MLK and Vietnam: a brave stand

Over the winter break, I read Max Hastings’ thoughtful study of the Vietnam War entitled Vietnam, An Epic Tragedy. As the title suggests, the Vietnam War was indeed tragic. It transformed our nation in ways that we still see today. Hastings’ deeply researched study pulls interviews from both American veterans and Vietnamese survivors. It was a war that put young Americans in impossibly difficult and complex situations. Much has already been researched and written about the mistakes that American foreign policy leaders made. Despite having the “best and brightest” advisers and seasoned military leaders as counsel, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson led the nation into a quagmire that cost the lives of 59,000 Americans.

Recent research on the war has revealed that it was overwhelmingly evident that Johnson, even before he fully committed ground troops, knew the war was unwinnable. And, in an effort to avoid political humiliation, President Richard Nixon cynically sustained the war effort (40 percent of all Americans who died in Vietnam were killed during the Nixon administration. This is significant, as there were potential negotiations that could have been completed earlier in his presidency.) Hastings’ work also illuminates the injustice and folly of the North Vietnamese leadership. He portrays Communist leader Le Duan, who truly controlled the Vietnamese war effort by the mid-1960s, as a ruthless, uncompromising figure who willfully sacrificed the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his own people in a war of attrition, rather than seek a negotiated solution.

The scale and violence of the war, as well as the lack of success, made many Americans question the war in the 1960s. Despite efforts to paint opponents of the war as Communist sympathizers or fringe fanatics, there were many establishment figures who stood against the war for moral and political reasons. Often these were figures with strong anti-communist credentials, like Senator William Fulbright or the famous pediatrician and author, Dr. Benjamin Spock. But, one of the most significant voices was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As we celebrate the life of Dr. King this weekend, and Monday on MLK day, it is important to remember his fateful decision to stand up for his conscience.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dr. King had risen to leadership in the Civil Rights Movement because of his efforts to promote peaceful, non-violent protest. Through grassroots activism and his soaring oratory, King and other civil rights leaders were able to transform public opinion on the violence and anti-American nature of segregation and discrimination. He influenced the national Democratic Party to make civil rights a legislative priority. When John F. Kennedy stepped into the White House in 1961, there was a real opportunity for national legislation. However, Kennedy lacked the ability to get any meaningful civil rights legislation off the ground, largely due to the obstruction of southern Democrats and northern Republicans. Kennedy’s assassination instantly changed the political calculus. Johnson, a Texas Democrat and master of legislative rules and procedures, came into power, determined to implement his ‘Great Society,’ a series of domestic proposals that would extend the New Deal and advance civil rights. Despite growing up in segregated Texas, Johnson was opposed to Jim Crow segregation. By 1964, he signed into the law the Civil Rights Act, and in 1965, he signed the important Voting Rights Act. These two bills destroyed the legal underpinnings of de jure segregation in the United States.

Much has been written about the relationship between these two men and the legislative outcomes they achieved. Both men needed each other, cultivating a highly strategic alliance to draw the nation’s attention to the evils of segregation. This was particularly true in the case of the 1965 Selma protest and its connection to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Johnson’s top Domestic adviser was Joseph Califano Jr., who has written extensively about the partnership. Both King and Johnson understood the need to eliminate obstacles to voting if there was to be change. Johnson realized that he could not push legislation past southern Democrats without mobilizing public opinion. So, in a meeting with King, Johnson encouraged a mass protest, stating, “…and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or South Carolina…and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can…. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.” LBJ wanted to leverage the protest to help get legislation out of the Judiciary Committee, chaired by the arch-segregationist Jim Eastland of Mississippi. King subsequently led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Of the 10,000 registered voters in Selma, only 335 were African-American. The march began with John Lewis, one of the ‘Big Six’ leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, being clubbed, and days later, a white minister being killed. Once Alabama’s segregationist Governor, George Wallace, stated that he could no longer protect the marches, Johnson federalized the National Guard, skillfully drawing national attention to the violence by segregationist counter-protesters.

Listen to this tape of Johnson speaking to King to get a sense of their relationship.

In the midst of efforts to work together to advance civil rights legislation and the Great Society, Johnson was also weighing America’s commitment to Vietnam. Throughout 1965, he “Americanized” the Vietnam War, sending American combat troops to lead the fighting against South Vietnamese Communist guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army. He quietly increased troop levels, and the Defense Department quickly expanded the war. There was a massive campaign called ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ that targeted North Vietnam, eventually dropping more than 650,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam. By 1966, more than 385,000 soldiers were in Vietnam. As the troop levels increased and the violence of the war became a nightly feature on American television, the nation became more divided. Younger civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee condemned the war and pressured establishment civil rights figures like King to speak out. By 1967, it was also evident that African Americans were being drafted in disproportionate numbers to whites. King was presented with a dilemma. He risked losing presidential support for his larger efforts to eradicate racism and segregation in other parts of the country and to support the poor if he crossed LBJ on Vietnam. However, the violence of the war propelled King to take a moral stand.

Besides helping King with legislation, Johnson had also kept at bay the FBI’s efforts to intimidate and harass King and his family. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had long tried to undermine King’s reputation and attempted to portray him as a Communist subversive. According to some sources, Hoover repeatedly tried to undermine King’s reputation to Johnson, who ignored the reports and continued a public relationship with King. By 1966, King began to make a decision. He had a call to discuss Vietnam with Johnson, but then broke off contact despite efforts by LBJ to reach out. As the New York Times has reported, “One day Dr. King pushed aside a plate of food while paging through a magazine whose photographs depicted the burn wounds suffered by Vietnamese children who had been struck by napalm. The images were unforgettable, he said. ‘I came to the conclusion that I could no longer remain silent about an issue that was destroying the soul of our nation.’”

In April 1967, King delivered a speech, entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” at New York’s Riverside Church. It was a unique speech for King in that he read from a text because he wanted to be precise in his words and to avoid being misquoted. He remained unequivocal about his position: “Surely 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 in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands is aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

The speech forever changed the relationship between King and Johnson. Over 160 newspaper editorials, including those of the Washington Post and New York Times, condemned King’s message. Shortly after, Johnson spitefully allowed the FBI to circulate reports of King’s behavior and suspected ties to Communism to the media. They never spoke again. Going into the 1968 election, King refused to endorse Johnson. And, a little over a year after his Riverside speech, King was killed in Memphis. Despite the initial reaction as negative, by early 1968, LBJ’s presidency ended up being destroyed because of anti-war public opinion. A month before King was killed, LBJ had announced that he would not run for another term in office.

Read his speech and listen to the audio.

King embodied a person who puts his philosophy, his faith, and his ideals ahead of political gain. He might have tried to find a middle path to sustain his relationship with Johnson in the interest of advancing other political goals. But, King reacted to the evidence before him of a deeply flawed and ineffective war and took a bold stand. It is important lesson for all.