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Krieger, J. (2022). Martin Luther King’s lessons on American interventionism. International Journal
of Security Studies & Practice, 2(1).
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Krieger: Martin Luther King’s Lessons on American Interventionism
Published by the Institute for Leadership and Strategic Studies, 2022 i
Gerald Krieger
Colonel Gerald Krieger is a United States Army Forces Command liaison officer.
He is currently a doctoral candidate in International Relations at Salve Regina University
in Newport, Rhode Island. Krieger is a 2019 graduate of the U.S. Army War College. He has
published military history, U.S. policy, and international relations papers. His interests are
primarily international relations, including U.S. foreign policy, the Greater Middle East,
Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the South China Sea.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or
position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
International Journal of Security Studies & Practice, Vol. 2 [2022], Iss. 1 1
Martin Luther King’s Lessons on American Interventionism
Martin Luther King was a well-known civil rights activist who was
influential as a preacher and advocate for nonviolent social change. His legacy is
engrained into American culture and celebrated annually on the third Monday in
January. While King’s “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence” (1967) is less
known than his other speeches, it is a poignant reminder of the frequency with
which the United States has engaged in foreign intervention throughout American
history. American policy is often myopic, as the painful intelligence mistakes and
oversights regarding weapons of mass destruction and the de-Ba’athification made
under the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq (2003) clearly illustrated. With
the lessons of Afghanistan in the rearview mirror, it is entirely appropriate to revisit
King’s speech to glean some sage insights that have been largely forgotten over the
past few decades.
King admitted that he was reluctant to get involved in politics and criticize
the Vietnam War because it might weaken his focus on the civil rights movement
and domestic concerns. His primary motivation in writing this speech was to
highlight how the war in Vietnam was impacting American progress in reducing
poverty. Once the diversion of money to Vietnam began to take a toll on poverty
reduction programs in America, King indicated that he was forced to speak out. In
1967 King wrote, “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.”
His argument against the Vietnam War focused on four key pillars: economics, civil
rights, nonviolence/religion, and American hubris tied to supporting
Krieger: Martin Luther King’s Lessons on American Interventionism
Published by the University of North Georgia Institute for Leadership and Strategic Studies
corrupt/authoritarian leaders. Unfortunately, all four lessons resonate in 2022 as
much as they did in 1967.
The need to eradicate poverty was paramount to King, who pointed out that
America devoted more money to military spending than social programs designed
to improve quality of life (1967). Although he does not cite exact statistics,
contemporary studies estimate the tremendous cost of U.S. involvement in Vietnam
at between $168 billion and over $1 trillion in today’s dollars (Amadeo, 2020).
King’s core idea is that America should focus on domestic issues at home, although
perhaps not wholly embrace isolationism. He advocated a policy that focused on
promoting democracy. His frustration grew with the reduction of funding driven by
excessive war costs, specifically early-on when the U.S. wanted to ensure France
maintained its footprint in Vietnam.
King was essentially correct in his assessment because while U.S. aid began
with only $10 million in 1950, it reached $1.06 billion by 1954, accounting for 78%
of the cost of the French war (Gravel, 1971). His perspicacious reminder that the
money would be better spent on benefitting large segments of Americans struggling
to escape poverty is on point. However, the details or framework behind the specific
policies were left unmentioned. Although eradicating poverty was significant, King
argued that the nightly news underscored the irony of American culture concerning
race relations. Clips of the war highlighted black men dying alongside white men,
but Blacks could not sit together in the same school (Amadeo 2020). This
fundamental contradiction struck at the core of King’s civil rights movement. It
implied that black men should be fighting for equality in America rather than in the
International Journal of Security Studies & Practice, Vol. 2 [2022], Iss. 1 3
jungles of Southeast Asia 8,500 miles away, although he stops short of making this
point directly. King drew attention to the fact that Americans were fighting in a
foreign land under one flag, yet they could not live in the same neighborhoods or
eat in the same restaurants back home. Although King tempered his words, he
implied that the reality of domestic inequality was repulsive in a country attempting
to promote democratic values on the other side of the planet.
King’s 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace drove him to work harder in the United
States and worldwide for peace and nonviolent solutions to social and geopolitical
problems. One of his role models was Mohandas Gandhi, although he curiously
omitted any reference to him, even though he often did so in his speeches about
civil rights in America. In 1967 King asked, “How can you speak against the
violence in ghettos without so much as a word directed against the most violent
country in the world today, the U.S. government?” Charting a more peaceful path
for civil dissent, he urged young men destined for military service to select a
conscientious objector status. Peaceful solutions and diplomacy are at the heart of
King’s speech. At the same time, his most compelling pillar is a scathing criticism
of American hubris over the right to judge other cultures that were reluctant to
follow in American footsteps. These comments align with the motivations behind
the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which stressed nonintervention in domestic issues
of sovereign states.
King’s most persuasive justification against Vietnam was based on the
country’s history. He argued that the Vietnamese people declared their
independence after years of occupation by the French and then the Japanese, citing
references to the American Declaration of Independence in the process. However,
Krieger: Martin Luther King’s Lessons on American Interventionism
Published by the University of North Georgia Institute for Leadership and Strategic Studies
the French refused to recognize the Vietnamese people, while American leaders
claimed that they were not ready for independence. It is worth quoting from a letter
that Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen Sinh Cung, commonly known as Bac Ho) wrote
to President Harry S. Truman on February 15, 1946, requesting American support.
Ho wrote,
Our Vietnam people, as early as 1941, stood by the Allies’ side and fought
against the Japanese and their associates, the French colonialists………But
the French Colonialists . . . have come back and are waging on us a
murderous and pitiless war ……..We request the United States as guardians
and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step supporting our
independence. (Kindrick, 2019)
Needless to say, Truman never responded to this letter. America was complicit in
France’s reckless actions in Vietnam; their defeat should have meant that Vietnam’s
independence was a forgone conclusion. However, the United States intervened to
ensure that Minh could not unify the country because America supported the
authoritarian leader Premier Diem, who was decidedly anti-communist but
supported the systematic extermination of opposition and corruption at the highest
levels. Diem’s corruption and brutal policies spurred a coup that removed him from
power; however, his removal did not result in any meaningful change. King argued
that American support for corrupt government regimes appeared to be doubling
down. He did not say if he thought that communism was a threat that must be
eradicated, and he indicated that membership in the Communist North is less than
twenty percent. Hence the communist label seemed like a misapplication of the
International Journal of Security Studies & Practice, Vol. 2 [2022], Iss. 1 5
term. King (1967) mentioned that aside from supporting France, the primary
motivation for U.S. policy was the concern over a new government that included
some communists, even though Vietnam and Communist China had a troubled past
relationship. China primarily worked to isolate Vietnam from the Soviet Union by
supporting the Communist movement in Vietnam.
King drew parallels between the American use of new weapons, such as
Agent Orange and napalm, and medical experiments conducted in concentration
camps during WWII, although this was slightly exaggerated. The American focus
on success by measuring the effectiveness of campaigns with enemy body bag
counts appeared distorted and proved to be ultimately misguided. King referenced
a pattern of American interventionism. For example, he cited a “pattern of
suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military ‘advisors’ in
Venezuela” (1967). King could have provided more analysis of the history of
American intervention and stressed the use of diplomacy before deploying the
The Congressional Research Service continues to update a document
entitled “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2020” that
serves to highlight the ease with which America deploys troops as one of its primary
mechanisms of wielding instruments of national power. The data shows that the
United States sent troops to China (1945), Trieste (1946), Palestine (1948), China
(1948-49), Korea (1950-1953), Formosa or Taiwan (1950-1955), and Egypt (1956),
to cite a few (Torreon & Plagakis, 2021, pp. 2-13). This data further reinforces
King’s point about the rapidity with which America deploys troops to solve what
should be diplomatic issues. The average deployment of troops through the end of
Krieger: Martin Luther King’s Lessons on American Interventionism
Published by the University of North Georgia Institute for Leadership and Strategic Studies
the Cold War (1991) was just one per year, although more recently, it has increased
to an average of six times annually (Torreon & Plagakis, 2021).
It is difficult to fully appreciate the significance of Martin Luther King’s
speech because our modern understanding of the Vietnam War is viewed through a
lens that recognizes the erroneous policy and the folly which characterized
America’s intervention. The crowd that listened to his words and read them in
newspapers did not have the luxury of time and clarity of the sequence of events
that followed 1967. His four main points were argued well, although diplomacy
was central to King’s final solution in Vietnam and a key recommendation for
future American policy. He concluded his speech by illustrating that America has
a choice in solving global problems. However, he ignored some of the details and
nuances of international agreements by choosing between violent co-annihilation
or nonviolent coexistence. Although it might seem inappropriate to focus on a
religious foundation for American policy, a moral position resonates more with
modern readers. King’s ultimate advice echoed the sage council of John Quincy
Adams, who took a more secular approach in a speech to the U.S. House of
Representatives on July 4, 1821 when he suggested that America should not go
“abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher of the freedom and
independence of all. … She will commend the general cause by the countenance of
her voice and the benignant sympathy of her example.” King’s 1967 speech still
has applications and lessons for those formulating American foreign policy today.
It must focus on greater awareness of how the U.S. employs military power and the
types of security commitments our nation makes.
International Journal of Security Studies & Practice, Vol. 2 [2022], Iss. 1 7
Adams, J. Q. (1821, July 4). Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on
foreign policy. Presidential Speeches, Miller Center, University of
Amadeo, K. (2021, March 4). Vietnam war facts, costs, and timeline. The
Gravel, M. (1971). U.S. involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh war, 1950-1954.
The Pentagon Papers, Vol 1, Chapter 2.
Kindrick, J. (2019, November 11). How Ho Chi Minh developed his thoughts and
theories on war. Historynet.
King, M. L., Jr. (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break Silence.
Torren, B. S., & Plagakis, S. (2021). Instances of use of United States armed
forces abroad, 1798–2020. The Congressional Research Service.