Martin Luther King’s Vietnam speech relevant after 50 years

Mimi Lang – Published in the Opinion Section of MCALL – April 3, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. gave the address, “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence,” to an overflow crowd at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. Tuesday is the 50th anniversary of that event. Organizations throughout the U.S. are sponsoring readings and workshops to commemorate the speech.

The prophetic and moving speech that questioned U.S. actions in Vietnam has been read at celebrations of Martin Luther King Day every year since 2000 by the LEPOCO Peace Center.

We have chosen to present it in many different formats each year, and each year we and our listeners are astonished anew at the relevance to current events. One has to substitute only a few words such as terrorism for communism or the Middle East for Vietnam to give meaning today to King’s advice.

Our goal has been to offer the speech for consideration to the Lehigh Valley community to help others discover the wisdom and care for the beloved community that was the focus of King’s life. Each time we read the words with the hope that their message will not be needed by the following year, but each year we discover that the need is great to hear his admonitions again.

How can we not listen to words that say, “When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered”? (The speech can be read at

King regretted the evisceration of the War on Poverty started by President Johnson as the war in Vietnam demanded money and men and resources that left behind plans to break the poverty cycle. He knew that the poor people of the U.S. and Vietnam were the victims of the tragic, useless war. He not only spoke of our mistaken efforts to conquer Vietnam and destroy the people and the country but also of our support for the brutal dictator, Premier Ngo Dinh Diem, who was assassinated in 1963. It was a cycle we repeated in Guatemala, Peru, Columbia and Venezuela, that is, supplying military advisers to support a dictator.

King’s objections to U.S. policies did not stop with the war. He was determined to speak about the imperialism and the militarism driving our country. He knew that expressing these concerns would put him in opposition to President Johnson. King was also aware that he risked losing many of his base supporters in the liberal and black communities as he moved from his activities as a civil rights leader to advocating for a stop to war. He felt that the incredible violence of war took a huge toll both emotionally and financially on our country and that he must speak against it. He described America as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

King was assassinated in Memphis exactly one year after his Vietnam speech. He did lose supporters after that famous speech, but he felt that not speaking was a betrayal of who he was and what he believed. He was a pastor and a patriot and loved his country. He could not be silent.

In retrospect we read or listen to what King said and know that his message was right then and it is right for us as we look at the world we have created in 2017. As we see the wars in Iraq and Syria continuing to drain our tax resources and proposals from the Trump administration to increase defense spending and cut social programs, we are reminded that we too cannot be silent.

Mimi Lang, who lives in Bethlehem, is a member of Lehigh-Pocono Committee of Concern.