Wars in Black and White

The Vietnam War era found American citizens desperate for answers.  At a time of confusion, the American public sought explanations for the current status of their nation’s affairs. In the midst of a war full of uncertainty on the other side of the world, American citizens on the home front sought to define precisely the relationship between the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam through the Black Freedom Struggle, a war at home. 

While Martin Luther King, Jr. publicly denounced America’s involvement in Vietnam arguing that it acted as a barrier to African-Americans’ social progress and that it was drowning the call for black freedom, the mixed reception proved that the issue was not as black and white as Dr. King claimed.  Taking into consideration the 1960s’ social context, we can understand how the controversial Vietnam War contributed to the advancement of the two objectives that the Black Freedom Struggle sought to accomplish – racial equality and Americans’ desire to make their disagreement with society’s demands noticed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that morality was applicable to American politics of the 1960s, and he was not alone in a wave of social movements that urged their followers to take a definitive moralistic stance on the rightness or wrongness of issues confronting them at home and abroad in Vietnam.  As leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King fought tirelessly for the equal treatment and protection of rights for all African Americans.  Herbers states in his book Dr. King’s Aides Score Asia War that at a speech delivered in New York City in April 1967, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement told his followers that agreeing to serve in such a morally unjust war in Vietnam was undermining their struggle for equality at home. But Dr. King was not alone in these beliefs. Other Americans also sought to actively resist the war, strengthening the ties between social domestic politics and the Cold War. In fact, as John Herbers states, the same year that Dr. King communicated this message, a group of antiwar protestors in San Francisco claimed that “young Americans who still believe in the ideals (that) our country once stood for,” would not provide the government with the “acquiescence of the people it (was) supposed to represent”.  As Dr. King says, by looking “beyond (the United States’) self-defined goals and positions”, Americans adopted a moral stance in direct opposition to Washington’s involvement in Vietnam, pointing out the United States’ merciless destruction of their land and their values.  Within the Black Freedom Struggle, Dr. King encouraged poor people and African Americans, to resist the Vietnam War and fight for equality at home, arguing thatmoral consciousness and awareness transcends national boundaries and obligations.  Dr. King called his followers to adopt a moral stance on issues both at home and abroad, clearly reflecting the tightening relationship between social domestic politics and the Cold War.

Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolent resistance to oppressive authority demonstrated the tightening relationship between black politics and the Vietnam War, as he saw the two issues directly linked to one another.  The prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement argued that the War in Vietnam was “an enemy of the poor” in America, and like other leaders of social movements of the time, Dr. King admits in his book encouraging Americans to resist serving in the war, as well as to resist oppressive subjugation at home.  Furthermore, having long preached nonviolence as a means of combatting racial prejudice against blacks, Dr. King compelled his fellow citizens to pursue the same policy with the Vietnamese, who he considered to be his brothers too, as can be found in his memoir of the time Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.  Dr. King argued that by resisting to participate in the War in Vietnam on the basis of adherence to a doctrine of nonviolence, underprivileged groups within America could demonstrate their will to resist subjugation at home.

Dr. King’s strong antiwar sentiments aligned with those of many social movements that swept the country in the 1960s and asserted Americans’ right to say no and state their refusal to serve as pawns of the government. Like other groups during the war, African Americans seized the opportunity to make their values heard. They used Vietnam as a megaphone to assert their right, as a minority group and to be protected from the interests of the more powerful. As Herber puts it, African Americans also recognised the unfairness of the “immoral white man’s war” in which, according to Samuel Washington, a disproportionate number of poor black young men were sent to fight and possibly die.  At the same time, other social groups were fighting at home to demonstrate their right to free political speech and their right to resist fighting in a war that so many saw as unjust. Takin’ it to the Streets: A Sixties Reader brings to light that massive protests such as the March on Washington in 1964, which attracted over 25,000 protestors, demonstrated in their sheer size the overwhelming power of the antiwar movement, as Americans everywhere fought to have their free political speech recognised, and to challenge themselves to express their inner being.  As Bloom and Breines put it, Americans felt empowered to “act according to (their) conscience,” and refused to participate in the war that they condoned and that was waged by a government which many of them saw as racist and turned to hate. Thus the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War encouraged groups of Americans to organise and collectively stand up to their government and demand change.

Americans did not believe that their preferred way of life aligned with that which their government and society demanded of them in serving in the Vietnam War, so they sought to create a new culture of counter-revolution, encouraging the expression of free will in the face of a government sending its own citizens to die in a strange foreign country.  According to the Bloom and Breines, they did so by burning draft cards, leaving the country, and even deserting their military units in alarming rates, reflecting not only the extremely low morale and poor attitude of Americans towards the War in Vietnam, but also the desire provoked by the culture of the decade to act freely based on individual will, rather than perform that which was expected by higher order. The pair of authors also indicate in their book how the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called Americans to create, “a society in which all (could) control their own destinies,” at home, as well as for Vietnam. Thus the War in Vietnam provoked not only widespread resistance to military enlistment, but more importantly, it challenged Americans to act based on their own free will, giving great momentum to social movements that swept the nation during the 1960s.

Many at the time believed that Dr. King’s antiwar speeches were out of line with his position as leader of the Black Freedom Struggle.  In “Dr. King’s Error,” The New York Times condemned Dr. King’s linkage of the two wars, claiming that it added to the confusion of two already perplexing topics to the American public.  The author argued that the Black Freedom Struggle could not afford to have such a prominent and powerful speaker’s credibility compromised due to his claims about politics. Just like Americans sought to give clear specific meaning to the Vietnam War, they also sought to give clear meaning to the Black Freedom Struggle, which they urged Dr. King not to stray from or downgrade with such active opposition to involvement in the war.

Dr. King’s opponents condemned what they understood as an oversimplification of the war, and called upon him to focus on what he had proven to be so successful in - advancing the fight for civil rights.  Furthermore, African Americans were worried about the possibility of the government turning to an opposition position Dr. King’s opposition were concerned about the idea ofAfrican Americans seeing their government as their enemy rather than their ally in their fight for freedom and equality.  In other words, as the article later declared, African Americans could not afford to alienate politicians who could guide them down the path towards racial equality. According to the New York Times’ article, another group of the opposition took a more pragmatic approach to Dr. King’s claims, asserting that an end to the War in Vietnam would not necessarily increase funds to fighting poverty at home.  In fact, the Chicago Daily Defender published in ‘Wilkins in Bitter Attack on Dr. King’s Peace Stand’ that the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) went so far as to claim that Vietnam took a higher priority over Civil Rights for Dr. King, since he seemed to value lives of Vietnamese civilians over those of African Americans.  In an effort to unite African Americans and their supporters under a common ideal of equality, the leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle were unable to agree on a means of achieving these ends, showing that divisions across racial lines in the 1960s were not the only conflicts undermining social progress towards equality.

In conclusion, the Black Freedom Struggle of the 1960s clearly represented a greater social movement in which individual will took predominance over society’s demands. The United States found itself committed to a military conflict in a foreign nation which few were familiar with, fought by uncommitted young soldiers and, with unclearly defined stakes. This air of confusion and perplexity led Americans to collectively challenge the norms established by their society, and especially, by their government.  Thus the War in Vietnam provided an opportunity for Americans to express their moral disagreements with their government’s affairs at home and abroad, giving great momentum to the Black Freedom Struggle.

Image: Minnesota Historical Society