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Like some demonic, destructive suction tube: Martin Luther King Jr and US militarism Part I

January 6, 2019

This is the first of a three part series, leading up to the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Using one of the major themes from Dr. King’s historic Beyond Vietnam speech, we want to explore three aspects of US militarism since he have this speech in April of 1967. 

Early on in the speech, Dr. King stated:

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. 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 this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on 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.

Dr. King could not separate the relationship to US militarism/imperialism and how we treat those experiencing poverty, what he calls the poor. Later in this same speech, Dr. King then says:

“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

The civil rights leader could not reconcile the massive amounts of money the US spent on militarism, while at the same time not making sure that the people living in the US had access to basic rights like housing, education, health care, etc.

Unfortunately, this intersectional analysis of US militarism is rarely applied today, even though many people get the idea that spending money on militarism and security detracts from spending money on basic human needs. The most recent example is the money the Trump administration wants to spend on the so-called wall on the US?Mexican border. There are many who have been saying that the money that Trump is demanding to build the wall could be better spent on things like health care. And while I agree with that sentiment, it doesn’t usually translate into people taking action that would confront US military spending or as Dr. King said this demonic, destructive suction tube.

Over the next few weeks, we want to explore three aspects of Dr. King’s analysis on US militarism. In Part, I we will explore how every US administration since 1967 has ignored Dr. King’s plea to reduce military spending and focus on programs of social uplift. In Part II, I will look at US anti-war/anti-militarism organizing since 1967, with a focus on Grand Rapids. And lastly, in Part III, I will look at how we need to see US militarism as a war on the poor, with a proposal on how anti-militarism should be part of every social justice movement.

US Militarism and Imperialism: A Bi-partisan affair

When Dr. King gave his Beyond Vietnam speech in 1967, Lyndon Johnson was president. Johnson escalated the US war in Vietnam during his administration until he left office at the end of 1968.

When Richard Nixon took office at the beginning of 1969, Nixon continued the war in Vietnam, but expanded the war to other countries, involving Laos and Cambodia, which is why there are many historians that refer to this war as the US war in Southeast Asia.

In addition to Nixon’s war in Southeast Asia, his administration was supporting US militarism in other parts of the world like Indonesia, Ethiopia and Chile. However, it is important to think about King’s notion of US militarism as more than right out war. His analysis and ours should see US militarism as US military bases abroad, covert and CIA operations, US military training of other armies, weapons sales and sanctions against other nations. If we expand our understanding of US militarism to include these aspects, then the Nixon administration was also involved with NATO, the ongoing operations to undermine Cuba, Nixon’s support of Israel and Iran. The Nixon administration was also supporting dictatorships in Haiti, Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama.

The Ford administration continued with Nixon’s war in Vietnam until 1975, but was also involved in Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, maintaining the embargo against Cube, supporting the brutal regime in Iran, funding the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and expanding the US/CIA role in Angola and South Africa. Of course, all US presidents since Johnson were deeply involved in NATO, maintained over 100 US military bases abroad and were engaged in weapons sales, military aid and training to numerous countries as well.

The Carter administration was busy with US militarism in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Iran, Angola and had begun providing lots of money and training to Afghanis who were fighting the Soviet occupation. The Carter administration also continued the US embargo against Cuba and massive amounts of military aid to Israel and Egypt.

The Reagan administration was deeply involved in funding the Afghanis fighting the Soviet occupation, providing weapons to both countries in the Iran-Iraq war, invaded Grenada, funded and trained the Contra war in Nicaragua and the counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Reagan administration continued to support South African Apartheid, funding Israeli, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with dictatorships in Haiti and Panama.

The George H.W. Bush administration continued most of the same forms of US militarism abroad that previous administration had engaged in, plus there was the US invasion of Panama, the Gulf War and the escalation of US military aid and military bases in Colombia to fight the so-called War on Drugs.

The Clinton administration continued the same forms of US militarism since King’s 1967 speech – NATO, US military bases in over 100 countries, US weapons sales, US military training and the US embargo of Cuba. In addition, the Clinton administration engaged in warfare in Somalia, bombed Sudan, the war in Kosovo, supported a military coup in Haiti, supported $1 million a day for the war in El Salvador until the cease fire in 1994, expanded the drug war in Colombia and bombed Iraq regularly for 8 years, along with the harshest economic sanctions that were ever imposed on a country – Iraq, which led to the deaths of 500,000 children. Clinton’s Sec. of State, Madeleine Albright, when asked if the 500,000 Iraqi child deaths were worth it replied, “yes, we think it was worth it.”

The George W. Bush administration continued most of the same forms of US militarism, but began a US occupation of Afghanistan in 2001 (which continues to the present), went to war with Iraq over falsified intelligence, began US subversion of Venezuela, supported another coup against Haiti, continued the economic embargo against Cuba, began to further militarize violence in Mexico with Plan Merida and maintained massive US military aid to Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Obama administration continued most of the same forms of US militarism abroad, escalated the US occupation of Afghanistan, supported to brutal Israeli assaults on Gaza (2008-2009 and 2014), supported the military coup in Honduras, provided military support for the war in Libya, expanded drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan and Syria, continued the drug war policies in Colombia and maintained the US subversion of Venezuela.

The Trump administration has also maintained most of the same forms of US militarism, including Afghanistan and Syria, harassment of Iran, continued the US military presence in Africa known as AFRICOM (started under Obama), massive weapons sales to Israel and Saudi Arabia, continuing to support the dictatorships in Honduras, military aid to Mexico, NATO expansion and nearly 1,000 US military bases abroad.

It is quite evident that US militarism and US imperialism has been consistent since Dr. King gave his Beyond Vietnam speech in 1967. In addition, the US Congress (regardless of who controls the House of the Senate) has voted for an increase in US military spending every years since 1967, with the current US Defense Budget at $716 billion. In other words, US militarism is a bi-partisan affair.

To further investigate the US military budget I highly recommend the resources at the War Resister League annual pie chart of how much of US tax dollars go to militarism and the solid work that the National Priorities Project does to look at US military spending since 9/11, along with how US military spending could be used, to use King’s words, for programs of social uplift. 

In Part II, I will look at the history of resistance to US militarism since 1967, specifically in Grand Rapids and what we can learn from those anti-militarism movements.

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