King's Legacy: Americans Must Choose Between War and Social Progress

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Mark Weisbrot
April 4, 2003 

Thirty-five years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

Exactly one year before, on April 4, 1967, he had made one of the most fateful speeches of his life, denouncing the Vietnam War and calling on young men to resist the draft. 

". . . I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitating its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube," he said.

 "So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such."

These words proved to be prophetic. But as true as they were then, they are many times truer today. While George W. Bush was requesting $75 billion from Congress as a first installment for the war in Iraq, state governments were slashing billions from education and health care spending for the poor.

No one knows how much this war and subsequent occupation of Iraq will cost. Estimates of just the budgetary costs run into the hundreds of billions over the next few years. If we take into account the damage to our already fragile economy, it could reach trillions over the next decade.

It is easy to see how any efforts to help poor people -- whether through employment, health care, or even providing children with a decent education -- will be continually thwarted by military and security spending. This is even truer today than in King's time, because the whole center of gravity of budget politics has shifted drastically in the post-Reagan era.

Today Democratic leaders outflank Republicans from the right in calling for balanced budgets and fiscal conservatism. This extremism reached its peak a few years ago, when the federal government was running surpluses, and -- rather than try to solve any of our nation's festering problems -- President Clinton proposed to pay off the entire national debt.

At the same time, the level of domestic greed deemed acceptable during wartime has reached hitherto unheard of proportions. A cartoon by Mike Keefe of the Denver Post summed it up: two American soldiers are staggering through a sandstorm in the Iraqi desert, and one says to the other, "It could be worse -- we could be rich and only getting half the tax cut we expected."

In King's era the federal government enacted Medicare and Medicaid, bringing health care to millions of elderly and poor for the first time. The whole country, including the poor, experienced a rapid rise in living standards from 1946 to1973, despite the trillions of dollars wasted on the Cold War and two hot wars (Korea and Vietnam).

The Bush team aims to substitute an open-ended "war against terrorism," including pre-emptive and preventive wars, for the Cold War and "anti-communist" crusades of the past. But this time -- because of the institutional and political changes of the last two decades -- if their pretext for foreign intervention proves successful, there will be no accompanying social progress on the home front.

The last election also shows how militarism abroad hurts us at home. The Bush team used Iraq to win both houses of Congress for their party. Then they used Congress to continue their regressive domestic agenda. The war will provoke more terrorism, which can be used to justify more military spending and war, and the cycle can continue indefinitely.

It is natural to focus on the issues that one is committed to, and for King, too, it was not an easy choice to risk being diverted from his struggle for civil rights and against poverty. He knew that he would be vilified in the press for speaking out forcefully against the war, and he was.

But King was also a moral leader, and was repulsed by what he called an "evil, unjust war" and an "attempt at re-colonization" of Vietnam. "They must see Americans as strange liberators," he said. "So far we have killed a million of them -- mostly children."

Three and a half decades later, the moral choice we face is -- more than ever before -- also a political and economic choice. Anyone who cares about the one-sixth of our children who grow up in poverty, or the 41 million Americans without health insurance, must also oppose this war. They will have to help force our political leaders to abandon their imperial ambitions, and their wars for "regime change" in selected countries. Or they can forget about making this country a better place to live.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy