We usually honor great historical figures by studying their entire body of work. For many years, every January, Americans have heard 30 seconds of Martin Luther King Jr. from the I Have a Dream speech. It was a great speech, but why do we never hear the many speeches he made in later years as his ethics and politics matured?
This year the public airwaves are dominated by talk of war: daily news reports of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war, the mainstream TV networks dramatizing war and protesters speaking out against war. In this time of great national decision-making we can truly honor the memory of this great American by pondering his profound words regarding war and U.S. foreign policy.
A major part of the Bush administration's rationale for invading Iraq is that we are liberating the Iraqi people from a cruel government. That is precisely what U.S. leaders said about liberating the Vietnamese people from the communists led by Ho Chi Minh. Here is what King had to say about ``strange liberators'':
``They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals, with at least 20 casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them -- mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers. What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
``We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation's only noncommunist revolutionary political force -- the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators?''
During the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq there were protesters in other parts of the world who held up signs saying: ''America: Ask why the world hates you.'' While that sentiment may be difficult for us to hear, King had a way of showing that it is in our self-interest to consider the opinions of those we label as enemies.
``Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.''
Although King's anti-war sentiments were directed mainly at the U.S. aggression in Vietnam, many of his statements would apply to our current policies toward other countries that have not attacked us.
``Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.''
As we increasingly militarize the planet and our own society, we should ponder King's words.
``We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.''
``A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.''
[Excerpted from a speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.]
Kevin Danaher cofounded the human-rights group Global Exchange. Tony Newman is on the board of directors of Global Exchange.