Denouncing the Vietnam War
December 2, 1967
In 1952, in this city of Chicago, the Democratic party nominated as its candidate for the presidency Adlai Stevenson. His promise to his party and to the people of the country then was that he would talk sense to them ...
Under the presidency of John F. Kennedy his ideas were revived in new language and in a new spirit. To the clear sound of the horn was added the beat of a steady and certain drum.
John Kennedy set free the spirit of America. The honest optimism was released. Quiet courage and civility became the mark of American government, and new programs of promise and of dedication were presented: the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, the promise of equal rights for all Americans-- and not just the promise but the beginning of the achievement of that promise.
All the world looked to the United States with new hope, for here was youth and confidence and an openness to the future. Here was a country not being held by the dead hand of the past, nor frightened by the violent hand of the future which was grasping at the world.
This was the spirit of 1963.
What is the spirit of 1967? What is the mood of America and of the world toward America today?
It is a joyless spirit-- a mood of frustration, of anxiety, of uncertainty.
In place of the enthusiasm of the Peace Corps among the young people of America, we have protests and demonstrations.
In place of the enthusiasm of the Alliance for Progress, we have distrust and disappointment.
Instead of the language of promise and of hope, we have in politics today a new vocabulary in which the critical word is "war": war on poverty, war on ignorance, war on crime, war on pollution. None of these problems can be solved by war but only by persistent, dedicated, and thoughtful attention.
But we do have one war which is properly called a war-- the war in Vietnam, which is central to all of the problems of America.
A war of questionable legality and questionable constitutionality.
A war which is diplomatically indefensible; the first war in this century in which the United States, which at its founding made an appeal to the decent opinion of mankind in the Declaration of Independence, finds itself without the support of the decent opinion of mankind.
A war which cannot be defended in the context of the judgment of history. It is being presented in the context of an historical judgment of an era which is past. Munich appears to be the starting point of history for the secretary of state and for those who attempt to support his policies. What is necessary is a realization that the United States is a part of the movement of history itself; that it cannot stand apart, attempting to control the world by imposing covenants and treaties and by violent military intervention; that our role is not to police the planet but to use military strength with restraint and within limits, while at the same time we make available to the world the great power of our economy, of our knowledge, and of our good will.
A war which is not defensible even in military terms, which runs contrary to the advice of our greatest generals-- Eisenhower, Ridgway, Bradley, and MacArthur-- all of whom admonished us against becoming involved in a land war in Asia. Events have proved them right, as estimate after estimate as to the time of success and the military commitment necessary to success has had to be revised --always upward: more troops, more extensive bombing, a widening and intensification of the war. Extension and intensification have been the rule, and projection after projection of success have been proved wrong.
With the escalation of our military commitment has come a parallel of overleaping of objectives: from protecting South Vietnam, to nation building in South Vietnam, to protecting all of Southeast Asia, and ultimately to suggesting that the safety and security of the United States itself is at stake.
Finally, it is a war which is morally wrong. The most recent statement of objectives cannot be accepted as an honest judgment as to why we are in Vietnam. It has become increasingly difficult to justify the methods we are using and the instruments of war which we are using as we have moved from limited targets and somewhat restricted weapons to greater variety and more destructive instruments of war, and also have extended the area of operations almost to the heart of North Vietnam.
Even assuming that both objectives and methods can be defended, the war cannot stand the test of proportion and of prudent judgment. It is no longer possible to prove that the good that may come with what is called victory, or projected as victory, is proportionate to the loss of life and property and to other disorders that follow from this war ...
Beyond all of these considerations, two further judgments must be passed: a judgment of individual conscience, and another in the broader context of the movement of history itself.
The problem of individual conscience is, I think, set most clearly before us in the words of Charles Peguy in writing about the Dreyfus case: "a single injustice, a single crime, a single illegality, if it is officially recorded, ... will bring about the loss of one's honor, the dishonor of a whole people."
And the broader historical judgment as suggested by Arnold Toynbee in his comments on Rome's war with Carthage: "Nemesis is a potent goddess ... War posthumously avenges the dead on the survivors, and the vanquished on the victors. The nemesis of war is intrinsic. It did not need the invention of the atomic weapon to make this apparent. It was illustrated than two thousand years before our time, by Hannibal's legacy to Rome." Hannibal gained a "posthumous victory over Rome. Although he failed to defeat the great nation militarily because of the magnitude of her military manpower and solidity of the structure of the Roman Commonwealth, he did succeed in inflicting grievous wounds on the Commonwealth's body social and economic. They were so grievous that they festered into the revolution that was precipitated by Tiberius Gracchus and that did not cease till it was arrested by Augustus a hundred years later ... This revolution," Toynbee said, "was the nemesis of Rome's superficially triumphant career of military conquest," and ended, of course, the Republic and substituted for it the spirit of the dictators and of the Caesars.
Those of us who are gathered here tonight are not advocating peace at any price. We are willing to pay a high price for peace-- for an honorable, rational, and political solution to this war, a solution which wills enhance our world position, which will permit us to give the necessary attention to our other commitments abroad, both military and nonmilitary, and leave us with both human and physical resources and with moral energy to deal effectively with the pressing domestic problems of the United States itself.
I see little evidence that the administration has set any limits on the price which it will pay for a military victory which becomes less and less sure and more hollow and empty in promise.
The scriptural promise of the good life is one in which the old men see visions and the young men dream dreams. In the context of this war and all of its implications, the young men of America do not dream dreams, but many live in the nightmare of moral anxiety, of concern and great apprehension; and the old men, instead of visions which they can offer to the young, are projecting, in the language of the secretary of state, a specter of one billion Chinese threatening the peace and safety of the world-- a frightening and intimidating future.
The message from the administration today is a message of apprehension a message of fear, yes-- even a message of fear of fear.
This is not the real spirit of America. I do not believe that it is. This is a time to test the mood and spirit:
To offer in place of doubt-- trust.
In place of expediency-- right judgment.
In place of ghettos, let us have neighborhoods and communities.
In place of incredibility-- integrity.
In place of murmuring, let us have clear speech; let us again hear America singing.
In place of disunity, let us have dedication of purpose.
In place of near despair let us have hope.
This is the promise of greatness which was seated for us by Adlai Stevenson and which was brought to form and positive action in the words and actions of John Kennedy
Let us pick up again these lost strands and weave them again into the fabric of America.
Let us sort out the music from the sounds and again respond to the trumpet and the steady drum.