This letter was sent by Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) and signed by 11 other members of Congress to Jeh Johnson, general counsel for the Department of Defense. 

Dear Mr. Johnson,

This month, all of us have, in our different ways, honored the life and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King left a profound impact on this nation, and on each of us as public servants, and transformed the way we think about the most contentious of topics – be it racism, poverty or warfare – conflicts with which our society continues to grapple. While we are certainly closer to the realization of Dr. King’s dreams, we still have much work to do. Violence remains pervasive in America; the gap between our rich and our poor has grown substantially.  Racism still lingers. If we are to truly honor Dr. King, then, our efforts must be devoted to transforming the structures that perpetuate violence, inequality and racism. 

In your remarks at the Pentagon on January 13, 2011, you noted Martin Luther King’s hatred of violence and that war was, in his words, a “descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy,” and that “returning violence for violence multiples violence.” Yet, in your same remarks, you suggest that, “if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that… our Nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms.”

We are deeply concerned by this intimation and respectfully request that you reconsider how Dr. King’s life and legacy be applied to legitimate current policy and practice. 

In fact, Dr. King was quite clear about his feelings on war. “War is not the answer,” he said, suggesting that humanity could rise above its proclivity to wage war. “There is nothing,” he said, “except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.”

Dr. King did not simply hate violence for its apparent inefficacy in ridding the world of violence; he also embodied nonviolence personally and professionally because he believed it was the superior and more effective alternative. Dr. King never once legitimized violence as a tool for social change.  In fact, the opposite was true. “Change,” he said, “comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action." 

Dr. King’s vocal critique of the Vietnam War began shortly after America’s first combat troop deployment in 1965, and continued in subsequent years as cause of equal and inseparable priority to King’s concerns on poverty and racism. Dr. King saw war as an “enemy of the poor”, having watched the nation’s poverty program broken and eviscerated “as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war”.  

In words that are as relevant today, given our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as they were then with our war in Vietnam, Dr. King pleaded with us:

“Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world, as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours. We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.”

We, the undersigned, could not agree more with Dr. King’s words above. An eye for an eye, to quote your speech at the Pentagon, indeed leaves everybody blind. We trust that Dr. King’s efforts to promote nonviolence in the domestic and foreign conflicts of his time will not be contorted or distorted to support America’s current conflicts abroad. We do not believe this is kind of dream Dr. King was envisioning.



Michael Honda

Member of Congress

Chair, Afghanistan Taskforce

Congressional Progressive Caucus


Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.)

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.)

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.)

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio)

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.)

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.)

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.)

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.)