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Obama v. King, on War and Peace

By Peter Dyer
December 3, 2008

Can we successfully fight for social and economic justice in the United States while simultaneously escalating a war in Asia? Barack Obama says we can. But 41 years ago, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. warned against doing exactly that.

On April 4, 1967, Dr. King delivered a passionate speech at Riverside Church in New York outlining the reasons for his controversial opposition to the war in Vietnam. Central to his argument was the incompatibility of war overseas with the struggle for justice at home:

"There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America.

“A few years ago there was a shining moment in that 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 program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

“So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

It’s reasonable to guess that if Dr. King were still alive he would have applauded Barack Obama’s victory in this year’s presidential election. No single person did more to make possible the election of an African-American President than Dr. King.

It’s also likely the 79-year-old King would have endorsed the strong emphasis on social and economic justice in Obama’s domestic agenda. For millions of people in the U.S. and around the world his election has provided “a real promise of hope” -- another long overdue “shining moment” in increasingly dark times.

The spirit of Barack Obama’s call for “change we can believe in” echoes Dr. King’s call in New York in 1967 for “a radical revolution of values.”

Dr. King said: “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, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

For his part, Obama also has talked about addressing social injustices and economic inequalities. He seeks guaranteed “affordable, quality” health insurance for all, with an emphasis on prevention; raising the minimum wage to $9.50/hr by 2011 and indexing it to inflation; ending American “addiction to oil” and the creation of five million new “green” jobs; support for labor unions and a strong emphasis on education.


However, on the issue of war, the perspectives of the two leaders diverge.

Central to the philosophy of the iconic apostle of nonviolence was his fervent opposition to war. The President-elect, however, despite his eloquent and moving opposition to racism and, arguably, materialism, is considerably more comfortable with militarism.

In 1967, Dr. King said: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”

At times in the campaign, Obama seemed to echo that message about the wastefulness of war, at least in regard to President George W. Bush's war of choice in Iraq. Obama vowed to not just end the Iraq War but “the mindset” behind that war.

Obama also disdained other aspects of the Washington status quo. “I have a different vision, and I will offer a clean break from the failed policies and politics of the past,” Obama said.
As far as the critical issue of war is concerned, though, the essence of Obama’s “different vision” appears to involve little more than a different location of “the central front in the war on terror.”

For Obama, the front is Afghanistan, not Iraq. Accordingly he plans to shift combat troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, there to escalate the war because, “this is a war that we must win.” [See the campaign book, Change We Can Believe In.]

Escalation in Afghanistan will involve, according to, deployment of “at least an additional two brigades (7,000 personnel).” In addition, Obama plans to use the increased U.S. troop numbers to urge NATO to do more.
As of this fall, the United States had about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, with about 13,000 of them in the NATO-led force of more than 50,000 troops. Between Obama’s planned increase of at least 7,000 U.S. troops and the likelihood of an increase in NATO forces, the total number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan might soon approach 100,000.

Dr. King might well have warned about the folly of seeking a lasting solution in an Asian land through the escalation of tens of thousands of more troops. His eloquence about peace also stands in stark contrast to the tone that Obama has sometimes used.

Regarding the value of expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama said : “We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”

To be sure, Obama seems more open to negotiation with “enemies” such as Iran than the Bush administration has been. He has, as well, hinted he may be open to a regional solution in the Middle East.

He has made it clear, though, that his approach to Afghanistan will be based, first and foremost, on a military buildup.

Gone Mad or Clean Break?

For Dr. King, who spoke of "a society gone mad on war,” what might he have thought, watching Americans elect a brilliant and charismatic man who, after seven years of war under the Bush administration, somehow successfully presented an escalation of combat in Afghanistan as a “different vision?”

The parallel to King's lament about the diversion of resources away from the war on poverty to the war in Vietnam is disturbing, too, especially as the United States today faces the prospect of a painful recession and declining living standards while funding two wars.

The unsustainable duality of domestic social progress and foreign war, which Dr. King denounced over 40 years ago, seems about to be revived. Will escalating war once again eviscerate a domestic social agenda?

Last New Year’s Eve in Iowa Falls, Obama said, in a phrase that would become a trademark of his campaign. “I chose to run in this election -- at this moment -- because of what Dr. King called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’”

Ironically, though, Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” in the context of his passionate plea for an end to war in "a society gone mad on war.” Here is more of what he said that night in 1967:
“War is not the answer. … We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. …

“We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. …

“We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world -- a world that borders on our doors. 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.”

Forty-one years ago, Dr. King warned that it already might be too late for a United States that turned too readily to war and thus risked stumbling into a future filled with violence and hate, that there was a “fierce urgency of now” to change that direction.

This year, Barack Obama’s promise of “change we can believe in” renewed hope in the future for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. But his reference to "the fierce urgency of now" neglected a central part of King's message, that America had to turn away from war.

As Dr. King urged, unless we find a “new way to speak for peace” – whether in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan – we may soon experience the tragedy of another lost opportunity.

Peter Dyer is a freelance journalist who moved with his wife from California to New Zealand in 2004. He can be reached at .

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