The most well known and highly publicized act of self-immolation by an American took place on November 2, 1965. Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker and father of three, immolated himself outside of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's office at the Pentagon. As if the location was not notable enough, there is another reason that Morrison's self-immolation gets more attention than other acts of self-immolation in America. Morrison brought his infant daughter with him to the Pentagon that day.
The headline of the Washinton Post on November 3, 1965 read, "Man Burns Self to Death at Pentagon, Baby in His Arms Saved from Fire Before Hundreds." The New York Times reported, "Baby of Quaker Escapes Unharmed." The November 15 edition of Newsweek took it a step further. "Morrison's macabre act of protest almost included the sacraficial murder of his own baby daughter."
Honestly though, no one is sure what exactly happened that day. The eyewitness accounts contradict each other. This point is illustrated in Paul Hendrickson's The Living and the Dead. Here, Hendrickson recounts five events that shaped McNamara's term as Secretary of Defense, one of which is Norman Morrison's self-immolation. Major Richard Lundquist reported that he discovered Morrison's daughter, Emily, sitting on the ground. He then picked her up and carried her to garden "where he hands her either to a woman who has a blanket or to Pentagon guards." Another witness, Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Johnson, told Hendrickson that he had to knock Emily out of Morrison's hands. But on second thought, admitted that he may have remembered it wrong. (Hendrickson, 215). Whatever the case may be, we know that Emily did survive and was picked up by Morrison's wife later that night.
What drove this man, a father of three young children, to burn himself to death? Although he never talked about taking his own life with his wife, several of Morrison's friends reported that he had discussed it with them. One friend, John Paisley, said, "We had to talk him out in the same manner last year. He wanted to do it when the monks in Saigon were killing themselves in that way" (Hendrickson, 223). A close friend of Morrison's, John Roemer, said that he had discussed self-immolation with Morrison on several occasions. When asked what he thought made Morrison decide to go through with it, Roemer replied,
I don't know. I don't know. He fought the war more and more deeply. I mean, when are you one of the Germans?...You have to be mentally different to fly in the face of received wisdom in this country. He played it out in his mind, I think, in terms of being a moral witness (Hendrickson, 224).
Roemer tried to explain Morrison's actions at a memorial service three weeks after his immolation:
In a society where it is normal for human beings to drop bombs on human targets, where it is normal to spend 50 percent of the individual's tax dollar on war, where it is normal...to have twelve times overkill capacity, Norman Morrison was not normal. He said, 'Let it stop' (Hendrickson, 224).
Anne Morrison sheds some light on Norman's mindset in a recent article for Winds of Peace, a Quaker newsletter. On the morning of November 2, the day he died, Morrison had read an article in I.F. Stone's Weekly, an anti-war paper popular at the time. The article recounted the accidental bombing of a Saigon church by American aircraft. A priest who was wounded in the bombing exclaimed, "I have seen my faithful burned up in napalm. I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits. I have seen my villiage razed. By God it's not possible" (Morrison Welsh, 5). Norman included the article in a letter he wrote to his wife before leaving for the Pentagon. In the letter, he wrote he "must act for the children in the priest's villiage" (Morrison Welsh, 4). Months, even years, of agitation over the escalading war in Vietnam boiled over when he read that article. In fact, reading about the children dying in Vietnam probably played a role in Morrison's (conscious or unconscious) decision to bring his daughter with him. Concerning that decision, his daughter, Emily wrote, "No matter what could have happened to me, I believe I was purposefully with my father ultimately to symbolize the tragedy and brutality of war. Because I lived, perhaps I symbolized hope as well" (Hendrickson, 236).
Unfortunately, it seems that that symbolism was missed by many people (see the Newsweek excerpt above). Instead of seeing Morrison's immolation as an act of sacrifice and an act of witness against an unjust war, alot of Americans just seem to have missed the point. Luckily, there were a few who understood the power of Morrison's message - the people of Vietnam. The Vietnamese, especially in the North, revered Morrison for his act of sacrifice. The list of honors is rather surprising: a street named for him near Hanoi, a postage stamp displaying his image, and several poems dedicated to him. In one poem, North Vietnamese poet To Huu writes from the perspective of Norman Morrison. The poem presents the juxtaposition of anger towards the American government and the love Norman Morrison had for his daughter. The third stanza reads
Where are you hiding? In the graveyard
Of your five-cornered house
Each corner an continent.
You hide yourself
From the flaming world
As an ostrich hides it head in the
Those are some strong words to say the least. To Huu's words bring up a very interesting question. How was McNamara affected by Morrison's immolation, which took place within viewing distance from his window? Hendrickson writes that around the time of Morrison's immolation, perhaps even before, McNamara had started to doubt the possibility of an American victory in Vietnam. In fact, while giving testimony in the 1984 Westmoreland/CBS trial, McNamara "stated under oath that no later than 1966 he had come to believe the war could not be won militarily, and that indeed he may have arrived at that conclusion by the latter part of 1965" (Hendrickson, 234). Hendrickson then points out that McNamara kept his position until February of 1968. If he felt so strongly about the Vietnam issue, why didn't leave his position in protest?
Before I crucify him, however, it would only be fair to look at what McNamara himself has to say about Morrison's immolation and its effect on his decisions. In In Retrospect, one of his many memoirs, McNamara writes, “Morrison’s death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth” (216). He adds that following the tragedy he bottled up his emotions, which created tension at home. Looking back on the protest movement as a whole, he writes, “Surprising as it may seem to some, I felt great sympathy for the protestors’ concerns” (217). As true as that may be, Hendrickson’s point still stands. If McNamara did feel so much sympathy for the protestors, why didn’t he do more to defuse the Vietnam conflict? He was after-all, the Secretary of Defense. Yes, at the time of Morrison’s immolation McNamara did begin raising questions concerning America’s chances of success in Vietnam. However, it is obvious that his “sympathy” alone was not enough to end the war.
McNamara, Robert S. with Brian VanDeMark. In Retrospect. New York: Random House, 1995.
Morrison Welsh, Anne. "Norman Morrison, Deed of Life, Deed of Death." Winds of Peace 2 (Jan. 2000): 4-5.
read the whole article here.