Beyond Vietnam [Iraq]: A Time to Break Silence
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Updated)
January 28, 2005

If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he might proclaim: "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read [Iraq]. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. They ask how we can speak of free elections when the [Baghdad] press is censored and controlled by the military junta."
On April 4, 1967, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a historic speech at New York's Riverside Church entitled, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." This is, quite possibly, the least well known of Dr. King's speeches but it is among his most important declarations. Dr. King was assassinated a year to the day after delivering this powerful challenge to the military-industrial machine.

In this posting, we have updated the 37-year-old speech by substituting the word "Iraq" for "Vietnam" and the word "terrorism" for "communism." The result is a document that seems to speak from the grave and carries a chilling resonance to our times.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice... "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to [Iraq].

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.

Some of us 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. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history...

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 [Iraq], 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 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? ...

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to [Al Qaeda] or to the [Insurgency]. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of [Iraq]. Neither is it an attempt to make [Al Qaeda] or the [insurgents] paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they can play in a successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reason to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give-and-take on both sides....

Credit: The-Edge
The Importance of [Iraq]
There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in [Iraq] and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago, there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor -- both black and white -- through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings.

Then came the buildup in [Iraq] and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like [Iraq] continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such...

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them [2,000] miles away to guarantee liberties in [the Middle East] which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem...

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about [Iraq]? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and 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 hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent...

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 [Iraq]. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over...

Strange Liberators
And as I ponder the madness of [Iraq] and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that [region]. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in [Baghdad], but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost [14 years] 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.

They must see Americans as strange liberators.... The only change came from America as 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 regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us -- not their fellow [Iraqis] -- the real enemy....

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 20 casualties from American firepower for one ["insurgent"]-inflicted injury. So far, we may have killed [more than 100,000] of them -- mostly children....

What do they think as we test 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 [Iraq] we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones? ....

Now there is little left to build on -- save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases.... The [Iraqis] may well wonder if we plan to build our new [Iraq] on such grounds as these? ...

Perhaps the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies.... Surely we must understand their feelings even if we do not condone their actions....

What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of [Iraq] and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will have no part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the [Baghdad] press is censored and controlled by the military junta.

And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them -- the only party in real touch with the [Sunni population] .... Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence when it helps us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition and, if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition....

I am as deeply concerned about our troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what 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..., the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create hell for the poor.

This Madness Must Cease
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of [Iraq]. 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 [Iraq]. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours...

Recently one of [the leaders of the occupied country] wrote these words:

Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the heart of the [Iraqi people] and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in [Iraq]. It will become clear that our minimal expectation is to occupy it as an American colony and men will not refrain from thinking that our maximum hope is to goad [Iran] into a war so that we may bomb her nuclear installations. If we do not stop our war against the people of [Iraq] immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horribly 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 [Iraq], that we have been detrimental to the life of the [Iraqi] people...

I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

  1. End all bombing in [Iraq].
  2. Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
  3. Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in [the Middle East] by curtailing our military buildup in [the region] and our interference in [Iran].
  4. Realistically accept the fact that the [insurgency] has substantial support in [Iraq] and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and in any future [Iraqi] government.
  5. Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from [Iraq].
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in [Iraq] 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.

The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

The full "updated" version can be read at:

Dr. King's original speech can be read in its entirety at:

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