Many of us are watching the PBS documentary on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Kovick. I have watched the first five episodes. I agree with Burns and Kovick that the issues raised by their documentary are relevant today.
The horror of the war prompted me to go to my files and pull out a dissertation by Dennis R. Koehn, MDIV, PhD: Psychology, Theology, and Ideology Shape Decisions on War and Peace: A Study of Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Vietnam War. Written in 2015, the dissertation’s focus is on the influence of religion on political decisions pertaining to war and peace. I was struck by the similarity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy – their philosophy and the cogent and poetic way they expressed themselves. Both were Christian. Christians were split between traditional conservatives and liberals. JFK was raised Catholic in Massachusetts; MLK was raised protestant in Alabama. Both had powerful fathers; MLK’s was a fundamentalist. King wrote: “The shackles of fundamentalism were removed from my body (Koehn p. 209).”
Following are quotes from these two leaders that I found inspirational. They are taken from Koehn’s dissertation; their sources will be in the references at the end of this blog.
MLK and JFK were concerned with all Americans, including whites of all classes.
JFK: “Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not a peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children – not merely a peace for Americans but a peace for all men and women – not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.” (Commencement Address, American University, Washington D.C., June 10, 1963).
JFK continues his speech: “So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved…And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
MLK: “The strong man holds in a living blend strongly marked opposites…life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony (Strength in Love book, 1963)
MLK: “Authentic Christian faith for King had to have an impact on the everyday life of the poor and oppressed in this world (Koehn, p. 203)
MLK and JFK did not believe humans were inherently evil even though their actions might be.
MLK: “I was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason (Pilgrimage to Nonviolence).”
MLK: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racisms and war, that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant (Nobel prize speech in Washington, Dec, 1964). Koehn, p. 210. “I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, laying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.” (Koehn, p.224)
MLK: “In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence (Pilgrimage to Nonviolence).”
MLK speaking about men who do evil: “They do not know what they do. Blindness was their trouble; enlightenment was their need.”
JFK: “We cannot ‘require that each man love his neighbor.’ But he did see a world within human grasp where people ‘live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement (Koehn, p. 171).” University speech continued: “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue. As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity. But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements – in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage…No nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War. At least 20 million lost their lives. Countless millions of homes and farms were burned or sacked. A third of the nation’s territory, including two thirds of its industrial base, was turned into a wasteland – a loss equivalent to the destruction of this country east of Chicago. (University Speech continues)”’ “Catholic political theorist James Douglass characterized the impact of this speech in the Soviet Union: ‘JFK’s identification with the Russian people’s suffering penetrate their government’s defenses far more effectively than any missile could have.’ The full text of the speech was published in the Soviet press. It was broadcast and re-broadcast. The Soviets suddenly agreed in talks in Vienna, to the principle of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the outlook for test-ban talks became more hopeful (Koehn, p. 172).”
MLK and JFK were against colonialism and thus a spokesperson against the war. Both MLK and JFK came to see the military effort in Vietnam as a disastrous extension of Western colonialism (Koehn, p. 166)
MLK: “I am not going to sit and see war escalated without saying anything about it. It is worthless to talk about integration if there is no world to integrate.” (Frady, p. 416).
MLK: “Some men still feel that war is the answer to the problems of the world. They are not evil people. On the contrary, they are good, respectable citizens whose ideas are robed in the garments of patriotism…” (sermon, 1963, A Gift of Love)
MLK believed racial injustice and economic injustice were linked. Improving one would improve the other.
“King pointed to economic estimates that the U.S. was spending $320,000 for each enemy killed in Vietnam, while it was spending $53.00 to help each person in poverty in America (Koehn, p. 241).’
MLK: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny (famous letter from the Birmingham jail in 1963
“I grew up abhorring segregation, considering it both rationally inexplicable and morally unjustifiable…I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice. I saw how the systems of segregation ended up in the exploitation of the Negro as well as the poor whites (“Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”).
For me, appreciating these quotes is a way of making these great men immortal.
Burns, Ken and Lynn Kovick, The Vietnam War, PBS Documentary, 2017.
Frady, Marshall, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1979.
King, Jr., Martin Luther, Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, Birmingham 1963. (PDF) berkeley.edu
King, Jr., Martin Luther, The Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, 1960. PDF: alamo.edu
King, Jr., Martin Luther, The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Advocate of the Social Gospel, V.VI, September 1963-48. HTML: ucpress.edu
Kennedy, John F., “A Strategy for Peace,” American University Commencement Speech, Washington D.C., June 10,1963. PDF: umbc.edu
King, Martin Luther, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963, Fortress Press, 2010, 192 pp. (A Collection of Sermons). PDF:academia.edu
King, Martin Luther, Jr., A Gift of Love (1963): Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, 2012. books.google.com
Koehn, Dennis, R., MDiV, PhD, Psychology, Theology, and Ideology Shape Decisions on War and Peace: A Study of Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Vietnam War, Chicago, 2015, 314 pp. email@example.com