An Analysis of Martin Luther King Jr’s Beyond Vietnam

Martin Luther King Jr. builds an argument to persuade his audience that American involvement in the Vietnam War is unjust.

Analysis of Martin Luther King Jr's Beyond Vietnam
Martin Luther King Jr. Src: Pixabay

Read a rhetorical analysis of Martin Luther King Jr’s Beyond Vietnam: Time to break silence.

Apart from being an advocate of Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr was a great leader and rhetor of all times. While his I Have a Dream speech is considered his best one, his other speeches too offer a glimpse of his powerful rhetoric and his art of persuasion. However, the persuasiveness of his speeches does not come solely from his ability to connect with his audience’s emotions but from an extraordinary ability to reason and validate his point. King Jr delivered his “Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break Silence” in 1967 in NewYork City. In his speech on the meaninglessness of the Vietnam war and to persuade the audience to listen to its own conscience rather than to conform to the idea of war in the name of patriotism, King Jr draws from the realms of economy, society, polity as well as religion and philosophy. To help his audience see that Vietnam is only madness, a wastage of resources and an ignorance of more pressing concerns, King once again affirms that war was never a means of peace. He includes various perspectives and addresses several counterarguments with the intention to prove the futility of war as a tool to address social, economic and political problems. He evaluates the psychological as well as social, political and economic implications of America’s participation in Vietnam war. King’s main motive was to persuade people to see how war was destroying lives, society and economy and being silent meant being in approval of the war. War was an inhuman and barbaric exercise and America’s participation was not in human interest.

Apart from drawing a parallel between the situation in Vietnam and America, he shows neither stood to gain from it. The war was only going to consume lives and resources. In this way, he condemns and questions the Vietnam war and its relevance at a time when America had several of its own major problems to address. He also affirms that people have better options and that the idea of war, despite that it sounds patriotic is basically inhuman. In this way, he appeals to the emotions of the audience and challenges the logic behind an unnecessary war. King Jr knew that war creates confusion and that his audience’s mind was boggled with questions. Some would be uninterested and some not knowing what to do. However, all wanted clarity on the subject. It is why he constructs an argument that will help people decide which side to stand with and which to not. He tries to make people see the other side of the picture where both black and white men were being pushed into hell without considering and questioning the outcome.

King successfully brings out the irony behind the war through the use of figurative speech and plenty of imagery to paint a picture of destruction and doom in Vietnam. Apart from the use of ethos, pathos and logos in his speech, he builds a rock solid argument by involving religious figures and facts from history and philosophy.  He repeatedly stresses upon breaking the silence because in this situation being silent was a sin. To make his claims stand out and have a deeper impact, he uses instances from Vietnamese history to show the level of injustice faced by its people how war has destabilized them. In this way, he personifies war as a demon that consumes people’s lives and a nation’s valuable resources which would otherwise be happy if it was not being ruined by bombs and bullets. War makes the innocent lose hope and  leaves behind horrific memories for generations on both sides. He quotes Langston Hughes, in his speech to establish a connection between the struggle for civil liberty in United States and the oppression in Vietnam. Just like the people of America, the Vietnamese also have a right to live free on the lands of their fathers.

Right at the outset, King involves religious figures to establish the credibility for his reason and to prove that war was improper and inhuman. He says, “ And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us”. The war with Vietnam was just as unjust as unnecessary.

Both religion and society condemn war and even popular religious figures have stood up to speak against it for the toll it takes upon human lives and for it is against the spirit of humanity and brotherhood. To further strengthen, the credibility of his argument and question the morality behind the war, he says, “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”. In this way, while he successfully draws a parallel between the struggles of Vietnamese people and that  of the Americans, he also lays the foundation for the next stages of his argument.

To construct a clear and strong picture and show how condemnable the war exercises in Vietnam were, King compared it with an arena of gladiators which even if it amuses and engages, is something absolutely animal and barbaric. He notes, “as if it were some idle political plaything of 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”. In this way, he tries to stress that even if we have progressed, we have grown  nowhere better than the ancient barbarians that killed for fun. He calls the situation “some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war”. His speech grows deeply sarcastic at times. He does it to engage people’s imagination and to awaken their consciences. This is an attempt to connect with the audience’s emotions and prove that the war was imposed on them and even if politicians call it patriotic, society and people would never love war. Moreover, it is the poor and the helpless mainly who are falling prey to this war game.

The war according to King Jr. is nothing more than a political game played for the sake of fun and ego. America is overlooking its own poor and pouring resources into a war which does not offer any political, economic or social advantage. It is just a  continuation of the regimes that have been trying to oppress the Vietnamese. The irony is explicit in King’s words that the war is just an attempt to cover and hide the more pressing issues before America. The idea of nonviolence is much larger than ordinary people see. It encompasses all humanity and not just America. So, what America is doing to other nations like Vietnam also matters. The problems being faced by either America or Vietnam were never going to be solved through rifles but through peaceful and nonviolent action. King also links the issue to the question of America’s integrity. To get his point through and make the meaning clear, King uses phrases like “break the silence of the night”, “a vocation of agony”, ‘based upon the mandates of conscience’, ‘deeper level of awareness’. His choice of words in the speech is meant to have a direct effect on the audience’s psychology. However, his words while they aim to bring the pain of the Vietnamese alive before the audience also include a request that a progressive nation should stand with humanity and not lose control of its feelings.

The persuasive techniques utilized by King Jr are aimed at making people think over the outcomes of Vietnam war and if it was not against America’s integrity. He means to make people ask questions of themselves and ponder over the meaninglessness and uselessness of war and what would remain behind once the war was over. While his words clearly deliver his disappointment over the path American government had chosen, it also expresses a clear intention to not be with the wrong and instead listen to one’s inner voice. However, his speech is not filled entirely with only emotionally charged words and phrases or just with pictures of war and destruction or poverty. Instead, King chooses to use facts to show what an illness war is. He picks from history as well as politics and also supports his choices with philosophical wisdom. The American intervention came at a time when the Vietnamese were expecting freedom and peaceful life and it came in a manner that was even devastating compared to the French occupation. This makes the irony explicit and that Vietnam being a smaller and weaker nation was being made to face injustice which it never deserved or desired. His use of imagery and diction is aimed at making people break their silence and express their anger clearly.

Apart from highlighting the wicked nature of the war, King Jr ‘s speech also sets the urgency for protest. He notes how essential it is to break silence before all hope is lost. He expresses his anguish at seeing people of Vietnam and America suffer and also notes that if American folks do not break their silence they stand to lose much more than their opponents. King Jr makes a strong statement against war and his speech successfully evokes compassion and sympathy for the poor and the weak in both Vietnam and America. As he notes towards the end of his speech, “If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood “. His speech emphasizes at transitioning from war to peace and from violence to a nonviolent and peaceful society. It is why while he attacks America’s intervention in Vietnam on the one hand, on the other he brings people’s attention towards the other side of life where America can become a beacon of hope and peace for the entire world including Vietnam. In his argument, King mounts a multi-pronged attack on America’s participation in the Vietnam war and also gains people’s sympathy for the Vietnamese. His choice of diction and use of imagery help him deliver his point effectively in a manner that impresses both the audience’s heart and mind.