Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Backlash

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Sacks, Milton. (April 1967). "An Answer to Dr. Martin Luther King on Vietnam." Speech given in New York, NY. Part of the Schomburg Center Oral History Tape Collection.

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"It is a great pleasure for me to have this opportunity to come and talk with you on the issue of Vietnam. It is in a sense with a heavy heart that I disagree with that great American, Martin Luther King. His services in the struggle for civil rights are beyond dispute. He has richly merited the praise he's received and inspired leadership, in his effort to realize his dream which is the collective goal of all Americans who believe in justice and equality.

In disagreeing with Martin Luther King, I do not do so in order to join the issue of whether it is correct for him to mix the areas of peace and civil rights. He has every reason and right to speak out on any or all great issues that confront the American people. Both as a man of the cloth in his chosen vocation and as a citizen leader of a democratic nation.

My quarrel is with the content of his speech as directed at the great issue of Vietnam. I feel that he has done a disservice to the American people, the Vietnamese people, and to the cause of peace in a troubled world by the position he has taken. And I propose to deal with the major points that he raised in his address here at the Riverside Church, which may be summarized as reflecting partly the domestic effect of the Vietnamese War in the United States and the special burden that this struggle in Vietnam imposes on the Negro people as he sees it... Negro Americans. The issue of peace and pacifism and nonviolent action, in terms of the Vietnamese situation, and then of course the very troubled problem of the origins of the Vietnamese War. The involvement of the Americans therein and lastly, and most importantly, the response to that situation in terms of the struggle for peace in the world and the putting to an end of this terribly destructive war that exists in Vietnam.

Let me begin first by taking up the issue of the domestic effect of the Vietnamese War on American life. Because it seems to me that here Reverend King has made some fundamental errors in his treatment of the situation. Reverend King stated that "a nation that spends more on defense year after year than on social uplift is approaching spiritual death." And it is true that the heavy burden of arms and armament in the world is a very, very grievous burden for us to bear. But that is brought about not because of any desire on the part of Americans or on the part of other peoples to consecrate themselves to death rather than life, but by virtue of the fact that the world is divided along ideological lines. It is divided in terms of the struggles between states in ways that we have to cope with if we are to maintain the peace of the world.

The peace of the world is fragile and security arrangements existing through the United Nations and other arrangements are far from perfect in maintaining the peace of the world. A good deal of what the United States has done in the period including World War II and since then is a demonstration of the American willingness to devote its energies and its efforts and its treasure and its blood, to progress in the world, to economic development in the world, and to maintaining extraordinary defense burdens, where other states were unable to do so where these states are partners with us in the effort to maintain free institutions in the world we live in.

When Dr. King suggests that domestically the effect of the Vietnamese War is to put an end to all of the efforts in the war against poverty, when he tries to suggest that in fact what we have done is scrapped our great effort to deal with the problems of the poorer sections of our population.

I would like to suggest that he is not explaining and making sense to the American people about the program of the war on poverty and what in fact our government is doing. The percentage of the gross national product which we are today devoting to national defense is no greater today in the midst of a serious war effort than it was in 1961. There is no question but that all our domestic programs are greater and our capacity to support them continues to grow. The arguments made by those who wish to cut back in the struggle against poverty based on the war against Vietnam, are arguments that those very same people would raise if we did not have the war in Vietnam. The fact of the matter is that the conservative swing-back in American politics is testimony not to the inability of the American nation in terms of its gross national product, to wage the war against poverty on a still greater scale than what we are now doing but rather a testimony to the lack of will on the part of many in the United States to deal with those questions because we do have the means and the wherewithal to carry on such a struggle.

I suggest to you who are here that you need but look at the freedom budget that has been prepared by people such as Bayard Rustin and with the help of economists like Leon Keisling and where there is great support in an effort to develop a fighting program in the struggle against poverty on a still higher level because we are doing a big job even at the present levels, but to improve that struggle and making it possible even with what we have to do in Vietnam.

So I would like to suggest that it is not the war on Vietnam that deprives us from continuing and from expanding our efforts in the domestic program but rather the lack of will on the part of a portion of our leadership and the necessity of those of us who believe in expanding this program to bring to their attention the fact that we will not allow them to abate the efforts that are being made to eliminate poverty in our nation.

The second aspect that Dr. King has called attention to has to do with the disproportionate suffering that is inflicted on the Negroes in America as a consequence of their participation in the War in Vietnam. And he says that twice as many Negroes as whites are in combat in Vietnam and Negroes are dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam.

And I submit to you that this is not an accurate presentation of what in fact is happening in Vietnam. As of last November the total strength of the army was 1.3 million men of whom 163, 000 or 11.7% were Negroes. Negroes comprise 11% of the United States population. In Vietnam Negro strength in the army divisions and independent brigades ranges from a low of 11.1% to a high of 22.5%. The highest percentage are in the special air borne units. Many Negroes volunteer for service in these elite units. Also the higher enlistment rates of Negroes, 66.5% as compared as to 20% for whites produces a higher percentage of Negroes among the middle ranks of career enlisted men. And that accounts in part for a slightly higher number of Negroes being killed in the War in Vietnam than would normally be the case in terms of the proportion. If we look at the statistics of those killed in the war, there were 6,609 Americans killed in action in Vietnam from 1961 through 1966. Of these, 1,048, or 15.9%, were Negroes.

I submit to you that that statistic clearly refutes the allegation and the charge made by Reverend King after the disproportionate amount of Negroes who were suffering as of a consequence of our war in Vietnam. Now there is a very intimate connection between what we do at home and what we do abroad in our life. There's no question about that. But we cannot separate the one from the other, nor postpone acting on one while we deal with problems in the other. Our struggle for social justice at home and for building a durable peace in the world is a struggle that goes on at the same time. And it is very difficult to argue the position that as long as we have an imperfect society in the United States, it therefore follows that we have no vocation to do anything abroad. Because a moments reflection will indicate to you that if you do not carry on with the program abroad, if we do not involve ourselves in the work of the United Nations, of the international agency devoted to strengthening the ties between states, if we do not underscore and build the defense capabilities of those in the world who maintain free institutions and want to build a kind of a world that we believe in, a free world. If we don't do that, we prejudice even our imperfect society at home and its existence. You cannot separate these two things.

And the fact of the matter is that we must carry on both at the same time. The problems that we have in the United States were with us in the Korean War and they were with us in World War II. And I would like to suggest that both of those conflicts required us to participate therein. And to do what we could to establish in one instance a world free of the menace of Hitlerism and fascism and in the second instance to ensure that the arrangements made through international organization to maintain the peace of Asia should be upheld and that we could not forego doing these things simply because of the fact that we are far from a perfect society in the United States. This is an obligation that we must do in any case.

This leads me to the issue of nonviolent action and peace and pacifism. And I would like to contend that Reverend King has every reason in the world, in terms of his moral approach to the issues that confront us, to be a pacifist. That is his right, if he sees it in that context. And he ought to demonstrate the value of such approaches to problems that we live in…in the world that we live in. But the difficulty lies in the fact that the approach that he takes is not shared by many people, either in the United States or in the world.

We live in a world where free men cannot survive without mastering the techniques of violence, even granting the arguments that pacifists make, which are very strong in terms of the effect of engaging in violence on us in terms of our own personalities and our abilities to realize our highest values. But we have to, I would argue, because I am not a pacifist, operate on the assumption that we can eschew violent means when others use violence against us. And this is one of the hard and bitter facts of the world that we live in.

But I would like to go on for a minute, those who eschew violence, those who say that we do not choose on the basis of pacifism, cannot have their favorite wars, nor can they have their favorite sides. I am perfectly prepared to hear from Reverend King that we were wrong in participating in World War II, that we were wrong in participating in the Korean War, that we are wrong in participating in the Vietnam War. If he wants to practice what pacifists are supposed to practice, an evenhanded condemnation of both sides for the violence that they were engaged in. And because he believes that the outcome of the war, in terms of the resort to violence by either side will be worse than the world that will emerge after one has used violent means. I would like to suggest to you that we had every reason, because I am not a pacifist, for participating in World War II. And we had every reason to participate in the Korean War and I think we have every reason to participate in this war. And that the results of all of those conflicts will have been to lower the recourse to violence and to maintain the institutions in the world at large that will lead to mutual reconciliation of peoples in a structure of peace because that what we are engaged in in foreign affairs.

From there I therefore wish to turn to the issue of Vietnam directly. Because here in a whole series of events, Reverend King has misrepresented our position and the position of the Vietnamese with respect to the historical reasons that he advances and with respect to the actual conduct of the war in Vietnam.

First of all, let me begin with the origins of the war as Reverend King sees it. Reverend King suggests that in 1945 that the situation was simply the following: that the Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 and they were led, he says, 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.

Now let me say at this point, that I was an opponent of support to France in 1946 all through 1954, in that period. I criticized American policy insofar as it was in support of France, in that area. But it is not true to say in an unabashed half-truth fashion that we supported France in its re-conquest of her former colony and our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence. That is not true. And as a critic of American policy during that period, and having left the State Department because I did not like American policy during that period, I want to make it perfectly clear that this was not the criticism that I made of the American government, nor is it a fair criticism to make at that point.

The United States was confronted by a duel problem. On the one hand the policy makers understood that the Vietnamese were ready for independence. And on the other hand they recognized that the Vietnamese government was dominated by a communist minority. And that communist minority had in fact, as all historians have demonstrated, it's a matter of common knowledge, had systematically excluded and murdered the leaders of noncommunist nationalism in Vietnam in a unilateral effort to establish their control over the nationalist movement. And they simultaneously purged the nationalists from leadership from the Vietnam independence struggle at the same time that they established totalitarian controls over the Viet Minh, the league for independence of Vietnam at that point.

So the United States government was faced with a duel problem. How does one deal with a communist led independence movement at the same time that it understands and knows that there is a basis for the independence of the Vietnamese people in terms of a free Vietnam. The consequence of this was, given the post-war division of the world into two blocs and the emergence of a communist led movement in Vietnam, the American State Department decided to throw its efforts, or to give some support to the French in their moving back into Vietnam.

But it is true to say that we brought pressure throughout all of those eight years, in my opinion inadequate pressure, but pressure we brought to ensure that the French would give independence to the Vietnamese. In fact in the early period of that struggle, '45, '46, the Americans attempted to dissuade the French from going to war against the democratic Republic of Vietnam and we favored negotiations between the DRV, between Ho Chi Minh and the French. And we brought pressure on them to realize that. But they did not listen to our counsels.

Subsequently, under great pressure from the United States, step by step, because of the internal situation as well in Vietnam, they began to give freedom to the Vietnamese, so that by Geneva 1954, there was an independent state of Vietnam in existence under Vietnamese nationalist leadership as distinct from Vietnamese communist leadership. And that explains why the Geneva agreement was what it was and why it divided the country the way it did, and I want to say a few words about that as well.

What happened in 1954? According to Reverend King, as he puts it, let me quote, he says, "These men in Vietnam led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs. And then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the 13th and 17th parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with him to prevent elections which would have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again."

That is not an accurate picture of what happened at Geneva in 1954. Let me state the historical facts once more. In 1954 it was not the communists who wanted a united Vietnam, but on the contrary, it was the national government of Vietnam, the state of Vietnam, through its foreign minister [tran von do], who suggested that instead of dividing Vietnam at the 17th parallel, that Vietnam be placed under trusteeship for a period of six months at which time free elections would take place in all Vietnam, guaranteed by the United Nations, through its establishment of free conditions in that troubled country for a period of six months. And that this guarantee was necessary, even where it meant giving up sovereignty of Vietnam that they had already achieved in international terms. That that was necessary because you could not allow the communists to rule the country and expect to have freedom inside that country in a choice of institutions.

That's what was proposed in 1954 by the man who is currently the foreign minister of the state of the Republic of Vietnam. And he proposed this in order not to divide the country at the 17th parallel. It was the communists who were prepared at that time and who insisted, "No! We will divide the country into two zones, and we will establish our rule in the northern zone," and by the way, they did not have control of all of the area from the 13th to the 17th parallel.

And in fact this was an international agreement designed to separate the contending forces, French and Vietnamese, and also nationalist Vietnamese versus communist Vietnamese, in 1954 in order to ensure peace in that troubled area. A political settlement was realized in 1954 which divided the nationalists from the communists in Vietnam and assigned to each of them zones in which they could build their respective Vietnams. And the assumption was, that under no conditions would there be an attempt to reunify the country by force. The only thing the Geneva convention provided was that, given the temporary character of the division, in the hope for reunification, that peaceful measures, including free elections, would reunify Vietnam, hopefully in a two year period.

Now the fact of the matter is again that the United States was in favor of the Diem regime negotiating the issue of free elections with Ho Chi Minh. The Diem regime was against negotiating those elections because, their argument was, there was no basis for discussing free elections with the northern government which did not have the conditions for freedom in the north that would make possible free elections. That was their formal position. The position of the United States government was that you ought to discuss the arrangement of elections in any case because in the course of those arrangements it would be made perfectly clear that free elections could not take place. The Diem government, which was a sovereign government, recognized by at least 40 states in the international community, refused to prejudice its future existence on an election which could not be free given the fact that a [???gevesi] in North Vietnam would be under the control of a communist government that allows no freedom in North Vietnam and so it refused to discuss reunification.

The fact that it refused to discuss reunification does not provide the basis for the communists to take unilateral action, to unify the country by force. The most that it could afford them to do, would be the reconvening of the Geneva Conference powers to re-discuss the question of what can be done about a divided Vietnam under circumstances where there is no will on the part of one or another of the two zones to negotiate a free election in Vietnam, and there is dispute over this matter. No such effort to reconvene the Geneva Conference was made. And I repeat again, this was not a matter that the Vietnamese were supposed to settle by themselves, but a matter which was in fact decided for the Vietnamese, just as in the case of divided Germany, just as in the case divided Korea.

You cannot have a unilateral action by one side or another on the grounds that it does not like what the other side is doing with respect to unification of the country, to therefore take up arms and endanger the peace of the world. That's one of the tragedies of the present situation. And I am here trying to make the point that the only recourse that either side could have had, would be the reconvening of the Geneva Conference powers, and their deciding what could be done to settle this problem of unification. The fact that the communists chose to use violent means by sponsoring a liberation movement in South Vietnam is a breach, in the fundamental sense of the desire of the international community and of the Vietnamese themselves, I might say, with respect to the issue of war. That is the historical record and Reverend King is wrong in that connection.

Let me go on with respect to his characterization of how the Vietnamese people see the United States and how the Vietnamese people regard the War in Vietnam. He says that the government in Vietnam is a government, as he calls it, that are 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 Vietnamese, the real enemy. And I would like to suggest to you this is a highly exaggerated picture of how the Vietnamese people see the Americans. They do not see us, I repeat again, they do not see us as the real enemy, as opposed to their fellow Vietnamese.

And let me quote to you from the CBS poll that was taken, not by the United States government, but by independent methods in Vietnam, to find out what the Vietnamese people think about the issue of war and peace. Let me read to you from Mr. Cummingwood of CBS. First, we shall look at how the South Vietnamese regard the Viet Cong. A question on whom is to blame for the continuation of the war, drew these responses. Only two percent blame the Saigon government and three percent blame the United States. But three out of ten blame the Viet Cong. one out of eight names North Vietnam and nearly one out of five puts the blame on communist China. One third simply doesn't know who to blame. But the sentiment is overwhelmingly anti-communist. three out of five place the blame on the communist alliance. Only one out of twenty blame Saigon or the Americans. It is interesting to note however, that more than two and a half times as many people blame the Viet Cong as blame the North Vietnamese. This may help to explain as well, a strong desire for unification with the north at war's end. Although this desire was usually qualified with the observation that any post-war central government ought to be non-communist.

Not only did the people overwhelmingly reject the notion that they might be better off under the Viet Cong, nobody thinks they would. And nine out of ten feel they'd be better off under the Saigon government. There is very little indecisiveness on this question. Only three percent says that it doesn't matter and only seven percent say they don't know under whom they'd be better off. And people in the security [secureier?] areas, also want no part of the Viet Cong National Liberation Front in any post-war government in South Vietnam. That I submit to you is an accurate picture of what the South Vietnamese people feel about the issue of blaming one side or the other and how they react to this effort by the Viet Cong to establish unilaterally their power in South Vietnam. There is an issue where I believe that the Reverend King has not presented the situation properly.

He hasn't presented it properly also from another point of view. Because in the course of his speech he makes it seem as if, in the overthrow of Diem, all this was was a change accomplished without any real popular manifestation on the part of the Vietnamese people. What is interesting is that the Viet Cong carried on its struggle after Diem was overthrown against the successor government. And that the very force which the Reverend King refers to, as a force that he calls the only non-communist revolutionary force.

The Buddhists in Vietnam supported the successive government in South Vietnam. In fact, two members of the Buddhist lay leadership in Vietnam, the two most prominent political leaders of the Buddhist lay leadership were members of the government in Vietnam from January 1964 on through October 1964. Subsequently, when the civilian government under the leadership of Dr. [Phon We Quot] came into existence, the Buddhists supported that government as well. The truth of the matter is that the Buddhist attitude has been, "We want a free Vietnam, free of communist influence in South Vietnam. We do not wish the Viet Cong to rule or the National Liberation Front, which to [Tree Quong], the Buddhist leader, is indistinguishable from Hanoi and the communist movement in Vietnam. We do not want them to rule us. What we are arguing about is who shall rule in South Vietnam. Shall it be the generals who rule, or a combination of generals and civilians, or a civilian administration in which we the Buddhists play an important and decisive role." That's what the argument is for the Buddhists, not an argument against the representative need, the representativeness of, or the need for, a representative government in South Vietnam.

And I would like to suggest there that the Reverend King is not giving you a correct picture of what is true about Vietnam, and I'll return to that in just a minute or two when I deal with the question of the constituent assembly. The Reverend King has of course accused us, in terms that are extremely………….[END SIDE ONE]

...and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe. To equate what the United States is doing in Vietnam as to what the Nazis did in the concentration camps, in that systematic campaign of genocide which saw well over six million people incinerated, is something that is a disservice and a charge that can only lend weight to the worst kind of communist propaganda directed against the United States.

We are not testing out new medicine and new tortures as the Nazis did in the concentration camps of Europe, in Vietnam. We are not doing that, I would like to suggest, and there is no evidence for that statement. "We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions, the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops." This is not an accurate statement about what has happened in Vietnam.

And the figure of one million acres of land destroyed by de-foliation is not accurate, any more than the figure of a million children, either being disfigured by napalm, which Reverend King has not made, but others have made, but the statement that a million children may have been killed in Vietnam is also not an accurate picture of the casualties that have been suffered by that civilian population. And when I say this, I do not wish to justify for one moment the death of even a single person as a consequence of war, in a moral sense. That is one of the harsh facts and realities of any war that civilians do get killed.

But you have to have some sense of what it is that is really going on. And you have to have some sense of what it is that the American army, the American authorities, and the Vietnamese army are trying to do. Along with the Koreans and Australians and others who are there. They are not out to commit genocide in Vietnam, they are out to defend the population of Vietnam and its right to independent existence, and the statistics do not bear out the figure of one million. And I challenge those who oppose the war to demonstrate either the disfigurement of a million or, in terms of napalming children, or the death of a million children.

Civilian casualties are probably somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty to a hundred thousand at most in Vietnam. If somehow the estimates that have been made, are by reliable people are to be accepted. And that is way out of proportion to that which is suggested about the situation. Now I said I would talk about the people of Vietnam. The significant fact about Vietnam is that despite the existence of a military government, that is to say the generals who wish to rule Vietnam, an election which originally was called for by the Buddhists, was held and a constituent assembly was elected in Vietnam, which saw well over five million people register at the polls and well over eighty percent of those people vote in the election, and the emergence of an assembly which is anti-military in its overwhelming majority.

The constitution that was adopted in South Vietnam and that constitution which has set up, which was set up by the constituent assembly, is a reflection of anti-military organization in Vietnam and the desire and will of the civilian population. This is an indisputable fact as one looks at the Vietnamese situation. You need but go back to the papers and see the amount of pressure exercised by the ruling junta against the constituent assembly in the effort to get a constitution which they would like to have and then see how the assembly voted, the document they drew up, and the fact that in the last analysis it was the generals who capitulated to the will of the assembly, rather than the other way around. And that demonstrates the wisdom of the people of South Vietnam, who are determined that their voice will be heard in that assembly and in the subsequent government that will emerge in Vietnam as a result of elections in September and October of 1967.

Lastly, and I want to finish because I want to leave time for questions, the Reverend King misrepresents our intentions in Vietnam, when he says for example that it is our minimal intention to occupy Vietnam as a colony and there are some who argue that our maximum intention is to use this war as a means of going to war against communist China.

That is not correct. And if one turns to the negotiating position of the United States, and the whole issue of paths to peace in Vietnam, let me suggest to you that this is the position of the United States with respect to the War in Vietnam. First of all, as far as the issue of representation of the National Liberation Front in the negotiations that we foresee. The truth is that the American government has made it appropriately clear, that there will be no difficulty in assuring an appropriate role for the National Liberation Front in negotiations. And that the American government has made it clear, even further, that it does not seek to exclude any political tendency in South Vietnam, from playing its part in the political life of the country.

As for a place of the National Liberation Front in the future Vietnamese government, this remains a matter for decision of the Vietnamese themselves through free elections and other steps in a democratic political process. That is the official American position with respect to the NLF in Vietnam. With respect to the issue of bombing, that the Reverend King raised, the issue is not just simply the ending of rural bombing on both sides. That is to say as the Reverend King calls, "end all bombing in North and South Vietnam and declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create an atmosphere for negotiations."

There is no evidence, and this is the official American position, again as I understand it, that the American government feels that such unilateral action would have any effect other than to increase the casualty rates of American soldiers in Vietnam. That there will be no response from Hanoi or from the National Liberation Front if there is a unilateral cessation of bombing in North and South Vietnam. But that rather the reverse would be true. That the communists would use such a cause, as they have three times in the past, to increase their efforts in the war for victory as they see it. It is not correct to say, that the United States has not responded to peace offers, I would argue the reverse is true. And that the peace offer which Reverend King alleges was one that was not responded to was not a peace offer at all. Because back there in 1965, when the Hanoi government offered us peace, it offered us peace, and the NLF offered us peace, on the basis that we get out of Vietnam. On the basis that they win a complete victory in advance of negotiations. The negotiations would have been simply designed to prepare the exodus of the United States from South Vietnam and the conditions where there would be a National Liberation Front government and a complete victory for Hanoi.

And I would like to suggest to you that it is in the things that Dr. King did not say that the truth to keep the peace in Vietnam exists. The fact that the Johnson government did make peace initiatives to Ho Chi Minh, that it tried to meet the requirements set down by the British government and in part the Soviet government. That it was Ho Chi Minh who revealed the correspondent that anybody who is of a fair mind would have to admit with a sincere effort by the President of this country to negotiate with North Vietnam and with the NLF. That was not wrong.

And I would like to submit to you, it was the United States that replied favorably to the initiatives taken by U Thant in order to try to put an end to this war by a cease-fire and all the other steps that would possibly lead to peace and the South Vietnamese government also responded favorably to that initiative. Conditionally it is true. I would prefer that they responded unconditionally, but they at least could have been the steps towards peace in Vietnam.

But it was Hanoi and the NLF who contemptuously turned down the demands of U Thant in this connection. And given that as the situation, I do not see why the Reverend King talks as he does about the United States in the context of the War in Vietnam when it is quite clear that we are committed to an honorable peace, based on the self-determination of the Vietnamese people. And I suggest to you that that commitment, is a commitment which we as a free people, and as a free nation have every reason in the world to honor. Thank you."

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