Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. held back from speaking out against the Vietnam War for almost two years, as Lyndon Johnson was a friend of the civil rights movement, having signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By the spring of 1967, he could remain silent no longer as “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” as he put it. He offered a clear exposition of his views in a sermon-like speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, sponsored by the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.
The American massacre of civilians at My Lai on March 16, 1968, was part of the U.S. counteroffensive following Tet. The area in which the My Lai village was located was labeled “Pinkville” and a U.S. unit known as Charlie company – led by Captain Ernest Medina, with 2nd Lt. William Calley commanding the First Platoon – treated it as a free-fire zone, killing some 500 unarmed men, women, children, and infants. A number of women were raped as well. Not all soldiers participated in the murders; one broke down and cried; another shot animals instead. Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot surveying the scene from above, spotted the bodies of men, women and children strewn over the landscape. Realizing that a massacre was taking place, he landed his chopper and rescued ten civilians while ordering his crew chief to shoot any American soldiers who opened fire on the civilians. On the same day, another U.S. unit, Bravo company, murdered some 90 civilians in the village of My Khe, two kilometers to the east. These massacres were not acknowledged by military authorities at the time. The task force commander overseeing operations wrote in his after-action report that the day’s maneuvers were “well planned, well-executed, and successful.”
Ngo Vinh Long, “Vietnam’s Revolutionary Tradition,” in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin, Marilyn B. Young, and H. Bruce Franklin, eds., Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove Press, 1995), pp. 19-20.
Quoted in Mark Philip Bradley, Imagining Vietnam and America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 76-77.
The antiwar movement was a never-ending fount of new organizations and projects. From 1965 to 1967, new organizations included Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, Veterans for Peace in Vietnam, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Another Mother for Peace, RESIST, and American Writers and Artists Against the War. Among the new projects were the National Voters Peace Pledge Campaign, organized by SANE, “Vietnam Summer,” a community organizing project led by Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, and “Negotiations Now,” a petition drive led by prominent liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Adam Fairclough, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the War in Vietnam,” Phylon, Vol. 45, No. 1 (1984), p. 29; David J. Garrow, “When Dr. King Came Out Against Vietnam,” New York Times, April 4, 2017, p. A25; and Wells, The War Within, p. 131.
The Peers Inquiry report, Dept. of the Army, March 14, 1970, notes “a number of Vietnamese sources alleged that on 16 march 1968 approximately 80-90 noncombatants, including women and children, were killed by US soldiers in My Hoi subhamlet of Co Luy Hamlet, a coastal area of Son My village shown on US maps as ‘My Khe’” (page 7-1). Yet no serious investigation took place and no charges were filed. See the full report at . In 2001, Nick Turse, a graduate student researching post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans, came upon the secret records of the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Crimes Working Group and later published his account of the records in Kill Anything That Moves (2013).
Quoted in Hy V. Luong, Tradition, Revolution, and Market Economy in a North Vietnamese Village, 1925-2006 (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010), p. 140.
Karen G. Turner, “Vietnam” as a Woman’s War,” in Marilyn B. Young and Robert Buzzanco, eds., A Companion to the Vietnam War (UK: Blackwell, 2004), p. 97; and Sandra Taylor, Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999).
Pacifists generally abhorred the dehumanization of war, promoted conflict resolution and reconciliation, encouraged individual conscientious objection to war, and supported nonviolent social change for justice in the manner of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Jr. Many pacifist and pacifist-leaning groups had long experience in organizing campaigns (founding dates noted): FOR (1915), American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, 1917), WILPF (1919), WRL (1923), Congress on Racial Equality (CORE, 1942), and Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO, 1948). Abraham Johannes (A.J.) Muste, a practical pacifist with experience in labor and civil rights movements, played a unifying role in the antiwar movement until his death in February 1967. Some pacifist groups, such as WILPF, leaned toward the liberal wing of the movement while others, such as WRL, pulled to the left. WRL International issued a statement in August 1968 declaring its intent to work with “our brothers and sisters in the various liberation movements” to “bring an end to colonialism and imperialism … but without yielding up our belief that the foundation of the future must be laid in the present, that a society without violence must begin with revolutionists who will not use violence.”
A third development was the signing of an international peace treaty ending the civil war in Laos in July 1962. The agreement was welcomed across the world as a step toward reducing Cold War tensions. Along with de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan helped to convince Kennedy that a negotiated solution in Laos was the most realistic option and would not hurt U.S. interests in the region. After conferring with Kennedy in March 1961, Macmillan wrote to de Gaulle: “I think that the President really accepts the necessity for a political solution if we can get one.” It took thirteen months of negotiations, but in the end, an agreement was signed by fourteen nations, including the belligerent parties in Laos and the governments of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the United States, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China. Laos became a “neutral and independent” nation led by a coalition government under prime minister Souvanna Phouma, with power shared with the communist-led Pathet Lao. As the U.S. had been supporting anticommunist guerrillas in Laos since the late 1950s, approval of the treaty marked a significant change of policy.
He is an inspiration to many, and a hero to all for believing in a world of peace and love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
May 26, 2004
1. Bennett, Lerone, Jr., What a Manner of Man: A Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.