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On October 4, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an annual report to the meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. While mentioning freedom movements broadly in places like Africa and Asia, this speech may have been King’s first reference to Vietnam and America’s growing presence there. In the course of recalling the successes of the previous year—the passage of the Civil Rights Act most notable of them—he took a portion of the speech to talk about the “War on Poverty” President Johnson had highlighted in his State of the Union address the previous January.

Johnson’s large scale domestic program would allow the United States not only “relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and above all prevent it.” The only problem is that Congress had spent the summer arguing over an appropriation bill that amounted to $23.67 for each of the forty million Americans living in poverty. It was at this point that King raised Vietnam as an example of congressional spending. 

In late August, an American patrol boat in the Gulf of Tonkin claimed that while in international waters North Vietnamese gunboats fired on the vessel. We now know, and had Congress carried out its duties and investigated we would have known then, that the US patrol had not been fired on but had engaged the North Vietnamese with the purpose of claiming self-defense. King focused on the way Congress jumped to fund military assets in Vietnam on a scale that made the appropriation debate over the war on poverty laughable.

I am not here to oppose the war on poverty. I welcome a cautious beginning if it is the start,  and not the end, of the program. A real war requires full mobilization of all resources. It needs an offensive force which moves with lighting speed.

Only a few months ago, we witnessed how this nation can respond to a crisis. Within hours after the events in the Gulf of Tonkin, the resources of the military were directed dramatically and quickly right at the target. No one paused to figure the dollars and cents cost. The military, Congress and even the UN were mobilized.[1]

What if a nation would mobilize its assets to peace rather than war? This passage rumbled through my mind the other night and the following morning after US naval forces launched Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Syria, apparently in retaliation for the latter’s use of chemical weapons earlier in the week. The sad images coming out of Syria showing children dead from the attacked caused our president to rethink his strategy in Syria. The applause the following morning that he had acted presidential is what caused me to think about King’s accusation concerning the Gulf of Tonkin incident. We are a warring nation, a violent people. We support without much contemplation the use of force, even when we have not been attacked. In light of the president’s budget plan to cut social services that King claimed were valuable to help African Americans access not simply the right to sit at a lunch counter but the financial benefit to own the lunch counter, we prove yet again that we will foolishly follow war drums and abandoned our most impoverished citizens. King would come back around to the connection between Vietnam and the failure of the domestic plan to alleviate poverty. The first reference, however, showed the foresight that war trumps poverty in the US. We should be cautious to applaud the decision Thursday evening because the last quagmire we willingly entered was not a good one for the nation.

[1] Morehouse College Martin Luther King, Jr., Collection,  6.1.0.560_017, “8th Annual Conventional: ‘Annual Report Delivered at the Eighth Annual Conventional of SCLC'” August 29, 1964/ October 2, 1964.

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