By Be Scofield
Crossposted from Tikkun Daily
In the wake of the latest Wikileaks releases and the predictable response to them by the powers that be we can look to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of someone who persistently and emphatically rejected the standard fear mongering of the political and media establishment. It wasn’t just his powerful critique of the Vietnam War or U.S. foreign policy that deserves attention. We should also remember his explicit distrust of the government fed sound bytes that were designed to evoke base emotions and win popular support for an often illegal and unethical foreign policy. King was so skeptical of his government that he actually advised, “the more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated our enemies” (emphasis added). The tribalistic demonization of entire groups, whether communists or the Vietnamese people was due partly to, King believed, an America gripped by a “war psychosis” that needed to be confronted head on. He stated, “We must demonstrate, teach and preach until the very foundations of our nation shake.” And while it is speculation or perhaps an educated guess on my part, I believe King may have viewed Wikileaks as one of those necessary forms of protest.
King left a staunchly anti-Imperialist legacy which questioned the very fabric of the American Empire. From his early days in graduate school King wrote of the dangers of the “False God of Nationalism” (PDF) which he referred to as a religion.
The watchword of this new religion is “My country right or wrong.” This new religion has its familiar prophets and preachers. In Germany it was preached by Hitler In Italy it was preached by Mussilini [sic]. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy’s and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.
The preachers of this new religion are so convinced of its supremacy that they are determined to persecute anyone who does not accept its tenets. And so today many sincere lovers of democracy and believers of the Christian principle are being scorned and persecuted because they will not worship the god of nationalism. We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man…
According to King the U.S. was the “largest purveyor of violence in the world.” He criticized its economic policies that made possible the racist Apartheid government of South Africa, denounced the use of American military force to crush people power revolutions in Latin America and spoke out against the dangerous pairing of capitalism and the military industrial complex to exploit third world countries. Capitalism according to King had “outlived its usefulness” and was “like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive.” The triple evils so perpetuated by the U.S. were poverty, racism and war and he boldly used his public position as a religious and moral leader to speak out against them. He sought to bring a direct challenge to “the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long.”
In his critique of the Vietnam War King provided a thorough historical context of the situation to undercut the political myths of his day. He described Ho Chi Minh, the American foe in Vietnam as a selfless and dedicated leader who led a resistance movement against one of many corrupt regimes that the U.S. had propped up. In backing Premier Diem, “our chosen man” in South Vietnam the U.S. “supported one of most vicious modern dictators.” And King acknowledged that our support for Diem came after our previous support for Ky, a mercenary in the French army who thought of Hitler as his greatest hero. He described in detail the U.S. caused death and destruction brought against the Vietnamese institutions of the family and village.
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…They must see Americans as strange liberators.
Given the long history of the struggle for freedom by the Vietnamese people he suggested that we seek to understand the feelings of the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front, the group responsible for killing U.S. forces, while not condoning their actions. So egregious was the U.S. intervention and occupation of Vietnam that King drew a parallel between the Vietnam War and the Holocaust, “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?” He also employed a rather astute analogy that perhaps he believed would resonate strongly with his fellow Americans. He said our invasion of Vietnam was “as if the French and British had come here during the Civil War to fight with the Confederacy.”
After King delivered his speech “Beyond Vietnam” on April 4th, 1967 he faced severe backlash from the highest levels of government, the media establishment and even from some of his fellow civil rights colleagues. The American ruling class was threatened by King’s perfectly legal public protests. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a strong ally in the civil rights movement was apparently “flushed with anger” from King’s “Hanoi” line speech and used racial epithets against him. In a personal conversation with King, Johnson told him that his criticisms of the War were equivalent to King telling him that he had raped his daughter. The FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover warned Johnson, “It is clear that he is an instrument in the hands of subversive forces seeking to undermine our nation.” The labels traitor, communist and treasonous were also applied to King by Hoover and some of his agents (as well as many others). Adam Fairclough describes what happened when Johnson supported increased attacks against King, “the Bureau stepped up its attempts to nullify Kings influence by, among other methods, ‘disseminating’ unfriendly newspaper articles, passing on Bureau-inspired editorials to cooperative editors and publishers, furnishing reporters with ‘embarrassing questions’ for King, and hampering SCLC’s funraising efforts.”
He also faced antagonism and hostility from the establishment press as the majority of newspapers harshly criticized him, some of which predicted his career over. Life magazine editorialized “Much of his speech was demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post described King’s speech as “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy” and said, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country and to his people. And that is a great tragedy.” In an interview on the Mike Douglass television show which is still particularly relevant today, King faced hostile and somewhat patronizing questions but always responded insightfully. Douglass asked, “Don’t you think your remarks have created doubts about the Negroes loyalty to his country?” King brilliantly answered, “I don’t think our loyalty to the country should be measured by our ability to kill.”
King also warned of encroachments of the 1st amendment right to free speech and increasing government oversight, “If Americans permit thought control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.” When Julian Bond was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1965 he was blocked from taking a seat for supporting an SNCC resolution that criticized the war. Both Bond and SNCC were attacked in the press. King came to Bond’s defense stating that the U.S. was “approaching a dangerous totalitarian periphery where dissent becomes synonymous with disloyalty.” He also was concerned that numerous Americans were deeply troubled by U.S. foreign policy but they didn’t “want to be considered unpatriotic” and so remained silent.
King recognized that our invasion of Vietnam, the use of U.S. troops against revolutionary movements in Latin America and our dubious meddling in other countries affairs was “supporting a new form of colonialism…that can only lead to a national disaster.” No amount of firepower could win against the psychological and political defeat that America suffered from its continued reckless and aggressive behaviors. King believed the way to end any hatred and animosity against the U.S. was to address the root of the problem; the “bitter, colossal contest for supremacy” that defined the U.S. Empire. Simply put, King believed America was on the wrong side of the world’s revolutions. In a day when the term communism was the standard tool used for discrediting and demonizing opponents he advised, “We must not engage in anti-Communism…we must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, injustice and racial discrimination.”
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 exactly one year to the date after he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
It’s the Threat That Matters, Not the Method
I’ve placed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of Wikileaks because it is important to remember that it’s usually not the form of protest but the damage that can be done to U.S. foreign policy and interests that determines the response from the ruling political and media classes. If someone had released 250,000 completely benign and superficial diplomatic documents, the act, while being “unacceptable” would most likely illicit a rather negligible response from the powers that be. On the other hand, if someone as powerful as King seeks to “shake the foundations of the nation” and subsequently undermine U.S. foreign policy by only employing perfectly legal means of speech, protest and organizing the highest levels of government will no doubt try to neutralize and destroy him. If either through speech or action you call for a “radical distribution of economic and political power” and think we need to usher in “a new era, which must be an era of revolution” and do so backed with substantial power as King did you will be targeted. The U.S. has a particularly brutal track record of eliminating and bullying people, leaders, governments and movements that threaten its interests. If Julian Assange had somehow been able to achieve the same worldwide effect as the release of the diplomatic cables has by other more “acceptable” methods I’m quite certain that he would still be America’s #1 public enemy.
My other main point is to illustrate that King, who is a widely respected religious and national figure held opinions which are still labeled as anti-American, treasonous or subversive when expressed today. It’s impossible to begin a conversation in the public sphere without being marginalized that correctly roots the cause of terrorist attacks against the U.S. with its own aggressive, ruthless and Imperialistic global agenda (or any of the other issues he raised). King did exactly that by rejecting the dominant narrative and sympathizing with those designated as our enemies and seeking to understand their motivations. The images he saw in Ramparts magazine, one of which was of a Vietnamese women holding her dead baby killed by the U.S. made him realize that despite what his government was telling him these people were no enemies of his. He courageously stood up, spoke his conscience and reminded us that “Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions.”
I hope it’s true as the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer claims that the Wikileaks release has caused “quite specific damage to our war-fighting capacity.” As the U.S. government continues its illegal wars, occupation of foreign countries, repeated lies, failure to prosecute for torture, and its indefinite imprisonment of people without charge Wikileaks is a form of protest that is much needed in the world today.
We cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history’s most cruel and senseless wars. During these days of human travail we must encourage creative dissenters. We need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria…To be honest is to confront the truth, however unpleasant and inconvenient the truth may be. – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.