Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence was delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of concerned clergy and laity at Riverside Church in New York City, New York. The essence of the speech focused on the war in Vietnam. The belief of the clergy took the theme of silence is betrayal. The conclusion was reached that they must speak out against the war over the objection that peace and civil right do not mix. King viewed such comments as a tragic misunderstanding of the world. He emphasized that he was not at the meeting to speak to China, Russia, the National Liberation Front, and/or Hanoi. He was there to speak to his fellow Americans who have the responsibility of ending the conflict that has extracted a heavy price on Vietnam and America.
Regarding the importance of getting involved in the Vietnam War, King enumerated seven major reasons to bring the war to an end based on moral vision. He stated that Vietnam is connected to the struggle he and others have been fighting in America for the poor. However, the buildup of the war has broken the program by society going mad over the war. As a result, the war is as an enemy of the poor, which has taken away vital resources from programs for the poor. He has also considered the dilemma the sons of poor Americans who are fighting and dying in extraordinary high numbers in Southeast Asia are facing as tragic, especially when they were not even able to attend the same school in America, or live on the same block, which he referred to as manipulation of the poor.
He believed that change would come to America through nonviolent action. Therefore, he must raise his voice against the violence inflicted on the oppressed for the sake of America and cannot remain silent. He affirmed the motto of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is “To save the soul of America,” which cannot be saved if it is destroying the souls of people across the world. Additionally, as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, his belief is that this commission require him to work harder than ever for “the brotherhood of man,” thus, his calling extend beyond national allegiances.
He declared that he share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God; that God is concerned with the suffering of helpless and outcast children; that ministers are called to speak for the weak, the voiceless, victims of our nation, and its enemy; that Vietnam has been living under the madness of war for three continuous decades; and there will be no solution until we hear the broken voices of Americans and Vietnamese.
He mentioned that the Vietnamese must be looking at Americans as strange liberators while pondering America’s madness of the war. Since Vietnam had its independence in 1945 from the French and Japanese, America has supported the French in trying to take back its former colony by funding practically the entire cost of the war for the French. He proclaimed that America is a victim of Western arrogance for rejecting the revolutionary government seeking self-determination in Vietnam. As a result, our planes are dropping bombs on Vietnamese villages, women and children; poisoning their water; killing their crops; destroying their trees; leaving them homeless; begging for food; and selling their sisters and mothers to our soldiers. In this regard, we must speak for them because they are also our brothers in our struggle.
He specified that Hanoi has consider the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime in Vietnam as a breach of the Geneva Convention, and that our president did not state there was an overture for peace made before by the parties. He notified the audience how Ho Chi Ming has watched the buildup of American forces as America spoke about peace; that Ming has been listening to the international rumors of a invasion of the north; and that Ming has watched the pre-invasion strategies of the most powerful nation on earth, which include dropping of bombs as an aggressor on the poor and the weak thousands of miles away from its own shores.
King made known that he is deeply concerned about the safety of our troops; that we are adding cynicism to the process of death; and that none of the things we are fighting for are really involved. He further added that our troops must know that our government sent them into Vietnam for the sophisticated and the wealthy, while we are creating hell for the poor; therefore, we must give a voice to the voiceless people of Vietnam. In this regard, he asserted that there will be no meaningful solution until we have heard their broken cries and have made some meaningful solution to hear their plea.
King communicated that the madness of war must cease. Additionally, in the name of God, we must stop the destruction of Vietnamese’ homes and their culture. He mentioned that he is speaking to the leaders of his country as an American and for the people of the world who are shocked by the path America has taken. He then quoted the words of a great Buddhist leader who stated:
Each day the war goes on the hatred increase in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct… Americans are forcing their friends to become their enemies… America is incurring deep psychological and political defeat…America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy but the image of violence and militarism.
In this light, he indicated that continuing the war would show the world we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam, and our hope is to drag China into a war so we would be able to bomb its nuclear installations. He stated the world has demanded a greater sense of maturity from America
He enumerated the following actions for America’s atonement of sins: an end to all bombing in Vietnam; unilateral cease fire; prevention of battle grounds in Southeast Asia; recognition of the National Liberation Front; a set date from removal of all foreign forces from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Convention; granting of asylum to Vietnamese suffering persecution; and the payment of reparations for harm done.
With respect to continuing protest of the war, he requested the churches and synagogues to continue urging America to disengage from Vietnam and encouraged the ministers to seek conscious objector’s status. He brought up that America is on the wrong side of the world’s revolution, because we now consider property and material things more important than people; thus, we are approaching spiritual death.
On the issue of the importance of people, he revealed that all over the world men are revolting against the old system of exploitation and oppression, and new systems of justice and equality are being born. As a result, we should desire love to be the ultimate force and saving grace of life and not death and evil. Additionally, he reinforced that powers without compassion; might without morality; and strength without sight, will drag America down the corridor of shame; therefore, we must rededicate ourselves to a beautiful world, which is the calling of the sons of God.
He ended his message with an eloquent poem written by James Russell Lowell, addressing the issues of love not war; good not evil; light not darkness; and how God is keeping watch over His people.