Published on Friday, January 16, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Martin Luther King and Iraq
by J. William T. Youngs
Thirty-seven years ago I stood in Sproul Hall Plaza at Berkeley and heard Martin Luther King talk about war and justice. At the time, in May 1967, the United States was engaged in its most controversial and tragic war. Senators and congressmen came regularly to Berkeley to speak in the main plaza, and - cautiously - to suggest that the war in Vietnam was wrong. But somehow none of them seemed equal to the task of describing the enormity of that conflict. Then one day we learned that Martin Luther King was coming to campus. A few weeks before he had spoken out against Vietnam at Riverside Church in New York.
Perhaps King would be equal to the task of measuring the war.
I arrived early in the plaza where King would speak and found a place near the podium. Time passed, the crowd grew to thousands, and then he was there. On that warm Spring afternoon, I sensed what it must have been like in the ancient world to hear an actual prophet speak -- knew why the Old Testament characterizes the motion of the spirit as a mighty wind or a great river.
King began slowly, arguing that the Vietnam War was wrong in itself and wrong also because it got in the way of efforts to fight poverty and discrimination. "I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor," he said, "so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube."
This passage resonates today. The work on superfund sites in the United States is languishing, for example, while the "demonic suction tube" of intervention takes billions of dollars every month to the Middle East.
Other passages from King's 1967 speech are equally timely. "We are on the side of the wealthy and the secure," King said, "while we create a hell for the poor." And so Halliburton overcharges $61 million for oil shipments to Iraq, and wealthy Americans enjoy huge tax breaks while social programs languish.
And how could King have known almost four decades ago how we would trivialize France, Germany, and the entire United Nations with bogus claims about weapons of mass destruction in 2003? Here is what he said in 1967:
"Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat."
King also lamented the hypocrisy inherent in America's "speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than 8000 miles from its shores." The deaths of roughly 10,000 Iraqis since our intervention began last year, may seem modest in comparison to Vietnamese deaths in that war, but in proportion to population those deaths are comparable to 100,000 American deaths - twice the number we lost in a eight years in Vietnam.
Then as now America was led into battle by men who did not scruple at lying about the reasons for war. For the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964, read the weapons of mass destruction deception of 2003. For Robert McNamara, former Secretary of State, admitting long after Vietnam, that the war had been a tragic mistake, read former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill revealing just recently that George W. Bush was seeking an excuse to invade Iraq long before nine-eleven.
King had words too for such falsehoods. He quoted James Russell Lowell:
Once to every man and nation
Remembering that moment thirty-six years ago, when Martin Luther King spoke these very words at Berkeley, I still recall being transfixed by his presence. I still remember his amazing conviction. I still remember seeing the actual sweat on the actual brows of that good, great man.
"Now, it should be incandescently clear," King said, "that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Vietnam.'"
Alas, today, as we Americans accept so sheepishly the news that we were led so dishonestly to war in the Middle East, Martin Luther King would likely say, "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read 'Iraq.'"
Bill Youngs (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a history professor at Eastern Washington University. He has published five books including a new edition of a reader called American Realities, with an essay on Colin Powell. He does a weekly radio commentary for KEWU.