One of the greatest speeches by Martin Luther
King, Jr., "A Time to Break Silence," was delivered at Riverside Church,
New York City, on April 4, 1967. It is a statement against war in principle,
in the same sense in which King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail,"
published four years earlier, had been a statement against social injustice
in principle. Yet like that extraordinary earlier appeal, "A Time to Break
Silence" is also addressed to the evils of a particular time and place.
It protests the command and deployment by Lyndon Johnson of almost unlimited
violence against the people and the land of Vietnam for the declared purpose
of protecting them from the menace of world communism.
King began by acknowledging his solidarity with the organizers of Clergy and
Laymen Concerned about Vietnam; and he pledged himself in full accord with their
recent statement: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." In Vietnam,
says King, "that time has come for us."
Yet to support concrete acts of nonviolent protest or non-cooperation remains
a difficult choice.
"Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily
assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of
war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the
apathy of conformist thought within one's own bosom and in the surrounding world."
The trouble is all the greater in a case like this, where evil is on both sides
but where America's violence has greatly exceeded that of the enemy, since American
resources for violence through the use of air power are so much greater. In
such a situation, says King, "we are always on the verge of being mesmerized
by uncertainty; but we must move on."
This speech was King's public announcement of his opposition to the war. Moral
protest, which said "The war is wrong," was still, as it would remain,
very much a minority position. Even the tactical objection that said, "The
war cannot be won," was still a marginal view, though now steadily gaining
adherents. King knew that his uncompromising dissent would draw bitter attacks.
Members of the black community would charge that by his new commitment he was
diluting the single-minded pursuit of civil rights for which he was known to
stand. "Some of us," he confesses, "who have already begun to
break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often
a vocation of agony, but we must speak."
Here King arrives at the heart of his subject:
"Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of
my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called
for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned
me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has
often loomed large and loud: 'Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?'
'Why are you joining the voices of dissent?' 'Peace and civil rights don't mix,'
they say. 'Aren't you hurting the cause of your people,' they ask? And when
I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless
greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really
known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that
they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance
to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path
from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church – the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where
I began my pastorate – leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight."
His aim is to unite the protest against civil injustices with the protest against
a policy of violence and domination abroad. You may (King seems to have thought)
– you may, in some imagined logical universe, combine the domestic good and
the foreign evil; but that is not how the minds and feelings of people in practice
function. If it is logically possible to envisage a government that is wise
and just to its own people while being cruel and oppressive toward others, still,
in actuality this is not possible. It does not happen, because human nature
is not formed for such double bookkeeping. People who fancy they can act the
two parts at once are imagining a form of conduct beyond their psychological
King turns now to a practical observation. War is an enemy to the poor in
America. By a terrible compensation we are sending blacks to fight in Vietnam
when we cannot find jobs or justice for them at home. How can he preach non-violence
in America while this process goes forward?
"For those who ask the question, 'Aren't you a civil rights leader?'
and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further
answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, we chose as our motto: 'To save the soul of America.' We were convinced
that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead
affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself
until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles
they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black
bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
"O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!
"Now, it should be incandescently clear 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. It can
never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.
So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led
down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land."
Accordingly, he argues, it is fitting for him to dedicate part of his energy
in the coming months to the protest against the war.
Some people thought his recent statements in criticism of American foreign
policy were an abuse of the impartial honor of his Nobel Prize for Peace. A
man so distinguished, they said, ought not to join a protest movement that might
be seen as fractious or merely parochial. King replies now by saying that
"the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission – a commission to
work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This
is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were
not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the
ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making
of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking
against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant
for all men – for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for
black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten
that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that
he died for them?"
And he goes on to explain his motives in explicitly Christian terms:
"Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of
sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned
especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight
to speak for them.
"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who
deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper
than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions.
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our
nation and for those it calls "enemy," for no document from human hands can
make these humans any less our brothers.
"And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for
ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the
people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not
of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply
of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous
decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will
be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and
hear their broken cries."
Thus in a way exceptional for an American, and for any social critic or prophet,
King moved beyond a protest within his country to a work of conscience he knew
must cross all national boundaries.
As Jesus Christ spoke from a care for what was done to "the least of
these," King looks to a subject neglected by Americans: the history of
suffering by the Vietnamese people.
"They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people
proclaimed their own independence in 1945, after a combined French and Japanese
occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho
Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in
their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided
to support France in its re-conquest of her former colony. Our government felt
then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again
fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international
atmosphere for so long."
In a short summary, he recounts the history of the Vietnamese battle for independence
from 1945 to 1965. What astonishes King about America's conduct after the French
defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, is that, under cover of a client state with
a sham democracy, we chose to make ourselves the successors of the departing
"Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow
Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them
off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social
needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
"So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. 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 twenty 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 out 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?"
Martin Luther King's striking comparison of the Americans in Vietnam to the
Germans in Europe was "extreme" by the standards of American opinion
in 1967; as it would be extreme in our own time to suggest that a similar comparison
is warranted by the use of phosphorous bombs in the second siege of Fallujah
and of psychotropic drugs on terrorist suspects in Guantanamo. To King, the
truth of a perception mattered more than its happy or disagreeable effect on
the listener. This comparison did not, in fact, constitute for him a special
provocation. He presents it as matter of fact: a truth about the way power and
technology, once possessed, are inevitably used in the modern age. The lights
of perverted science assist the experiments and protract the dominance of a
military power that recognizes no restraint.
But King also here implies a subtler thought – implies it so clearly that it
need not be spoken. Unlimited power will do everything it can against those
it has once dehumanized as a "total" enemy (an enemy that is a beast
and also a thing). The brutalization of mind always takes place before the atrocity
in which it proves itself. Nor is the capacity for such acts the attribute of
a single nation or race. The same part of the mind that invented Zyklon B invented
napalm. The same human nature that wanted to use the poison gas as soon as it
saw the ingenuity of the thing also wanted to use the lethal burning jelly.
Destruction has its own momentum and its own fascination. Things built
over ages can be made to vanish in an instant under its annihilating stroke.
That is what happened to the ancient culture, the farms, and the forests of
Vietnam under the unleashed assault of American air power – which, by the end
of the war, would subject a country the size of Italy to more than three times
the tonnage of bombs dropped in all of the Second World War.
"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.
"Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only
solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and
in the concrete of the concentration camps we call 'fortified hamlets.' The
peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds
as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and
raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers."
Thus far, the condemnation has been general, but King now moves to speak of
the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam – both, in 1967, still considered
off limits in public discussion, even though it was generally known that a negotiated
settlement without their participation would be meaningless. Whatever our actions
might say, American intentions, as all Americans agreed, were unselfish; and,
though Vietnam might be the home of the Vietnamese, millions of them had been
grossly deceived and misled. As for the North Vietnamese and the NLF, no good
would ever come from them. Martin Luther King offered a radical challenge to
each of these premises; yet the method (King believed) for showing America the
false conceit of its innocence was to acknowledge the harm done to Vietnam alongside
a catastrophe nearer to home. He speaks of what this war is doing to the American
soldiers who have to fight it:
"I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else.
For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply
the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other
and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they
must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be
fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government
has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely
realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create
a hell for the poor.
"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 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."
King ends this penultimate section by quoting a Buddhist leader who had once
admired the United States but who, from his experience of the war, concluded
that America could never again be a revolutionary country for freedom. Its fate
after Vietnam would be chiefly to be known and feared for its relentless use
of military power.
Having turned from inquest to prophecy, the speech concludes with five specific
proposals. End the bombing; commit the U.S. to a unilateral cease-fire; curtail
the build-up of American troops in Laos and Thailand; recognize the NLF as a
legitimate party in negotiations; and set a date for withdrawal. It took enormous
courage, a now almost unimaginable independence, for a leader so close to established
opinion in America to say these things in April 1967. One year ahead lay the
withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the presidential campaign of 1968, after a
primary in New Hampshire in which the insurgent candidate, Eugene McCarthy,
said far milder things about the Vietnam war than King in "A Time to Break
How would our history, and Vietnam's, have changed had Martin Luther King's
advice been followed in 1967? Many who are dead would have lived. An environment
and a way of a life would have been spared a depth of destruction whose effects
have yet to be fully measured. And the truth of the warning that followed his
proposals would not have become a truth of history: that America (as King put
it) was placing itself on the wrong side of the revolution for freedom throughout
the world. He summoned the words of John F. Kennedy: "Those who make peaceful
revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." The truth
of that axiom seems hardly to have diminished forty years later. With one notable
difference: a substantial portion of American policy makers have now inherited
the Jacobin and Soviet ambition to be the fomenters of violent revolution abroad.
We would know the great Riverside Church oration of April 1967 as the work
only of an inspired reformer and protest leader – not of the moral leader that
Martin Luther King always also was – had it closed with this comment regarding
the ultimate cost of America's policy. Yet the speech looks beyond the Vietnam
war and asks us to consider the wrong of war itself. An end to wars is a cause
to which at least all Christians are called to dedicate themselves. For war
is always the instrument of the powerful. It sharpens the sting of inequality,
and by destruction it steals from the poor the lives they have built. As Christians,
"we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that
will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho
Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten
and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is
more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which
produces beggars needs restructuring.
"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order
and say of war, 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business
of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans
and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally
humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped
and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and
love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military
defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
The doctrine is Christian; and yet King in this speech made sure not to claim
that it was exclusively Christian:
Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.
This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is
beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another,
for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He
that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love." "If we love one another,
God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit
will become the order of the day.
Will Americans (King wondered) live according the morality of the Good Samaritan?
Or will we continue on the path we have taken, and live by the ethics of the
"There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance
or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: 'The moving finger writes, and having
writ moves on.'
"We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace
in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders
on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark,
and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without
compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."
With that final evocation of crisis – adding some favorite verses from James
Russell Lowell about the choices both men and countries face – King left his
audience to their thoughts. One year, to the day, after he delivered this speech,
on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Ask an American about the anti-war speech in Riverside Church – as surprising
in its range of thoughts and as closely argued as anything ever written or spoken
by Martin Luther King – and you are likely to find only the vaguest of recognitions.
Few know more than that there was such a speech. In fact, "A Time
to Break Silence" marked a crossroads in the life of Martin Luther King.
President Johnson never forgave him for breaking ranks; pro-war liberal Democrats
afterward often dissociated themselves from his actions; and a large part of
the civil rights movement deplored his stance as a violation of an unspoken
contract. Civil rights, they thought, was about black Americans, and the cause
of black Americans was civil rights. The violence of the cities had nothing
to do with the violence of the war.
Even some advisers close to King, as Taylor Branch recounts in At Canaan's
Edge, believed that the speech was impolitic – "too advanced,"
"not so balanced" as it should have been; while the political counselor
of President Johnson, John P. Roche, wrote a confidential memorandum saying
that King had "thrown in his lot with the commies." As for the press,
the New York Times judged that King's protest against the war was "wasteful
and self-defeating" and likely to be "disastrous for both causes."
The Washington Post went further. It predicted that many who had once
listened to King with respect "would never again accord him the same confidence";
and it concluded: "He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country,
and his people." Recall that, in his speech, King said that concern for
black Americans had led him to concern for America as a whole, and for the people
of the world. The Post, by its gesture of severance, was returning the
black minister to "his people" with the considered judgment that he
was no longer of much use even to them.
Martin Luther King was disturbed, but cannot have been surprised, by the tenor
of these responses; and in a "Face to Face" television interview on
July 28, when asked directly about the supposed contradiction between his efforts
on behalf of civil rights and in the anti-war movement, he gave his reply:
"I have worked too long now, and too hard to get rid of segregation
in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern.
Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And wherever I see injustice, I'm going to take a stand against it whether it's
in Mississippi or in Vietnam."
He had said something like these words before, but never before so piercingly
Moral courage is rare. Still rarer is the courage to oppose a president who
has helped your cause and the consensus of a party that has supported your cause.
But in April 1967, King had reached a point where he knew that "silence
is betrayal," and he knew that he had to act. He saw that conformity to
the dogma of anti-communism had muffled free discussion in the United States;
that the excuse of ideology had blinded Americans of all colors to the infectiousness
of the violence we practiced. King's greatness, at that moment, did not take
the form of simple civic courage, the performing of a public duty you have come
to expect of yourself. Rather, his was that "more lonely courage"
William James once spoke of – courage which shows itself in leaving a secure
post and taking up one more exposed, because the time and place require your