What Progressives Can Learn From Martin Luther King’s Vietnam Speech

By John Chappell

In 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his eighth State of the Union address with the aim of preparing Congress for increased participation in World War II [1]. Using the lofty language of democracy and freedom, Roosevelt offered a universal moral framework to rally support for the Lend-Lease Act.

In 2019, Roosevelt’s words ring hollow. Roosevelt spoke of external threats to American democracy without acknowledging that he governed a country comprised of a patchwork of political institutions — many of which were profoundly undemocratic by today’s standards. In the American South, less than 5% of voting age black citizens were registered to vote [2]. An intricate web of laws on felony disenfranchisement, literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses stood firmly between black Southerners and political power. For the millions of black Americans who lived under systems of legalized white supremacy, Roosevelt’s call to protect American democracy by supporting democracies overseas must have sounded wholly disconnected from reality.

Rhetoric about democratic values and their implications for US foreign policy often feel empty. Since September 11, 2001, Democrats and Republicans alike have raced to prove that they are tough on terrorism and violated international norms to fight it. However, US counterterrorism policy has failed. Salafi-jihadi groups have spread across the world, finding fertile ground from Nigeria to the Philippines. As the progressive movement finds its footing in Congress and across the country, progressives need a new story to tell about US foreign policy.

From “Make America Great Again” to “Build the Wall,” Donald Trump tells a largely amoral story of transactions between insular nationalist strongholds. Trump’s mercantilist foreign policy brings a new urgency to finding a foreign policy alternative. Only with an original, compelling narrative to frame decisions can progressives effectively challenge the status quo in US foreign policy and compete in the marketplace of ideas come election season. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both offered up visions for progressive foreign policy in speeches at Westminster University and American University. However, their calls to rethink the United States’ place in the world still appeal to traditional political voices like Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Progressives should go farther. The left needs to do better at telling stories about its foreign policy. Progressive leaders ought to dig deeper to find narratives of US foreign policy that show moral authority and strike a contrast with traditional stories about using American power.

As progressive policymakers and speechwriters sift through history in search of fresh stories about the United States’ place in the world, they ought to look for inspiration beyond former presidents and secretaries of state. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s stirring call to end the Vietnam War offers a starting point.

In 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most controversial speeches of his career at Manhattan’s Riverside Church [3]. “Beyond Vietnam” elicited criticism from a broad swathe of American society. Barry Goldwater asserted that it “could border a bit on treason” [4]. The New York Times was one of 168 newspapers that denounced King’s tying civil rights to peace, concluding “Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion” [5][6]. Ralph Bunche called King’s outspoken criticism of the Vietnam war “a very serious tactical error which will do much harm to the civil rights struggle” [7]. However, others praised King’s foray into antiwar activism. John Lewis, who attended the Riverside Church speech, told The New Yorker in 2017 that it was “a speech for all humanity—for the world community” [8]. Lewis, who first heard Dr. King speak as a 15-year-old in Alabama and spoke at the March on Washington alongside King, called “Beyond Vietnam” King’s best speech.

More than half a century has passed since Dr. King uttered the words “a time comes when silence is betrayal” in Riverside Church, but they remain relevant today as we consider the legacy of US policy in Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, and elsewhere. In retrospect, we can now see that King stood firmly on the right side of history.

King’s commitment to justice imbues his narrative with moral authority. “Beyond Vietnam” does more than expose the hypocrisy that President Roosevelt overlooked or ignored— King places the contradictions of American foreign policy front and center. The civil rights leader juxtaposed young black men fighting to “guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

King tied the Vietnam War to domestic concerns about poverty and racial justice. When the US government could have worked on eradicating poverty and progressing towards racial justice, it instead became embroiled in a war of colonial domination turned battleground of the Cold War. As progressives seek to make foreign policy relevant to voters, King’s gives a holistic view of how the US government treats people. For progressives to pursue their ambitious agenda, leaders need to productively engage with the international community without falling into a trap of prolonged military campaigns that are both morally and financially costly.

King also understood that when US foreign policy contradicts American rhetoric, it undermines the country’s reputation abroad. Standing at the pulpit, Dr. King lamented,

“We increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy.”

Quoting a Vietnamese Buddhist leader, King said “The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.” As we come to understand the value of soft power in the United States’ ability to influence world affairs, progressives should prioritize acting in line with declared American values. That means prioritizing people-to-people diplomacy and realizing that a sustainable alliance should rest on a relationship with a country’s citizenry, not a country’s oligarchs and despots.

King’s views on defeating communism offer guidance for today’s ideological struggle against violent extremism. “Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons,” King tells us. Five decades later, his words ring true as we examine the legacy of the war on terror. Today, policymakers must convince voters that violent extremism will never be defeated by the use of drone strikes or Hellfire missiles. Alternatively, Dr. King urged that “we must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy.” In the 21st century, as we face a global democratic backsliding, we need a positive thrust for democracy more than ever [9].

Finally, “Beyond Vietnam” highlights King’s deep concern with global inequality. In envisioning a “true revolution of values” in the United States, King says that a moral revolution will “look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, 'This is not just.’” Progressives, who have espoused a deep concern about wealth and income inequality within the United States, should follow King’s example and apply the same reasoning on a global scale. On an increasingly interconnected planet, the persistence of extreme poverty in coexistence with decadent wealth cannot sustain itself.

Martin Luther King was not a policymaker. He did not face the pressures of reelection campaigns and constituent demands. King’s historical context meant that he did not have to answer questions about humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Rwanda, or Libya. In order to craft a full narrative about how the United States ought to act in the international community, progressives will need to draw from other sources as well. As they search for new stories about foreign policy, progressives should look among the dissenters who advocated for more just policy at critical points in the 20th century, even when doing so was unpopular. But we also need Dr. King’s uncompromising, coherent moral framework. Martin Luther King offers progressives a cogent, authoritative critique of how the US government treats the disempowered, both at home and abroad. As progressives find their voice on foreign policy, King’s global moral vision offers a starting point.


John Chappell is a senior at the University of Mississippi where he is pursuing a double major in International Studies and Arabic.

Works Cited

[1] Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. "Transcript of President Franklin Roosevelt's Annual Message (Four Freedoms) to Congress (1941)." Our Documents - Interstate Commerce Act (1887). Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=70&page=transcript.

[2] Costly, Andrew. "Race and Voting in the Segregated South." Constitutional Rights Foundation. Accessed December 29, 2018. http://www.crf-usa.org/brown-v-board-50th-anniversary/race-and-voting.html.

[3] King, Martin Luther, Jr. "Beyond Vietnam." The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. April 04, 1967. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.

[4] Knight, Christina. "Martin Luther King's Most Controversial Speech: Beyond Vietnam." PBS Thirteen. September 1, 2017. Accessed January 02, 2019. https://www.thirteen.org/blog-post/martin-luther-kings-most-controversial-speech-beyond-vietnam/.

[5] “The Story Of King's 'Beyond Vietnam' Speech." NPR. March 30, 2010. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125355148.

[6] "Dr. King's Error." The New York Times. April 07, 1967. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/1967/04/07/archives/dr-kings-error.html

[7] "Bunche, Ralph Johnson." The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. August 07, 1904. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/bunche-ralph-johnson.

[8] Hedin, Benjamin. "Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s Searing Antiwar Speech, Fifty Years Later." The New Yorker. June 19, 2017. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/martin-luther-king-jr-s-searing-antiwar-speech-fifty-years-later.

[9] "Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat." The Economist. January 31, 2018. Accessed December 29, 2018. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/01/31/democracy-continues-its-disturbing-retreat.