“Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?”

24 January 2018

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a Visiting Presidential Fellow in the Religion Department at Yale University. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press, tentatively entitled The Other Intellectuals: Raymond Aron and the United States. He is on the editorial board of The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville. 

Review of Nikhil Singh, Race and America’s Long War (University of California Press, 2017).


What did the war in Vietnam have to do with the Civil Rights movement? According to the New York Times editorial board in 1967, nothing at all. The Times argued this while condemning  Martin Luther King’s Jr’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech given that same year before an audience of 3000 at New York City’s Riverside Church. In the speech, King forcibly argued that the injustices of Vietnam War served as a barrier for preventing blacks from achieving justice in the United States.


King knew the speech would be controversial. He told the congregants of the complaints he had received: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask.” King insisted that the gains of the Civil Rights movement had been sidetracked by a war that now prevented the government from investing the “necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor.” The adventure in Vietnam redirected “men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” War for King was “an enemy of the poor” and he was compelled “to attack it as such.”


The New York Times could not have disagreed more: “This is a fusing of two public problems,” they argued, “that are distinct and separate.” By drawing them together, King had done a disservice to both, they argued: “The moral issues in Vietnam are less clear-cut than he suggests; the political strategy of uniting the peace movement and the civil rights movement could very well be disastrous for both causes.” King’s rejoinder to the Times‘s reasoning was categorical: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.”


The issues at stake in King’s polemic continues to be divisive today, including for black activists and intellectuals. A major point of contention Cornel West’s much publicized debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates was his repeated criticism that Coates touts an “apolitical pessimism” that “has no place for keeping track of US imperial crimes: the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc.” Echoing West, the Kenyan writer Shailja Patel recently complained that in Coates’s work, “an unrealistic and ahistorical code has been invoked, of global solidarity among people of colour, to silence debate on the actual mass slaughter of black and brown bodies by the first black head of Empire,” that is, Barack Obama. In order to be fully accountable to each other Patel demands, “the imperialism the US engenders, even in its citizens of colour,” must be addressed.


Part of the problem is perhaps academic in nature: Scholars all too often separate questions of global power from domestic politics. It is exactly this tendency that Nikhil Singh – a professor of social and cultural history at New York University – seeks to overcome in his brilliant new book, Race and America’s Long War. Inspired by King’s insights, Singh offers a timely interrogation of how American imperial ambitions since Vietnam have been “part and parcel of the augmentation of domestic security policies that have disproportionately targeted black and brown people at home.”


Singh presents a powerful argument for demonstrating his case. Prior to World War II the United States had little incentive to reckon with the “unique resiliency” of its violent settler colonial heritage, its territorial expansion, Indian removals, African slavery, and institutionalized racism. America’s rise to become a global power and the specter of Communism changed this. Cold War elites, who generally cared little about racial equality, nonetheless took a realist stance on embracing strategies of cosmopolitanism and universalism so as to reduce the post-colonial temptation for communism. Singh reveals that even Richard Nixon, running for the presidency in 1960, could remark as follows:


I am deeply concerned with the impact of racial division in terms of world power. Most of the people of the world belong to the colored races. They deeply resent any slurs based on race. If we of the United States are considered racists, then we may lose to the Communist camp hundreds of millions of potential friends and allies. That would leave us disastrously isolated in a hostile world.


The Civil Rights successes of the 1950s and 1960s, then, rode the Cold War waves of competition between superpowers and decolonization. But in reality, Singh argues, such anti-racist realism was nothing more than a “controlling fiction.” There was no better demonstration of this fiction than the Vietnam War, which exposed the United States as an imperial power opposing a just and peaceful decolonization. American liberal internationalism thereby appeared as a mere myth. At the domestic level, Singh argues that the Vietnam War radicalized both the Black Power and peace moments, and the ensuing urban unrest eventually led to Nixon’s war on crime, which saw equipment transfers from military to police forces. From the end of the Vietnam War up to the present – and especially after the fall of Communism – the United States has made its priority national security and “the costly maintenance of an absolute preponderance of US military power.” This has led both to the mass incarceration of perceived enemies at home, and the elimination of perceived enemies abroad through “dirty” wars and drone strikes abroad


Both the erosion of democratic norms and the resurgence of hard-edged racial themes in American politics are therefore not novel developments in the decades since Vietnam. As Singh argues, they are inherent to the country since its founding. In effect, the Vietnam War revitalized legacies of racist state violence that Singh traces back to the colonial frontier and the practice of slavery. In this sense, Trump’s rise has laid America bare.


But if Singh’s approach appears in line with Cornel West’s attempt to connect American foreign and domestic policy, does it not also imply the same sort of political pessimism of Coates’s writing? Indeed, Race and America’s Long War does give the impression that the violence that lies at the country’s foundation continues to defines it today. At the same time, however, Singh remains faithful to the insights of King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, the inspiration for his book. Even as Trump continues to tear asunder the veil of post-1945 American universalism that has “obscured murderousness overseas and spatial apartheid at home,” those opposed to his vision must take up King’s “fierce urgency” and continue on against American racism, inequality, and militarism all at once.


Photo credit: Marion Trikosko, Martin Luther King Malcolm X, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.


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