of racism, but as President Johnson ramped up the war in Vietnam, and neglected the “War on Poverty”, King became very focused on the other two evils – militarism, and materialism. These three evils were all interlinked, and his views on the evils of war, in particular, need a closer examination.
In the last three years of King’s life, he couldn’t give a speech without talking about Vietnam, even when he attempted to focus on something else. In a speech at Stanford known as “The Other America,” King focused mostly on poverty, and the continued plight of black Americans, but his logic inevitably led him to the evils of war. “Now, I said I wasn’t going to talk about Vietnam, but I can’t make a speech without mentioning some of the problems that we face there.”
The Cost of War, and Neglect of the Poor
Over the last several years, we’ve heard renewed discussion of how we can spend so many hundreds of billions of dollars on war, yet so many in America, the richest nation in the world, is left in deep poverty. The people of Flint, Michigan went about a year without safe tap water.
Martin Luther King and then President Johnson were closest in the years leading up to those two landmark bills: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. During this same time, Johnson began a “War on Poverty”, the concept of which was strongly supported by Dr. King. However, as Johnson became more focused on the war in Vietnam, the “War on Poverty” was neglected. From 1966 – 68, those last three years of King’s life, he because very critical of Johnson, primarily because of the war in Vietnam. As King explained: “one of the greatest things this war is doing to us in civil rights is that it is allowing the Great Society to be shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam…”
The Great Society was probably not seen by Johnson as a “civil rights” program, as these various anti-poverty programs did not directly address racial inequality. For King, however, poverty and racial inequality were linked, as these made of two of the three evils. War, the third evil, contributed to both, and as shown so far, contributed to poverty by diverting resources to the machinery of death and destruction.
The Spiritual Cost of War
This wasn’t just about the allocation of resources. Martin Luther King was deeply concerned about how the war in Vietnam was numbing the moral conscience of America. In an interview with NBC’s Sander Vanocur, King explained, “we are involved in a war on Asian soil, which if not checked and stopped, can poison the very soul of our nation.” He went on to give an example that looks all too familiar even today in 2018.
“A negro was shot down in Chicago and it was a clear case of police brutality. That was on page 30 of the paper, but on page 1 at the top was ‘780 Viet Cong killed’.”
The unjust distribution of resources and the growing disregard for human life that results from quagmire wars like Vietnam were inseparable to Dr. King. President Eisenhower, a friend, and ally of Dr. King’s in the 1950s had already seen this to some extent. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Ike did not, however, draw the connection between the two evils of war and materialism, and evil of racism. This may be because, as a WWII General, Eisenhower had taken several steps towards racial justice, by experimenting with racially integrated regiments. While Eisenhower “hated war”, in his own words, his own experience with war had actually brought Americans of different races closer together.
WWII, however, was not a war like Vietnam. Therefore, it would be Dr. King who would complete the identification of this unholy trinity of racism, materialism, and militarism.
In his speech on the “Three Evils of Society”, he gave perhaps his most powerful and philosophical denunciation of war of his entire life.
“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 home with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloodied 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.”
The Evil of War of Two Kinds
If Dr. King were alive today, he’d probably be close to 90 years old. I wish I could ask him today if he saw a difference between a decisive, and an indecisive war.
A decisive war, in its most horrifying form, would fit what King described as follows: “If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds.”
The Vietnam War of King’s time, by contrast, was an indecisive war. It’s a quagmire with no end in sight. When I think of most of King’s statements on the evils of war, I think of the indecisive war. A war that is fought poorly clearly carries the material and spiritual costs identified by Dr. King. People become increasingly apathetic, desensitized, and indifferent to human life.
Alas, King is not alive today, and I don’t think we could get a response from his relatives that would be true to him, as his relatives seem to be politically divided. Based on all of my research, King does not seem to have drawn a clear distinction between these two kinds of war. But based on the “Drum Major Instinct” sermon (quoted two paragraphs above), he seems to believe that the militarism associated with the indecisive war would lead eventually to the most horrifying kind of decisive war – nuclear annihilation!
What We Do Know of Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King didn’t really express an opinion on US involvement in WWII. He certainly gave several speeches on the evils of the Hitler regime, but never stated how he thought it should have been handled. This is probably because it was a moot point when King took the national stage, and King was far too pragmatic and goal-driven to devote his time to historical should’ve’s.
But there is no evidence that King supported “wars of humanitarian intervention”, even the greatest example of all, being WWII.
One could make a humanitarian case for Vietnam also. Martin Luther King, however, wasn’t convinced by this at all. King’s philosophical and tactical non-violent methods applied to matters both foreign and domestic.
I’m doing my very best to avoid the historian’s fallacy when discussing King’s views on warfare. But I can say with absolute certainty that he would strongly oppose the last several decades of “peacekeeping”, and “freedom on the march”, and every other attempt to morally justify the evils of war.
He would likely be outraged today that the blacks of the ghetto and the whites of Appalachia* suffer from an opioid epidemic, our infrastructure crumbles, the people of Flint went so long without safe tap water; yet our last two presidents – Obama and Trump – both ran on a platform that included less foreign war and more investment at home, while in practice, both of them oversaw increases in military spending.
Whether Trump’s military spending will translate to yet another war remains to be seen. But the dangerous rhetoric of nuclear N. Korea brings to mind King’s ominous words on what will happen when the first nuclear bomb is dropped.
Martin Luther King, I have so closely studied for this article would not hesitate to call out every political leader who puts war and militarism above the good of the American people. Likewise, he would not hesitate to chastise the very nation that he loved for so callously disregarding the lives of hundreds of thousands of people “over there”; from Serbia, Iraq, Libya, to Syria and Yemen, and possibly N. Korea.
How easily Americans forget, as we sip our pumpkin lattes, that these are real people over there who are dying. And what may be even worse than callously killing them, is our willingness to kill them with our own indifference to what our government is doing.
“Men of reason should no longer debate the merits of war or means of financing war. They should end the war and restore sanity and humanity to American policy.”
*Please note that my language here of “black ghettos” and “whites of Appalachia” is meant to reflect King’s own language. Above all else, I sought in this article to do justice to Dr. King’s memory, and I think if you listen to the full speeches linked, you’ll also notice King’s bluntness when discussing racial differences, and perhaps find it as refreshing as I do in this era of political correctness.