Monday, April 02, 2007

Martin Luther King's Beyond Vietnam speech

In 1967 Martin Luther King gave his Beyond Vietnam speech - I remember studying it as part of some high school course though I don't recall why. I've not thought of it since, but tonight as I gave my father a lift across town, I heard it on the radio - I don't think I've ever heard it before. King's rhetorical style is compelling; he is lyrical and passionate but somehow restrained and calm.

The full text of the speech is here but there's one part that struck me tonight, the part that spoke of the American malady. King could be speaking of current events, his prescience is profound.

First he implores the US to cease its aggression in Vietnam saying:
"If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative that to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people."
Later he states that there Vietnam is a tragic symptom of an American malady, that if the lessons of the 60s aren't learned, the mistakes will be made again and again. He says:
"The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organising "clergy and laymen concerned" committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy..."
King urges us to protest, however we feel we might saying "Every man of man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that suits his convictions, but we must all protest".

Thinking about the debate about the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, it is impossible not to see the parallels with Vietnam and to wonder what might have been had the advice of King been heeded.


Cheezy said...

I guess the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq have been discussed for a while now, but I still found those quotes downright eerie, mate. Those words could definitely have been said today (if there was someone of similar honesty, eloquence and soul as Dr King around)...

Chris said...

You might enjoy this speech from Adlai Stevenson:

I looked it up after I heard it quoted in an episode of Boston Legal last night!

Some of the bits that I quite liked:

"The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the Bill of Rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak of anti-communism."
"We talk a great deal about patriotism. What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? I venture to suggest that what we mean is a sense of national responsibility which will enable America to remain master of her power-to walk with it in serenity and wisdom, with self-respect and the respect to all mankind; a patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime. The dedication of a lifetime-these are words that are easy to utter, but this is a mighty assignment. For it is often easier to fight for principles than to live up to them."

backin15 said...

Cheeze, yeah the comparisons have been made for a while, I didn't mean to claim any insight there, but King's entire speech seems to speak of here and now - his earlier comments about the fraud of the American rhetoric are particularly true.

Chris, thanks for this link - I didn't know this speech at all. The line about it being easier to fight for principles that live them is fantastic.

Perhaps it's always been thus - I've not studied classics or much ancient history to verify and I'm not yet seduced by the post-modernist cynics...