Thirty-five years ago, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech that changed my life. I was a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that year, at the peak of the Vietnam War. Almost by accident, a friend invited me across the street to hear Dr. King deliver a comprehensive anti-war address at Riverside Church. It is not the drama, the excitement of the occasion, nor King's mellifluous voice passing over the hushed sanctuary as he described the holocaust of Indochina. It is not even the way history later vindicated King's teachings on war -- everything he predicted came to pass. None of that makes his 1967 address so memorable to me. It is the vitality of his teachings for our own lives, the immediate relevance to the arrogance and jingoism of our time -- that is what compels me to recall and reread the peacemaker's masterpiece once again.
The economic and moral crisis we are facing today -- the ubiquity of violent crime, the endemic clutch of drugs, the growing poverty of the working poor, the suffocation of millions of decent lives in the ghettos of our cities -- all date back to that fateful turn when American leaders, pressured by big corporations, chose war over peace, empire over civil rights and social progress.
Dr. King saw our crisis coming. Speaking from a well-lit pulpit, he referred to then-recent anti-poverty efforts: "A few years ago, there was a shining moment in our struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched the programs broken. I was compelled to see the war as the enemy of the poor."
As Dr. King analyzed the hope-wrecking nature of war, I put down my pen, stopped taking notes, and listened with my heart as he described not only the devastation abroad, the injuries and scarred lives of the working class youth returning home, but also the spiritual costs of imperialism -- the mendacity of our leaders, the disillusionment of youth.
King reminded his listeners that U.S. lawlessness abroad breeds violence within the United States as well. "As I have walked among the desperate, rejected angry men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? Wasn't our own nation using massive doses of violence to solve its problems? Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly against the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government."
King never used the term "blowback," but his message was clear: When America sows the wind, it will reap the whirlwind.
The Vietnam War is past. The Cold War is over. But King's teachings about the moral and social costs of militarism and empire are as relevant today as they were 35 years ago. Under a new $396 billion military budget, Americans pay more for defense than all their potential adversaries combined. The U.S. is now the world's leading merchant of death, the primary font of arms proliferation. No monarchy, no despot or human rights abuser is off-limits to American high-tech weaponry. While France sold Saddam Hussein Mirage bombers during the U.S.-backed Iraqi war against Iran, U.S. companies, licensed by the Department of Commerce, shipped biological germ stocks to Saddam throughout the '80s. The arms trade is indeed a sordid and secret business. We have forgotten King's admonition: the sale of weaponry on a world scale is one of the great social crimes of the modern age.
I left Riverside Church inspired by the intensity of the event. The following day, King's patriotic address caused an outcry in the media. Time magazine called it "demagogic slander, a script for Radio Hanoi." Nevertheless, I can still hear our teacher reciting the words of James Russell Lowell: "Though the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong."
Paul Rockwell is a freelance writer and peace activist in Oakland, Calif.