Today Obama enjoys his inauguration bash. It is also Martin Luther King Day, and the president was sworn in on the Civil Rights leader’s own Bible.
Across the spectrum, Americans celebrate King’s Civil Rights leadership. Yet he was just as prophetic and bold in opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam. He is less remembered for this, perhaps because it’s much easier for the government to co-opt the cause of racial equality, given the Civil Rights Act and other laws passed since, than it is for the government to co-opt his principled opposition to war, an issue that exposes the violent, destructive, and illiberal nature of federal power.
In recognition of King’s legacy, I would recommended readers peruse his stirring April 4, 1967, speech in New York, where he criticized American political leaders for grandstanding on domestic unrest while perpetuating far worse criminality in Vietnam. King condemned American war-making and concluded that until it is addressed, America’s internal problems with racism and violence would persist:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
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:
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.
Not only has Obama failed utterly to rein in institutional racial inequality in the United States—instead intensifying the drug war and escalating deportations of illegal aliens—he has widened the indefinite war on terror to ever more theaters abroad. He tripled the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, vastly expanded the prison camp there, and started a unilateral war in Libya. He bombed Yemen and intervened in Somalia. He is on the brink of direct war in Syria and has tightened deadly sanctions on Iran. He has targeted American citizens for assassination and greatly escalated the drone bombings in Pakistan, killing thousands of civilians and hundreds of children. His policies have in multiple ways fueled the drug war violence in Mexico that has taken fifty thousand lives.
Progressive Democrat Lyndon Johnson had more blood on his hands than does Progressive Democrat Barack Obama—so far—and if we look at the brutality of some democidal regimes throughout the world, the United States has some worthy competition for the distinction as “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” But if you consider the sheer size of the American state, the authority it claims over most of the globe, the list of countries it has bombed, sanctioned, or bullied, the surveillance powers, the nuclear arsenal, the unparalleled defense establishment, the burgeoning prison population and militarized domestic policing, the U.S. government is sure on the short list of major belligerents.
I don’t agree with everything Martin Luther King did or said, but I surely do agree that America will never get its house in order so long as it’s an empire at perpetual war. This kind of mass violence breeds conflict at home and worsens nearly every domestic problem, including the violence involving firearms that Obama has purported to address with new legislation.
The year after King’s speech, Lyndon Johnson signed the Gun Control Act of 1968. It did virtually nothing to disarm criminals, of course, but it did make lawbreakers our of peaceful Americans while stripping everyday people of the means to protect themselves. Obama seeks to go much further, pushing the most significant expansion of federal gun control legislation since at least the New Deal.
Instead of disarming the American people and giving police and prosecutors yet one more tool to throw people in prison, Obama should follow King’s advice and stop contributing to mass violence himself. These wars only perpetuate the never-ending cycle of violence. It was, after all, U.S. Cold War intervention that helped give rise to radical Islam and terrorism in the Muslim world. Who knows what extremist violence Obama’s drones are inciting? Peace with the rest of the world would also go far in encouraging Americans to seek freedom and domestic tranquility, allowing a monumental reduction in government power and taxation, which a cynic might say is a big reason Obama doesn’t seek peace.
King prescribes several immediate steps the United States should take, including:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
I would carry over this advice to the present day: the United States ought to end all bombing of Pakistan and elsewhere, declare a unilateral ceasefire, and reverse the military buildup throughout the Muslim world.
Eventually, the United States left Vietnam in shameful defeat, having failed to stop Communism there, and having bombed Cambodia so terribly so as to give rise to Communism in that country in the form of the Khmer Rouge. Had Americans taken King’s advice in 1967, millions of people would have been spared. I only wish Americans would take his antiwar advice today. To do so requires demystifying Obama and his government. They are not the embodiment of Civil Rights. They are not the solution to domestic crime. They are, instead, among the “greatest purveyors of violence in the world.” How dare Obama tout King’s legacy today in celebration of his earth-shaking power, only to return to his office and carry out the very kind of violent hypocrisy that King so eloquently condemned?