“An Inferno That Even the Mind of Dante Could Not Envision”: Martin Luther King on Nuclear Weapons

Although Martin Luther King is most famous for championing racial and economic justice and nonviolent protest, an aspect of King’s thought that has received relatively less attention is his opposition to the ultimate tools of violence, nuclear weapons.

Historian Vincent Intondi, in his work African Americans against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement and related writing, has recounted some of King’s most memorable statements on nuclear weapons.[1] Drawing on Intondi’s research and on other speeches and writings of King’s, I present several significant statements he made on these weapons that threaten all life.

In an early paper written in 1951, probably for a course at Crozer Theological Seminary, King commented on how nuclear weapons’ invention had created the need for a new approach to international relations:

During the five years in which scientists harnessed the power of the atom as a weapon of war, man’s scientific progress leaped forward at least 500 years…Man’s social progress has failed to keep abreast with his scientific progress. Unless man by his will can bridge the gap, he is doomed to destruction.

Many, therefore, stand looking at the world’s calamity as at a gigantic spectacle, feeling that the problem is well-nigh insoluble. I do not see how we can take that position, however, if we perceive what the gist of the world’s problem really is: a lack of world brotherhood. I am convinced that if our civilization is to survive, we must rise from the narrow horizon of clashing nationalism to the wide horizon of world cooperation…World brotherhood is no longer a beautiful ideal, but an absolute necessity for civilization’s survival. We must come to see that all humanity is so interwoven in a single process that whatever affects the man in Russia also affects the man in America.[2]

After his rise to prominence as a civil rights leader, King commented

I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned. It cannot be disputed that a full-scale nuclear war would be utterly catastrophic…Even countries not directly hit by bombs would suffer through global fall-outs. All of this leads me to say that the principal objective of all nations must be the total abolition of war. War must be finally eliminated or the whole of mankind will be plunged into the abyss of annihilation.[3]

Speaking before the War Resisters League, he connected the struggle for racial equality with that for peace and against nuclear weapons:

Not only in the South, but throughout the nation and the world, we live in an age of conflicts, an age of biological weapons, chemical warfare, atomic fallout and nuclear bombs. It is a period of conflict between the mammoth powers… It is a period of uncertainty and fear. Every man, woman, and child lives, not knowing if they shall see tomorrow’s sunrise…

We must no longer cooperate with policies that degrade man and make for war. The great need in the world today is to find the means for the social organization of the power of non-violence…

As you know, the establishment of social justice in our nation is of profound concern to me. This great struggle is in the interest of all Americans and I shall not be turned from it. Yet no sane person can afford to work for social justice within the nation unless he simultaneously resists war and clearly declares himself for non-violence in international relations.

What will be the ultimate value of having established social justice in a context where all people, Negro and White, are merely free to face destruction by strontium 90 or atomic war…

Today the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.[4]

During a subsequent trip to India, King gave a radio address in which he declared

The peace-loving peoples of the world have not yet succeeded in persuading my own country, America, and Soviet Russia to eliminate fear and disarm themselves…It may be that just as India had to take the lead and show the world that national independence could be achieved nonviolently, so India may have to take the lead and call for universal disarmament.[5]

In his book The Strength to Love, King identified the danger of nuclear war as rooted in mutual fear and competition among nations:

Witness our frenzied efforts to construct fallout shelters. As though even these offer sanctuary from an H-Bomb attack! Witness the agonizing desperation of our petitions that our government increase the nuclear stockpile. But our fanatical quest to maintain “a balance of terror” only increases our fear and leaves nations on tiptoes lest some diplomatic faux pas ignite a frightful holocaust…

Our deteriorating international situation is shot through with the lethal darts of fear. Russia fears America, and America fears Russia. Like-wise China and India, and the Israelis and the Arabs. These fears include another nation’s aggression, scientific and technological supremacy, and economic power, and our own loss of status and power.[6]

Later in his public life, after he had become an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, King continued to warn about the dangers of nuclear weapons:

I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years…If somebody doesn’t bring an end to this suicidal thrust that we see in the world today, none of us are going to be around, because somebody’s going to make the mistake through our senseless blunderings of dropping a nuclear bomb somewhere. And then another one is going to drop. And don’t let anybody fool you, this can happen within a matter of seconds…They have twenty-megaton bombs in Russia right now that can destroy a city as big as New York in three seconds, with everybody wiped away, and every building. And we can do the same thing to Russia and China.[7]

In an address given a couple days later, King again brought together the causes of racial justice and peace:

We have played havoc with the destiny of the world and we have brought the whole world closer to nuclear confrontation…[T]he alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a great suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world will be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat will be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not envision. We have to see that and work diligently and passionately for peace.

I am still convinced that the struggle for peace and the struggle for civil rights as we call it in America happen to be tied together. These two issues are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate. And I am convinced that these two issues are tied inextricably together and I feel that the people who are working for civil rights are working for peace; I feel that the people working for peace are working for civil rights and justice.[8]

Much has changed since King’s time, but the evils of racism, poverty, war, and nuclear weapons are still all too present. We would do well to listen to his words today.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Vincent J. Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015); Vincent Intondi, “Why Dr. King Opposed the Atomic Bomb,” Arms Control Now, January 14, 2018, https://bit.ly/3fyjZmM.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Science Surpasses the Social Order,” available at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed January 17, 2022, https://stanford.io/3fukhee.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Advice for Living” column, Ebony, December 1957, quoted in Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 63-64.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Address at the Thirty-sixth Annual Dinner of the War Resisters League,” c. February 2, 1959, available at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University, accessed January 17, 2022, https://stanford.io/3qJ3vPb.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Farewell Statement for All India Radio, March 9, 1959,” quoted in Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 64.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Strength to Love, 1963, quoted in Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 66-67.

[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, February 4, 1968, available at Beacon Broadside, accessed January 17, 2022, https://bit.ly/3KiSzPF.

[8] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Speech to Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, February 6, 1968,” quoted in Intondi, African Americans against the Bomb, 80.

© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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