The Casualties of the War in Vietnam
25 February 1967
Los Angeles, Calif.
I need not pause to say how happy I am to have the privilege of
being a participant in this significant symposium. In these days
of emotional tension when the problems of the world are gigantic
in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for
sober-thinking, healthy debate, creative dissent and enlightened
discussion. This is why this symposium is so important.
I would like to speak to you candidly and forthrightly this afternoon
about our present involvement in Viet Nam. I have chosen as a subject,
The Casualties of the War In Viet Nam. We are all aware
of the nightmarish physical casualties. We see them in our living
rooms in all of their tragic dimensions on television screens, and
we read about them on our subway and bus rides in daily newspaper
accounts. We see the rice fields of a small Asian country being
trampled at will and burned at whim: we see grief-stricken mothers
with crying babies clutched in their arms as they watch their little
huts burst forth into flames; we see the fields and valleys of battle
being painted with humankind's blood; we see the broken bodies left
prostrate in countless fields; we see young men being sent home
half-men--physically handicapped and mentally deranged. Most tragic
of all is the casualty list among children. Some one million Vietnamese
children have been casualties of this brutal war. A war in which
children are incinerated by napalm, in which American soldiers die
in mounting numbers while other American soldiers, according to
press accounts, in unrestrained hatred shoot the wounded enemy as
they lie on the ground, is a war that mutilates the conscience.
These casualties are enough to cause all men to rise up with righteous
indignation and oppose the very nature of this war.
But the physical casualties of the war in Viet Nam are not alone
the catastrophies. The casualties of principles and values are equally
disastrous and injurious. Indeed, they are ultimately more harmful
because they are self-perpetuating. If the casualties of principle
are not healed, the physical casualties will continue to mount.
One of the first casualties of the war in Viet Nam was the Charter
of the United Nations. In taking armed action against the Vietcong
and North Viet Nam, the United States clearly violated the United
Nations charter which provides, in Chapter I, Article II (4)
All members shall refrain in their international relations from
the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or
political independence of any state or in any other manner inconsistent
with the purposes of the United Nations.
and in Chapter VII, (39)
The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat
to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, and shall
make recommendations or shall decide what measures shall be taken...
to maintain or restore international peace and security.
It is very obvious that our government blatantly violated its obligation
under the charter of the United Nations to submit to the Security
Council its charge of aggression against North Viet Nam. Instead
we unilaterally launched an all-out war on Asian soil. In the process
we have underminded the purpose of the United Nations and caused
its effectiveness to atrophy. We have also placed our nation in
the position of being morally and politically isolated. Even the
long standing allies of our nation have adamantly refused to join
our government in this ugly war. As Americans and lovers of Democracy
we should carefully ponder the consequences of our nation's declining
moral status in the world.
The second casualty of the war in Viet Nam is the principle of
self-determination. By entering a war that is little more than a
domestic civil war, America has ended up supporting a new form of
colonialism covered up by certain niceties of complexity. Whether
we realize it or not our participation in the war in Viet Nam is
an ominous expression of our lack of sympathy for the oppressed,
our paranoid anti-Communism, our failure to feel the ache and anguish
of the have nots. It reveals our willingness to continue particpating
in neo-colonialist adventures.
A brief look at the background and history of this war reveals with
brutal clarity and ugliness of our policy. The Vietnamese people
proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French
and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in
China. They were led by the now well-known Ho Chi Minh. Even though
they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own
document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided
to support France in its re-conquest of her former colony.
President Truman felt then that the Vietnamese people were not "ready"
for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly western
arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so
long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government
seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established
not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by
clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Viet Nam
the right to independence. For nine years we vigorously supported
the French in their abortive effort to re-colonize Viet Nam.
Before the end of the war we were meeting 80% of the French war
costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they
began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged
them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the
war even after they had lost the will.
During this period United States governmental officials began
to brainwash the American public. John Foster Dulles assiduously
sought to prove that Indo-China was essential to our security against
the Chinese Communist peril. When a negotiated settlement of the
war was reached in 1954, through the Geneva Accord, it was done
against our will. After doing all that we could to sabotage the
planning for the Geneva Accord, we finally refused to sign it.
Soon after this we helped install Ngo Dihn Diem. We supported
him in his betrayal of the Geneva Accord and his refusal to have
the promised 1956 election. We watched with approval as he engaged
in ruthless and bloddy persecution of all opposition forces. When
Diem's infamous actions finally led to the formation of The National
Liberation Front, the American public was duped into believing that
the civil rebellion was being waged by puppets from Hanoi. As Douglas
Pike wrote: "In horror, Americans helplessly watched Diem tear
apart the fabric of Vietnamese society more effectively than the
Communists had ever been able to do it. It was the most efficient
act of his entire career.
Since Diem's death we have actively supported another dozen military
dictatorships all in the name of fighting for freedom. When it became
evident that these regimes could not defeat the Vietcong, we began
to steadily increase our forces, calling them "military advisers"
rather than fighting soldiers.
Today we are fighting an all-out war--undeclared by Congress.
We have well over 300,000 American servicemen fighting in that benighted
and unhappy country. American planes are bombing the territory of
another country, and we are committing atrocities equal to any perpetrated
by the Vietcong. This is the third largest war in American history.
All of this reveals that we are in an untenable position morally
and politically. We are left standing before the world glutted by
our barbarity. We are engaged in a war that seeks to turn the clock
of history back and perpetuate white colonialism. The greatest irony
and tragedy of all is that our nation which initiated so much of
the revolutionary spirit of the modern world, is not cast in the
mold of being an arch anti-revolutionary.
A third casualty of the war in Viet Nam is the Great Society.
This confused war has played havoc with our domestic destinies.
Despite feeble protestations to the contrary, the promises of
the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Viet
Nam. The pursuit of this widened war has narrowed domestic welfare
programs, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burdens
both at the front and at home.
While the anti-poverty program is cautiously initiated, zealously
supervised and evaluated for immediate results, billions are liberally
expended for this ill-considered war. The recently revealed mis-estimate
of the war budget amounts to ten billions of dollars for a single
year. This error alone is more than five times the amount committed
to anti-poverty programs. The security we profess to seek in foreign
adventures we will lose in our decaying cities. The bombs in Viet
Nam explode at home: they destroy the hope s and possibilities for
a decent America.
If we reversed investments and gave the armed forces the antipoverty
budget, the generals could be forgiven if they walked off the battlefield
Poverty, urban problems and social progress generally are ignored
when the guns of war become a national obsession. When it is not
our security that is at stake, but questionable and vague commitments
to reactionary regimes, values disintegrate into foolish and adolescent
It is estimated that we spend $322,000 for each enemy we kill,
while we spend in the so-called war on poverty in America only about
$53.00 for each person classified as "poor. And much of that
53 dollars goes for salaries of people who are not poor. We have
escalated the war in Viet Nam and de-escalated the skirmish against
poverty. It challenges the imagination to contemplate what lives
we could transform if we were to cease killing.
At this moment in history it is irrefutable that our world prestige
is pathetically frail. Our war policy excites pronounced contempt
and aversion virtually everywhere. Even when some national government
s, for reasons of economic and diplomatic interest do not condemn
us, their people in surprising measure have made clear they do not
share the official policy.
We are isolated in our false values in a world demanding social
and economic justice. We must undergo a vigorous re-ordering of
our national priorities.
A fourth casualty of the war in Viet Nam is the humility of our
nation. Through rugged determination, scientific and technological
progress and dazzling achievements, America has become the richest
and most powerful nation in the world. We have built machines that
think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of
interstellar space. We have built gargantuan bridges to span the
seas and gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Through our airplanes
and spaceships we have dwarfed distance and placed time in chains,
and through our submarines we have penetrated oceanic depths. This
year our national gross product will reach the astounding figure
of 780 billion dollars. All of this is a staggering picture of our
But honesty impells me to admit that our power has often made
us arrogant. We feel that our money can do anything. We arrogantly
feel that we have everything to teach other nations and nothing
to learn from them. We often arrogantly feel that we have some divine,
messianic mission to police the whole world. We are arrogant in
not allowing young nations to go through the same growing pains,
turbulence and revolution that characterized cur history. We are
arrogant in our contention that we have some sacred mission to protect
people from totalitarian rule, while we make little use of our power
to end the evils of South Africa and Rhodesia, and while we are
in fact supporting dictatorships with guns and money under the guise
of fighting Communism. We are arrogant in professing to be concerned
about the freedom of foreign nations while not setting our own house
in order. Many of our Senators and Congressmen vote joyously to
appropriate billions of dollars for war in Viet Nam, and these same
Senators and Congressmen vote loudly against a Fair Housing Bill
to make it possible for a Negro veteran of Viet Nam to purchase
a decent home. We arm Negro soldiers to kill on foreign battlefields,
but offer little protection for their relatives from beatings and
killings in our own south. We are willing to make the Negro 100%
of a citizen in warfare, but reduce him to 50% of a citizen on American
soil. Of all the good things in life the Negro has approximately
one half those of whites; of the bad he has twice that of whites.
Thus, half of all Negroes live in substandard housing and Negroes
have half the income of whites. When we turn to the negative experiences
of life, the Negro has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed.
The infant mortality rate is double that of white. There are twice
as many Negroes in combat in Viet Nam at the beginning of 1967 and
twice as many died in action (20.6%) in proportion to their numbers
in the population as whites.
All of this reveals that our nation has not yet used its vast
resources of power to end the long night of poverty, racism and
man's inhumanity to man. Enlarged power means enlarged peril if
there is not concommitant growth of the soul. Genuine power is the
right use of strength. If our nation's strength is not used responsibly
and with restraint, it will be, following Acton's dictum, power
that tends to corrupt and absolute power that corrupts absolutely.
Our arrogance can be our doom. It can bring the curtains down on
our national drama. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate
nation. We are challenged in these turbulent days to use our power
to speed up the day when every valley shall be exalted, and
every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall
be made straight, and the rough places plain.
A fifth casualty of the war in Viet Nam is the principle of dissent.
An ugly repressive sentiment to silence peace-seekers depicts advocates
of immediate negotiation under terms of the Geneva agreement and
persons who call for a cessation of bombings in the north as quasi-traitors,
fools or venal enemies of our soldiers and institutions. Free speech
and the privilege of dessent and discussion are rights being shot
down by Bombers in Viet Nam. When those who stand for peace are
so villified it is time to consider where we are going and whether
free speech has not become one of the major casualties of the war.
Curtailment of free speech is rationalized on grounds that a more
compelling American tradition forbids critism of the government
when the nation is at war. More than a century ago when we were
in a declared state of war with Mexico, a first term congressman
by the name of Abraham Lincoln stood in the halls of Congress and
fearlessly denounced that war. Congressman Abraham Lincoln of Illinois
had not heard of this tradition or he was not inclined to respect
it. Nor had Thoreau and Emerson and many other philosophers who
shaped our democratic principles. Nothing can be more destructive
of our fundamental democratic traditions than the vicious effort
to silence dissenters.
A sixth casualty of the war in Viet Nam is the prospects of mankind's
survival. This war has created the climate for greater armament
and further expansion of destructive nuclear power.
One of the most persistent ambiguities that we face is that everybody
talks about peace as a goal. However, it does not take sharpest-eyed
sophistication to discern that while everybody talks about peace,
peace has become practically nobody's business among the power-wielders.
Many men cry peace! peace! but they refuse to do the things that
make for peace.
The large power blocs of the world talk passionately of pursuing
peace while burgeoning defense budgets that already bulge, enlarging
already awesome armies, and devising even more devasting weapons.
Call the roll of those who sing the glad tidings of peace and one's
ears will be surprised by the responding sounds. The heads of all
of the nations issue clarion calls for peace yet these destiny determiners
come accompanied by a band and a brigand of national choristers,
each bearing unsheathed swords rather than olive branches.
The stages of history are replete with the chants and choruses
of the conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace. Alexander,
Ghenghis Khan, Julius Ceasar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon were akin
in their seeking a peaceful world order, a world fashioned after
their selfish conceptions of an ideal existence. Each sought a world
at peace which would personify their egotistic dreams. Even within
the life-span of most of us, another megalomaniac strode across
the world stage. He sent his blitzkreig-bent legious blazing across
Europe, bringing havoc and halocaust in his wake. There is grave
irony in the fact that Hitler could come forth, following the nakedly
aggressive expansionist theories he revealed in Mein Kampf,
and do it all in the name of peace.
So when I see in this day the leaders of nations similarly talking
pace while preparing for war, I take frightful pause. When I see
our country today intervening in what is basically a civil war,
destroying hundred of thousands of Vietnamese children with Napalm,
leaving broken bodies in countless fields and sending home half-men,
mutilated, mentally and physically; when I see the recalcitrant
unwillingness s of our government to create the atmosphere for a
negotiated settlement of this awful conflict by halting bombings
in the north and agreeing to talk with the Vietcong--and all this
in the name of pursuing the goal of peace--I tremble for our world.
I do so not only from dire recall of the nightmares wreaked in the
wars of yesterday, but also from dreadful realization of today's
possible nuclear destructiveness, and tomorrow's even more damnable
In the light of all this, I say that we must narrow the gaping
chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which
precipitate and perpetuate war. We are called upon to look up from
the quagmire of military programs and defense commitments and read
history's signposts and today's trends.
The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are
poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. One day we must
come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek,
but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful
ends through peaceful means. How much longer must we play at deadly
war games before we heed the plaintive pleas of the unnumbered dead
and maimed of past wars? Why can't we at long last grow up, and
take off our blindfolds, chart new courses, put our hands to the
rudder and set sail for the distant destination, the port city of
President John F. Kennedy said on one occasion, "Mankind
must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."
Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. There
may have been a time when war served as a negative good by preventing
the spread and growth of an evil force, but the destructive power
of modern weapons eliminates even the possibility that war may serve
as a negative good. If we assume that life is worth living and that
man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to
war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided
ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere,
no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will
leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political
turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment. A world war--God forbid!--will
leave only smouldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race
whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death. So if modern man continues
to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly
habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not
I do not wish to minimize the complexity of the problems that
need to be faced in achieving disarmament and peace. But I think
it is a fact that we shall not have the will, the courage and the
in sight to deal with such matters unless in this field we are prepared
to undergo a mental and spiritual re-evaluation, a change of focus
which will enable us to see that the things which seem most real
and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence
of death. We need to make a supreme effort to generate the readiness,
indeed the eagerness, to enter into the new world which is now possible.
We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path.
It is not enough to say "we must not wage war." It is
necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate
not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive
affirmation of peace. There is a fascinating little story that is
preserved for us in Greek literature about Ulysses and the Sirens.
The Sirens had the ability to sing so sweetly that sailors could
not resist steering toward their island. Many ships were lured upon
the rocks and the men forgot home, duty and honor as they flung
themselves into the sea to be embraced by arms that drew them down
to death. Ulysses, determined not to be lured by the Sirens, first
decided to tie himself tightly to the mast of his boat and his crew
stuffed their ears with wax. But finally he and his crew learned
a better way to save themselves: they took on board the beautiful
singer Orpheus whose melodies were sweeter than the music of the
Sirens. When Orpheus sang, who bothered to listen to the Sirens?
So we must fix our visions not merely on the negative expulsion
of war. But upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see
that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far
superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics
of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race
which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative
genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality
for all of the nations of the world. In short, we must shift the
arms race into a "peace race." If we have the will and
determination to mount such a peace offensive we will unlock hitherto
tightly sealed doors of hope and bring new light into the dark chambers
Let me say finally that I op pose the war in Viet Nam because
I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety
and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to
see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world.
I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America.
There can be no great disappointment where there is no g -eat love.
I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly
with the triple evils of racism, Extreme materialism and militarism.
We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national
Jesus once told a parable of a young man who left home and wandered
into a far country where, in adventure after adventure and sensation
after sensation, he sought life. But he never found it; he found
only frustration and bewilderment. The farther he moved from his
father's house, the closer he came to the house of despair. The
more he did what he liked, the less he liked what he did. After
the boy had wasted all, a famine developed in the land, and he ended
up seeking food in a pig's trough. But the story does not end there.
It goes on to say that in this state of disillusionment, blinding
frustration and homesickness, the boy "came to himself"
and said, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say to
him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee. "
The prodigal son was not himself when he left his father's house
or when he dreamed that pleasure was the end of life. Only when
he made up his mind to go home and be a son again did he really
come to himself. The parable ends with the boy returning home to
find a loving father waiting with outstretched arms and heart filled
with unutterable job.
This is an analogy of what America confronts today. Like all human
analogies, it is imperfect, but it does suggest some parallels worth
considering. America has strayed to the far country of racism and
militarism. The home that all too many Americans left was solidly
structured idealistically. Its pillars were soundly grounded in
the insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage--all men are made in
the image of God; all men are brothers; all men are created equal;
every man is heir to a legacy of dignity and worth; every man has
rights that are neither conferred by nor derived from the state,
they are God-given; out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon
the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home!
What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit! But America strayed
away; and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and
bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted
with irrationality. It has driven wisdom from her sacred throne.
This long and callous sojourn in the far country of racism and militarism
has brought a moral and spiritual famine to the nation.
It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to
return to her true home of brotherhood and peaceful pursuits. We
cannot remain silent as our nation engages in one of history's most
cruel and senseless wars. America must continue to have, during
these days of human travail, a company of creative dissenters. We
need them because the thunder of their fearless voices will be the
only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamour of
Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the
war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war we must spread the
propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights
movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and
preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We
must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher
destiny, to a new platens of compassion, to a more noble expression
I have tried to be honest today. To be honest is to confront the
truth. To be honest is to realize that the ultimate measure of a
man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and moments
of comfort, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments
of controversy. However unpleasant and inconvenient the truth may
be, I believe we must expose and face it if we are to achieve a
better quality of American life.
Just the other day, the distinguished American historian, Henry
Steele Commager, told a Senate Committee: Justice Holmes used
to say that the first lesson a judge had to learn was that he was
we do tend perhaps more than other nations, to transform
our wars into crusades
our current involvement in Viet Nam
is cast, increasingly, into a moral mold
It is my feeling
that we do not have the resources, material, intellectual or moral,
to be at once an American power, a European power and an Asian power.
I agree with Mr. Commager. And I would suggest that there is,
however, another kind of power that America can and should be. It
is a moral power, a power harnessed to the service of peace and
human beings, not an inhumane power unleased against defenseless
people. All the world knows that America is a great military power.
We need not be diligent in seeking to prove it. We must now show
the world our moral power.
There is an element of urgency in our re-directing American powers.
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted
with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum
of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination
is still the chief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare,
naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the
affairs of men" does not remain at flood: it ebbs. We may cry
out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant
to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled
residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words:
"Too late. " There is an invisible book of life that faithfully
records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes,
and having writ moves on
" We still have a choice today:
nonviolent co-existence or violent co-annihilation. History will
record the choice we made. It is still not too late to make the
proper choice. If we decide to become a moral power we will be able
to transform the jangling discords of this world into a beautiful
symphony of brotherhood. If we make the wise decision we will be
able to transform our pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm
of peace. This will be a glorious day. In reaching it we can fulfill
the noblest of American dreams.