Martin Luther King, Jr., on Vietnam—and Today

Martin Luther King, Jr., is best known for his speech “I Have a Dream.” Relatively few people know of his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered on April 4, 1967, one year before he was assassinated. It is a prophetic, unsettling, and radical speech that still resonates today. It is little wonder that Americans prefer to remember the optimism of “I Have a Dream” versus the profound moral, political, and economic challenge that King lays down in this speech. What follows are highlights from this speech. The full speech can be found here.

Martin Luther King leads an anti-war demonstration in Chicago on March 21, 1967.
Martin Luther King leads an anti-war demonstration in Chicago on March 21, 1967.

“Beyond Vietnam” delivered at Riverside Church, New York, New York, 4 April 1967

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

….Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.

This is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” …The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand[s] on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” ….A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

A genuine revolution of values means…that…Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind.

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace…and justice. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.


Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Grove/Atlantic published his novel The Sympathizer in 2015 (winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize), and will publish his short story collection The Refugees in 2017. He also wrote Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016), finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. He is the editor of diaCRITICS.

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    Thank you, dear Diacritics publishers, for recalling Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches ‘’I Have a Dream’’ and ‘’Beyond Viet Nam’’ delivered 50 years ago.
    Vietnamese poet living in exile abroad, I can say : YES, I HAVE A DREAM BEYOND VIET NAM TOO’’.
    My Dream : There will be no more Resolution on Viet Nam adopted by PEN International World Congress, such as the following text issued by the 82nd PEN Congress held at Ourense, Galicia in Spain, last October.
    submitted by Suisse Romand PEN Centre, seconded by French PEN Centre, Swiss German PEN Centre and Swiss Italian and Reto-Romansch PEN Centre

    Assembly of Delegates of PEN International, meeting at its 82nd World Congress in Ourense, Galicia, Spain, from 26 September to 2 October 2016.

    The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) is a one-party authoritarian state which maintains a tight control on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, religion and belief. Since the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014, the SRV has made little, if any progress, in implementing recommendations that the state accepted in relation to these freedoms, each a cornerstone to progress in the country. Indeed, instead of bringing the Criminal Code into line with international human rights standards, the state has instead revised certain articles, making them more draconian by extending custodial sentences, such as Article 88 (conducting propaganda against the SRV).

    The authorities continue to closely monitor the peaceful activities of human rights defenders, regularly cracking down on peaceful protest. Most recently, during widespread protests in May 2016 following mass fish kills off the coast of Ha Tinh province, the authorities cracked down on environmental activists calling for a transparent government investigation into the causes of the fish deaths .

    Writers, journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders are often the targets of intimidation, threats and harassment, and brutal physical assaults by either the authorities or unidentified assailants. They also face arbitrary arrests; lengthy pre-trial detention; limited access to legal counsel; unfair trials; and lengthy prison sentences. In prison, they are confronted with torture or other ill-treatment and poor prison conditions, including inadequate medical care. Prisoners are rarely released before the expiry of their sentence, and are frequently subject to long probationary terms or released into exile, far from their families. Upon their release their harassment may not cease; writers are often subjected to re-arrest or intimidation campaigns, as in the case of blogger Tran Minh Nhat .

    In 2015, PEN documented the cases of 20 writers held solely for their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression. PEN International is deeply concerned by the continued imprisonment of these two writers held solely for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, among many others (non-exhaustive list in Annex) and is calling for their immediate and unconditional release :

    1. Tran Huynh Duy Thuc (born in 1966), poet, blogger, internet writer and businessman. Co-author of the banned book The Way for Viet Nam, he also published poems and articles on his various web blogs. He was arrested in May 2009 and sentenced to 16 years in prison and three years in probationary detention in January 2010 for ‘conducting propaganda against the SRV’ and ‘carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration’. In March 2016, Tran, along with other inmates at Xuyên Moc prison, reportedly submitted written complaints and went on a 13-day hunger strike to protest misconduct by prison guards, including arbitrary restrictions on their rights to receive and send documents with their family members and the frequent use of solitary confinement. In May 2016, he was discreetly transferred to a new camp some 1,400 kilometers from his family home town. His health is reported to be deteriorating.
    2. Nguyen Van Dai (born in 1969), journalist, blogger and human rights lawyer, former member of Hanoi Association of Lawyers, co-founder of the Human Rights Committee and the Brotherhood for Democracy (2013), whose secretary general was his colleague Le Thu Ha (f) (born in 1982). Nguyen Van Dai provided legal assistance to dissidents, human rights activists and religious minorities. On 16 December 2015, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha were arrested for ‘conducting propaganda against the SRV’. So far, all requests by family members and their legal counsel for a permission to visit the accused have been denied. In the past, Nguyen Van Dai served a four-year prison sentence (2007-2011) for ‘conducting propaganda against the SRV’. After his release, Nguyen Van Dai was subjected to violent harassment, physical attacks and serious threats to his life and his family’s. In memory, on 6 December 2015, Nguyen Van Dai was attacked and brutally beaten by plainclothes policemen in a small town south of Hanoi. His beating is thought to be in reprisal for giving basic lessons on human rights to a group of civilians in advance of World Human Rights Day. The attack was condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a communiqué on 11 December 2015.

    The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International therefore urges the SRV authorities to:

    • Release immediately and unconditionally Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, Nguyen Van Dai, Le Thu Ha and all other persecuted writers, including bloggers, poets and journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and anyone else held solely on account of their peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression;
    • Cease the practice of releasing imprisoned writers into enforced exile abroad;
    • Cease all attacks, harassment and threats against individuals who hold dissenting views or who call for freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief;
    • End the confiscation of passports of dissidents or former prisoners and bans on foreign travel;
    • Guarantee the right to due process of law, to a fair trial with independent judges and lawyers;
    • Improve conditions in prison and forced labour camps to meet internationally recognized standards for detention, ensuring that all detainees receive all necessary medical care;
    • Facilitate prisoner’s family visits, including by ensuring all detainees be held in facilities within a reasonable distance of their homes;
    • Prohibit all forms of torture and ill-treatment, including prolonged solitary confinement, and investigate all reports of such treatment immediately and impartially, bringing perpetrators to justice and granting compensation to victims;
    • Repeal or amend all provisions in the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam laws that criminalize dissenting views and free words on the basis of imprecisely defined ‘’national security’’ crimes, including Articles 79, 88 and 258 of the Penal Code;
    • Abolish all censorship, mass surveillance and restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the press;
    • Ensure the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are fully protected, including the right to be informed by all means, both online and offline, in compliance with the Articles 19, 21 and 22 of the ICCPR.
    1 Human Rights Watch: Vietnam: Crackdown on Peaceful Environmental Protesters (Viêt Nam :
    Manifestations pacifiques pour la défense de l’environnement durement réprimées), 18 mai 2016, (en anglais)
    *Annex: Non-exhaustive list of writers in Viet Nam held solely for their free expression documented by PEN International as of 30 June 2016
    1. Currently serving prison sentences : – Bui Thi Minh Hang (f) 3 years, Dang Xuan Dieu 13 years, Dinh Nguyen Kha 4 years, Ha Huy Hoang 6 years, Ho Duc Hoa 13 years, Ngo Hao 15 years, Nguyen Dang Minh Man (f) 9 years, Nguyen Kim Nhan 5 ½ years, Nguyen Thanh Long (pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh) 11 years, Phan Ngoc Tuan 5 years, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc 16 years, Tran Vu Anh Binh 6 years; Nguyen Huu Vinh (pen-name Anh Ba Sam) 5 years and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy (f) 3 years; Nguyen Dinh Ngoc (pen-name Nguyen Ngoc Gia) 4 years;
    2. Under house arrest since 2003: Dang Phuc Tue (Ven. Thich Quang Do), 88-year-old, Buddhist monk and poet;
    3. Arrested and held under prolonged pre-trial detention:- Tran Anh Kim since 21 September 2015, Le Thanh Tung since 14 December 2015, Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thu Ha (f) since 16 December 2015.


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