Vincent Harding, considered by learned scholars to be “one of the best interpreters of Martin Luther King living” today says that Americans have of a “tremendous fixation on the Martin Luther King of the . . . “I Have a Dream” (speech) — magnificent, beautiful oratory. . . Something in us wants that triumphant, sun-drenched hero to stay right there, so that we can almost worship, not only him, but those words that he spoke.”
The “I Have a Dream” speech is considered the greatest speech of the 20th century by many. It is passionate, moving and iconic of the civil rights march and Dr. King’s place in it. However, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went beyond the good fight of racial equality and justice. The United States of America in the 1960’s was a time of great social, cultural and political turmoil. Rock and Roll was still in full swing and the parental teeth-gnashing that it brought, only to be succeeded by its equally rebellious sound from four chaps from Liverpool. Protests for civil rights – fair treatment for the American Negro, which we will refer to in this paper in the more current nomenclature as “Blacks” (as opposed to their Caucasian “White” brothers and sisters) – was exploding on the national landscape, primarily in the southern United States, but, through the still fairly new medium of television, sending shockwaves reverberating across the nation. Finally, the Vietnam War or, more correct, the Vietnam Conflict, was growing from a few “military advisers” in the early 1950’s to an Armed Forces involvement equal to all but the most major conflicts in US history. It is Dr. King’s public opposition to the Vietnam War which we shall examine. This examination is important because it takes someone considered “one of the greatest men of the 20th century” and puts the spotlight on his endeavors beyond the civil rights movement for which he is best known.


The US government’s official reason for their involvement in Vietnam was to prevent the spread of Communism throughout Asia, for it was the government’s belief that if Vietnam fell to Communism, the country next door would fall and so on. Those who felt differently accepted that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of Vietnam was a Communist but was “first and foremost a popular, courageous champion of Vietnamese independence.” In a speech given at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Dr. King gives the history of the Vietnam Conflict as such: The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. . . .Even before the French were defeated …they began to despair of their reckless action, but we (the United States) did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated…we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all of this was presided over by the United States influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown . . . we increased our troop commitments in support of (Vietnamese) governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support.


Former US Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern writes how, in the early stages of the war, Dr. King and his advisors felt that the civil rights cause was so important that King should not divert his attentions to the Vietnam Conflict. However, King did not remain silent for long on the subject. As early as March, 1965, while US President Lyndon Johnson escalated the military’s involvement in the conflict, King spoke at Howard University in Washington, DC, publicly expressing his view for the first time that “The war in Vietnam is accomplishing nothing.” As President Johnson continued to increase military involvement, King spoke out again, demanding an immediate and unilateral de-escalation of the conflict, stating that the war “is corrupting American society from within and degrading it from without.”


Often in times of war, those who decry the violence are branded as traitors to their country. As early as the autumn of 1965, King had declared that the Vietnam Conflict proved “War is obsolete” and urged those who felt differently not to confuse his desire for peace as being disloyal to his country. His anger at a government that would try to shame Vietnam protestors into silence gave him strength, saying, “We’re at a terrible stage when we confuse dissent with disloyalty and we view every protester as a traitor.” King continued to take on those detractors, announcing “I am an American” and insisted that his patriotism was based on a “love of democracy, justice, and peace.”


First and foremost, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a preacher. Knowing that peace-making was such an obvious part of his ministry, he would “sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.” King knew that the gospel of Christ was for “all men-for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative.” He also reminded his listeners that his ministry “is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them” and that, as a minister, “I am mandated by this calling above every other duty to seek peace among men and to do it even in the face of hysteria and scorn.”
In response to those who said King was wading in waters in which he didn’t belong, he replied simply “I believe war is wrong . . . I am an expert in recognition of a simply eloquent truth. That truth is that it is sinful for any of God’s children to brutalize any of God’s other children, no matter from what side the brutalization comes.”
While addressing his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia-a church founded by his maternal grandfather, and made one of the largest and most prestigious Baptist churches in Atlanta by his father -Reverend King again stated his case simply, saying “it’s just as evil to kill Vietnamese as it is to kill Americans.”
In July, 1967, King was asked on the television program Face to Face why he was spending more time speaking out against the war in Vietnam than raising funds for job training and scholarships for those who need it. King set the caller straight, saying ‘ninety-five percent of my time is still spent in the civil rights struggle … so you have a misconception there. On the other hand, I’m a clergyman. I was a clergyman before I was a civil rights leader, and when I was ordained to the Christian ministry, I accepted that as a commission to constantly and forever bring the ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage to bear on the social evils of our day. And I happen to think war is one3 of the major evils facing mankind. . . . . Whenever I see injustice, I’m going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or whether it’s in Vietnam.”
This anonymous caller was not the only one confused by King’s priority. A month earlier, National Urban League Director Whitney Young told King “I wish you could give more attention to civil rights.” King responded “I am giving most of my attention to civil rights. The press gives all the publicity to what I say on Vietnam.”


King absolutely felt that the fight for equality for Blacks and for an end to the Vietnam Conflict were tied together. He recalls walking amongst the angry, young Black men of the 1966 race riots, telling them that they must not use weapons and bombs to solve their problems. Their response shattered him, as they asked Dr. King why it was wrong for them to use violence to meet their needs but was acceptable for their government to lay waste to a beautiful land and its people? King knew that his life-long pursuit of a non-violent world had to be fought not against men with Molotov cocktails, but against “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”
The Civil Rights/Vietnam battle was more than a call for non-violence. According to the New York Times, “there were twice as many Negroes as Whites in combat in Vietnam at the beginning of 1967 and twice as many Negro soldiers died in action in proportion to the numbers in the population.” Adding to the injury of a higher percentage of Black vs. White soldiers in combat and being killed was the insult that King and all of America could watch on TV. Black soldiers and White soldiers living together, fighting together and killing a common enemy together, yet at home they wouldn’t be allowed to sit together in a public school. Until recently, these two men could share a fox hole but not a lunch counter.
King’s greatest concerns about the war were for the largest and smallest reasons. On one side, King was genuinely afraid for the well-being of the world itself. In speaking in Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, Rev. King sermonized that “If a negotiated settlement were not soon reached, Chinese involvement would become certain and world war equally inescapable. In the last Sunday sermon Rev. King ever gave, speaking to the National Cathedral (Episcopal) in Washington, DC on March 31, 1968, he announced that “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind . . . (If Vietnam) continues, we will inevitably come to the point of confronting China which could lead the whole world to nuclear annihilation.” “It is worthless to talk about integrating,” King said, “if there is no world to integrate in.”
The other side of the coin seemed to touch King the deepest. In January, 1967, King was planning to take a short vacation. At the airport, he picked up a handful of magazines and, flipping through the January Ramparts, came across an illustrated story “The Children of Vietnam.” The photos of dead babies and burned children so sickened King that he pushed away his plate of food, saying “Nothing will ever taste good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.” Long-time friend Bernard Lee said “That’s when the decision was made. Martin had known about the war before then . . . and had spoken out against it. But it was then that he decided to commit himself to oppose it.” King himself wrote that, upon reading the article, he would “Never again . . . be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands and thousands of little children in Vietnam.”


Dr. King never wanted to merge the two protests he was leading-civil rights for Blacks and an end to the Conflict in Vietnam-into a single movement. Yet, to him, one fed off the other. It was the cost of the war in relation to the money being taken away from social welfare programs that he spoke about most often. In “A Testament of Hope,” an essay published posthumously, King wrote “The Great Society (US President Lyndon Johnson’s plan for civil rights) has become a victim of the war. . . I have little doubt that there would have been a gradual increase in federal expenditures in this direction, rather than the gradual decline that has occurred, if the war in Vietnam had been avoided.”
In his Riverside Church sermon, Rev. King spoke about the “…real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”
In 1967, King lamented in his book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, the $332,000 the Washington Post calculated it cost to kill a single enemy, asking what lives would be changed for the positive if that money was used here in America to help the poor, the uneducated and the homeless. In March, 1968, that cost had risen to “five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. . .while we spend on fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in the so-called poverty program; which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.”
He summarized his concern in a speech to Realtors in San Francisco, saying “Riots are caused . . . by a national administration more concerned about winning the war in Vietnam than the war against poverty right here at home.”


When King spoke of ending the war, he did so both eloquently and practically. At Riverside Church, he told the parishioners, “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and just throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of tie reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”
Practically speaking, King had a five-point plan for ending the war: 1) End all bombing in North and South Vietnam. 2) Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation. 3) Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos. 4) Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam governments 5) Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
Young men were being drafted to fight in the Vietnam Conflict and Dr. King urged these men to file as “conscientious objector,” someone who by reason of his beliefs is opposed to participating in war. A CO may be discharged from military service and is exempt in the event of a draft, performing alternative service as civilian if called up. King said we must “counsel young men concerning military service . . . and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. . . I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices, not false ones.”


Though history has shown us the error of the Vietnam Conflict, it was not so obvious at the time and Dr. King had more than his share of detractors, some obvious and some from within his own house. The obvious opponents to King’s Vietnam protest occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue-The White House. Originally, King found hope in the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. In September, 1964, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, as a representative of Johnson’s, in an attempt to quiet King’s protestations about the war, told King that while his “Vietnam position was commendable, the American Government was equally resolved to effect a negotiated settlement and that, in fact, a peaceful settlement was imminent.” Sadly, neither King nor Johnson would live long enough to see a cease-fire put into place a long nine years later.
As the war continued, King cared less and less for Johnson, considering him the “embodiment of inflexible, outmoded cant and political deviousness . . . devoid of statesmanship . . . trapped by the ‘military-industrial complex.’” Although a guest of President Johnson’s at the White House signing of the voting-rights bill in August, 1965, King rebuffed later invitations to the White House from Johnson, owing to King’s reluctance to “confront a man whom he personally mistrusted and whose policies he regarded with ever-increasing distaste.” By June, 1966, King’s antiwar position had completely alienated him from Lyndon Johnson. However, when King telephoned Johnson in August of that year about civil rights issues, Johnson spoke with King about his protestations of the war. To Johnson’s credit, King said the President promised to help with Los Angeles poverty program and “…never asked me not to speak out on Vietnam. He just explained his position.”
In 1968, prior to Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not run for re-election but focus on the problem of Vietnam, King spoke glowingly of presidential candidates Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, saying a new President was “absolutely necessary. We must end the war in Vietnam. The President is too emotionally involved, and face-saving is more important o him than peace.”
Another denizen of the Executive Branch, J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had long suspected King of “being an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.” It is Hoover’s voluminous wiretappings of King’s private communications and the subsequent Freedom of Information Act that allow us to peer into the private life of the man we are studying.
Hoover had been Director of the FBI for almost 50 years, nearly all of them looking for Communists. He was looking in the wrong direction at King though. Dr. King believed his desire to end the conflict in Vietnam was one way to fight the Communist menace. He spoke about how a “positive revolution of values is the best defense against communism… War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons… We must with positive action, seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.”
Many members of the newspaper medium were also opposed to King’s stance on Vietnam. The New York Times said King shouldn’t combine the civil rights and peace movements; the Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper written for a Black readership, said King was “tragically misleading” his people and the Washington Post said some of his statements were “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy.” Legislators, magazines and others questioned his loyalty to the United States.
Opposition to King’s stance came from within the Black community as well. The board members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), of which King was president, voted that if Rev. Martin Luther King was to speak out against the Vietnam War, he could do so only as a private citizen and clergyman, and not as the president of the SCLC. In the summer of 1966, the SCLC applauded King’s courageous expression of his concerns, but felt that the SCLC should focus on the “rights for the Negro citizens of this country.”
In April of the next year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said that any attempt to combine the efforts of the civil rights and the peace movements was “a serious tactical mistake” and an Urban League spokesman dismissed Dr. King and the SCLC when he said the civil rights fight is ‘…back where it began. It’s us and the NAACP.”
Dr. King’s ongoing battle against the war cost him and his organizations public support and financing. In January, 1967, he was no longer one of the “Ten Most Admired Persons.” In March of the same year, civil rights leaders had not supported him at a fund-raising banquet in New York. Stanley Levison, Chair of the fund-raising for the SCLC, told King that his stance on Vietnam was going to send the organization to the poor-house. King told him “I don’t care if we don’t get five cents in the mail. I’m going to keep on preaching my message.”

King’s message was not just for the end of the war, but for reparations to the Vietnamese once the fighting was finished. His plan was to offer asylum to any Vietnamese who feared for his life under whatever new regime took over. The United States must make reparations for the damage that had been done to the country due to the war. And medical assistance must be provided to bring the people of Vietnam back to health.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a man who lived his conscience. On April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers, King was brought down by an assassin’s bullet. In his fight for justice and peace, he gave the ultimate sacrifice. Though the goal of a cease-fire in Vietnam was not be realized until 1973, King’s words have lived on beyond that conflict and are still spoken and heard today. It is hoped that his call for justice and peace, which ring frighteningly necessary today, as America faces another unwanted military incursion, will not be lost.



Carson, Clayborne and Kris Shepard, eds. A Call to Conscience The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties management, Inc., in association with Warner Books. 2001
Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross – Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Wm Morrow and Co., Inc. 1986
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press. 1967
Lewis, David E. King A Critical Biography New York: Praeger Publishers. 1970
Washington, James, ed. A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper & Row. 1986


American Rhetoric, The Association for Religion and Intellectual Life

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – BEYOND THE DREAM

An examination of Dr. King’s work towards ending the Vietnam Conflict