Unfortunately, there is very little information available about the other Americans who immolated themselves in protest to the Vietnam War. It seems that in many ways, American society has tried to forget about these brave men and women of conscious and their attempts to give us all a wake up call. Perhaps that is part of a bigger attempt to forget about the whole Vietnam era.
Although Norman Morrison receives much more media recognition, he actually was not the first American to immolate him/herself in protest to the Vietnam War. Alice Herz, an 82 year old pacifist, immolated herself on a Detroit street corner on March 16, 1965.
One of the few sources of information on Herz’s immolation I have is a short New York Times article from March 17, 1965. The article reports that passerby beat out the flames after Herz poured cleaning fluid on herself and ignited it. She was subsequently taken to the hospital and according to the article, was in critical condition. A Fire Department lieutenant said that Herz had spoken to him on the way to the hospital. She explained her actions with the following words: “I did it to protest the arms race all over the world. I wanted to burn myself like the monks in Vietnam did.” Again, we see that the self-immolations in South Vietnam had a definite impact on protestors in the U.S.
The article reports that the police found a note by Herz protesting "the use of high office by our President, L.B.J., in trying to wipe out small nations." In the note, Herz criticized Harry Truman for similar actions and said, “I wanted to call attention to this problem by choosing the illuminating death of a Buddhist.” The article went on to quote Herz’s daughter who believed that her mother’s act “wasn’t mental derangement or a psychological compulsion”, but, “an idea about the need to do something that would call attention to the gravity of the situation.” The clarity and lucidity of the note also attest to that conclusion.
The article concludes with a statement by the pastor of the first Unitarian Universalist Church, which Herz had attended for 10-15 years. The pastor called her “an intellectual ‘in the best sense of the word’ who was once a Quaker ‘and still thinks of herself as a Quaker.’” The pastor added, “This is not the work of a crackpot.”
There are several similarities between Alice Herz and Norman Morrison that are worth noting. Perhaps most importantly, both were devout Quakers (at least at some point in their lives) and pacifists. Also, it is obvious in both cases that they had been concerned about America’s foreign policies for some time. Also, they both made reference to the self-immolations in Vietnam.
There is only one other American self-immolation that I have found any significant documentation for, that of Roger LaPorte. LaPorte, 22, immolated himself outside the United Nations building in New York City on November 9, 1965, one week after Norman Morrison did the same outside of the Pentagon.
The headline in the November 10th New York Times reads simply, “Man, 22, Immolates Himself In Antiwar Protest at U.N.” The article reports that LaPorte, “a member of the Catholic Worker movement,” immolated himself at dawn as he sat cross-legged in front of the U.N. building. Police and U.N. guards beat out the flames and LaPorte was taken to the hospital. On the way, LaPorte, still conscious, explained his action by saying, “I’m a Catholic Worker. I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.” With burns covering 95 percent of his body, the article reports, LaPorte nodded yes when asked by hospital psychiatrists if he wanted to live. According to a Newsweek article he then fell into a coma and died 33 hours later.
The Times article goes on to quote Arthur Goldberg, the chief U.S. delegate to the UN at the time. Almost 40 years later, his statement is still chilling.
Mr. Goldberg said that while the youth had undoubtedly been impelled by ‘the highest principles and motives’ his action was ‘terribly unfortunate and terribly unnecessary…Perhaps there has been failure on our part,’ he went on. ‘Perhaps we are not sufficiently communicating to the people of the world our dedication, our attachment and complete commitment to the idea that peace is the only way for mankind in the nuclear age.’
LaPorte, like Herz and Morrison, was very committed to religious practice. Before joining the Catholic Workers, he had attended a seminary in Vermont and hoped to become a monk. He, however, withdrew from the seminary early and attended college in New York.
The only other American whose self-immolation I have found a reference to is that of George Winne. The only information I have concerning Winne is that he immolated himself sometime in 1970, when he was attending the University of California at San Diego. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any additional information.
Jones, David R. "Woman, 82, Sets Herself Afire In Street as Protest on Vietnam." New York Times 18 March 1965: A3