Two weeks ago, the world held its breath as the US and Iran teetered on the edge of war. As communities here and abroad waited for what would come, painful memories stirred of other reckless wars the US has mired itself in over the last century, including in Vietnam.
In his 1967 Three Evils of Society speech, Martin Luther King Jr. identified the tragedy of the Vietnam War as a symptom of a much larger illness festering within the United States: “The final phase of our national sickness is the disease of militarism. Nothing more clearly demonstrates our nation’s abuse of military power than our tragic adventure in Vietnam.”
Fifty-three years later, the disease of militarism is still rampant, and it is both fueled by and fueling the other two evils he identified: poverty and racism. But King didn’t just diagnose the illness — he also showed us the cure.
“[War] has frustrated our development at home, telling our own underprivileged citizens that we place insatiable military demands above their critical needs… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
US communities need housing, healthcare, and education. Global communities need diplomacy, disaster relief, and sustainable development. And all of us need an inhabitable planet.
The connection between poverty and militarism is perhaps most visible today in the astonishing torrent of money being poured into an insatiable Pentagon. Thanks to the passage of the most recent National Defense Authorization Act alone, the already-bloated Pentagon will receive $738 billion in 2020 — $738 billion for more weapons, more private defense contracts, and more endless war.
Nobody but the weapons manufacturers and defense contractors benefit from this wasteful spending. US communities need housing, healthcare, and education. Global communities need diplomacy, disaster relief, and sustainable development. And all of us need an inhabitable planet.
“[The war] has exacerbated the hatred between continents and worse still between races… It has greatly contributed to the forces of reaction in America and strengthened the military-industrial complex. And it has practically destroyed Vietnam and left thousands of American and Vietnamese youth maimed and mutilated.”
The racism that fueled the Vietnam War has also helped drive our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contributed via our complicity to the war in Yemen, and justified our drone strikes in Somalia and Libya. Now, it is fueling the Trump administration’s drive for conflict with Iran.
It is racist militarism that says that countries and people of color are expendable for the sake of increasing American power and profit, that their sovereignty is always inferior to our “defense” priorities – that the inevitable aftermath of the terror and suffering we inflict is never our problem.
If the evil of militarism was the poison, King saw people-power as the antidote.
“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world, declaring eternal opposition to poverty, racism and militarism.”
We’ve seen sparks of that revolutionary spirit everywhere. Two weeks ago, communities gathered at 377 protests across the country to demand an end to Trump’s drive to war with Iran. The Women’s March has mobilized millions over the last three years to protest the Trump administration’s oppressive policies. And the Poor People’s Campaign has embodied King’s words about the triple evils in every aspect of their mission and movement.
To heed the advice of Dr. King, we must keep that revolutionary momentum going. We need to continue uniting and building our collective power so that our voices are heard in every hall of Congress. We need to hold our leaders accountable as representatives of the people when they act to fulfill the interests of the few at the cost of the many. We need to demand a radical restructuring of our domestic and foreign policies — to put the people first.
And if those leaders fail to listen? “The American people must have an opportunity to vote into oblivion those who cannot detach themselves from militarism, and those that lead us.”
Annika London is the Digital Associate at Win Without War. Originally from northwest Illinois, she has previously worked in racial justice, refugee rights, and interfaith cooperation non-profits in Indianapolis and Washington, DC.