With many anti-war activists presenting various strategies to end the war to U.S. policy makers, negative peace was a major theme of the Vietnam War. This was one of the largest wars in U.S. history, lasting from 1954 to 1975 and resulting in over 3 million casualties. Americans had differing opinions on the American involvement in the war. Although many people opposed the war, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most influential anti-war public figures of the time. King was very vocal about his opposition to the Vietnam War. Relying heavily on his faith, King diligently utilized negative peace tactics such as non-violent protests and speeches to stop the war and work towards remedying the overwhelming damage that the U.S. had induced upon Vietnam.
Although King was uncertain about his faith in his youth, he eventually ended up becoming a Christian. It was this faith that would drive his relentless pursuit of negative peace in the upcoming years of his life. Born in 1929 into a middle-class family in Atlanta, Georgia, King eventually became affiliated with the Baptist denomination and went to seminary. He later became the pastor for the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Over the course of his life, King developed a great love for other people arguably due to his faith. It was this love for others that propelled his anti-war activism. In addition to his work as a pastor, King also served as the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at age 35. His reception of the Nobel Peace Prize was with quite good reason. Driven by his conscience, King was ceaselessly involved directly with peacemaking efforts during the time of the Vietnam War. He offered to personally make appeals to Ho Chi Minh, among other leaders, and boldly suggested that American forces rebuild some of the villages in Vietnam that had been destroyed by America (Fairclough, 1984).
On April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New York City, King suggested three key steps for America to take towards negative peace to end the war in Vietnam in his powerful Beyond Vietnam speech: 1) End all bombing in North and South Vietnam, 2) Declare a unilateral cease-fire in hopes of creating an environment conducive to negotiation, 3) Set a date that America would remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the Geneva Agreement. Three months after Operation Cedar Falls of the Vietnam War, King’s speech was of utmost relevance at this time; violence in Vietnam was increasing without an end in sight and something had to be done. King was brave enough to take this huge step towards negative peace through this speech and the propositions he made and displayed impeccable leadership in spite of the fact that some claimed he was overly optimistic.
Although he spent nearly 2 years carefully considering whether he should get involved in protesting the war, when King did finally use his voice, he did so with great conviction and with good reason. In his speech, Beyond Vietnam, King clearly states that the purpose behind his opposition to the ongoing war is his faith, “Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?” (King, 1967). King was clearly trying to follow the quintessential aspects of Christianity through his negative peace activism.
King’s compassion for others heavily drove his anti-war activism. As a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King had a heart for both the poor and people of color (Baldwin, 2016). During the Vietnam War, the proportion of people of color and of low socioeconomic status to white people was overwhelmingly unbalanced. According to war historian Michael MaClear, 18.8% of eligible whites compared to 30.2% of eligible people of color in 1964 and 31% of eligible whites compared to 67% of people of color in 1967 were drafted into the war (Darby, 1986). These stark statistics made it clear that these populations were being targeted as victims for manipulation. However, King became aware of this injustice and worked diligently to oppose it until his assassination in 1968.
Dr. King was an extremely influential peace activist during the Vietnam war. He was very compassionate, especially towards the oppressed such as the poor and people of color. He utilized this compassion along with his faith to drive his anti-war activism and did so effectively through his eloquent speeches and intelligent propositions. Overall, King was a trailblazer for peace and fair treatment of all people and left a legacy that gives us much to learn from.
King, Martin Luther Jr. “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” Address to the Clergy and
Laity Concerned about Vietnam, Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967.
Baldwin, Lewis V., and Frye Gaillard. "“The Measure of a Man”: Who Was Martin Luther King, Jr.?" In Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr., 61-116.
Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers, 2016. doi:10.2307/j.ctt19qgfwc.8.
Darby, Henry E., and Margaret N. Rowley. "King on Vietnam and beyond." Phylon (1960-) 47,
no. 1 (1986): 43-50. doi:10.2307/274693.
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Photo at top of page courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Albertin, Walter, photographer