WASHINGTON -- Although the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is best remembered by the American public for fighting against racial discrimination, he was also an outspoken opponent of war and violence, most notably of the war in Vietnam. A top Obama administration official at the Department of Defense, however, argued Thursday that if King were alive, he would understand and perhaps even support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a Pentagon commemoration of King's accomplishments, DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson suggested that today's wars are in line with the reverend's teachings.
"I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack," Johnson said. "Every day, our servicemen and women practice the dangerousness -- the dangerous unselfishness Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968."
In April 1967, King spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War in a landmark speech at Riverside Church in New York City, criticizing the large amounts of money the United States was spending on fighting rather than taking care of its citizens domestically:
Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor. [...]
This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Salon's Justin Elliott wrote that while it's impossible to know what King would think of today's wars, this speech "strongly suggests that he would be an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, for that matter, the secret wars in Yemen and Pakistan."
King's widow, Coretta Scott King, was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq before her death in 2006. "She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a major figure in the civil rights movement who knew King. "We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor."
U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States could build 20 schools with the cost of funding one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for one year, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
The Pentagon did not return a request for comment.
UPDATE, 4:26 p.m.: ABC's Jake Tapper notes that Johnson graduated from King's alma mater, Morehouse College, and attended school with Martin Luther King III. Here's the transcript for his remarks on King and the war, via Firedoglake:
But, the most controversial and difficult stand Dr. King took the final year of his life was against the war in Vietnam. Other civil rights leaders urged him to remain silent on the issue, not to alienate President Lyndon Johnson, who had been their best friend on civil rights.
Martin Luther King hated violence. He believed that violence "is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy," and that "returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars . . . He also believed "an eye for eye leaves everybody blind."
So, beginning in April 1967, one year before he died, Dr. King, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, turned this message into an impassioned plea against the war in Vietnam. Indeed, from that point on he questioned the whole rationale for war in general. From the gospel song "Down by the Riverside," Dr. King repeated the line: "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More."
Today, at the Defense Department, how do we honor and respect Dr. King's message and legacy and reconcile it with our mission? We are a nation at war, and it is the responsibility of this Department to prosecute that war.
People like to speculate about what Dr. King would believe and say if he were alive today.
I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our Nation's military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.
To our individual servicemen and women who wonder whether their mission is consistent with Martin Luther King's own message and beliefs, I refer you again to his very last speech in Memphis, the night before he died.
In it Dr. King talked about Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan on the dangerous road to Jericho. With great effect Dr. King drew a parallel between the priest and the Levite who passed by the man on the road to Jericho, beaten and robbed and in need of aid, and failed to help him, and those in Memphis in April 1968 who hesitated to help the striking sanitation workers because they feared for their own jobs, for their own comfortable positions in the Memphis community.
He criticized those who are "compassionate by proxy," and said to those in the audience in Memphis that night "The question is not, if I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me? The question is, if I do not stop the sanitation workers, what will happen to them."
In 2011, I draw the parallel to our own servicemen and women, deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, away from the comfort of conventional jobs, their families and their homes. Those in today's volunteer Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have made the conscious decision to travel a dangerous road, and personally stop and administer aid to those who want peace, freedom and a better place in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in defense of the American people. Every day our servicemen and women practice that "dangerous unselfishness" Dr. King preached on April 3, 1968.
In accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, our President recognized that, in response to an unprovoked terrorist attack, war is inevitable to secure peace, and that the role of the military is to keep peace.
The irony of next Monday is that Mrs. King's dream of a national holiday for her husband has become a reality; Dr. King's dream of a world at peace with itself has not.
WATCH (beginning at approximately 22:19):