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When Antiwar Protest Turned Fatal: The Ballad of Norman Morrison | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

When Antiwar Protest Turned Fatal: The Ballad of Norman Morrison

The wars in Iraq an Afghanistan were notably, and tragically,  absent as campaign issues this autumn.  Street demonstrations?  Very scattered.   Various forms of protest continue online but it's a long way from the heated Vietnam era.   This Monday, in fact, marks the 41st anniversary of the largest mass antiwar march ever, the November 15, 1969, demo in Washington, DC, which I attended as a college student.

But this month marks another notable anniversary in the annals of Vietnam protest: the day Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker from Baltimore handed his infant daughter off to a bystander, doused himself with kerosene and set himself ablaze under Pentagon chief Robert McNamara's window at the Pentagon.

One week later, on November 10, 1965, another antiwar protester, Roger LaPorte, did the same thing in front of the United Nations building in New York.

Morrison had been particularly saddened by the burning of villages and killing of civilians in Vietnam. A Catholic priest's account of a bombing in a Vietnamese village particularly distressed him. He had resisted taxes, demonstrated, and lobbied in Washington, but now said to his wife (she recalls), "It's not enough. What can be done to stop this war?"

In his final letter to Anne, his wife (they had three children), he wrote, "Know that I love thee, but I must go to help the children of the priest's village." It is believed that he carried his daughter to the Pentagon that day to remind him of the children he was trying to save in Vietnam.

McNamara would later describe Morrison's death as "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."

Morrison became a kind of folk hero in US antiwar circles, his name or face carried on antiwar posters for several years. North Vietnam named a street after him and issued a stamp in his honor—the possession of which was declared illegal in the US. Morrison's widow visited Vietnam in 1999 and met a poet who had written a tribute to her husband. On a visit to this country in 2007, Nguyen Minh Triet, the country's leader, read the poem near the site where Morrison set himself ablaze.

McNamara would devote two pages in his memoir, In Retrospect, to Morrison's death. Morrison's widow wrote to McNamara, thanking him for at least making a partial public apology about his role in the Vietnam War. He called her to thank her. In an interview, she said, "Norman's death is a wound that we've both carried. In an odd twist of fate, we have come into a kind of communion with each other. We are both victims of the war."

But others criticized McNamara for exploiting her letter and running part of it in an ad for his book.

Paul Hendrickson, the former Washington Post reporter and author, wrote at length about the Morrison self-immolation in his book, The Living and the Dead.  Here is what he told Brian Lamb on C-Span in a 1996 appearance:

"Anne Morrison Welsh—her full name now because she remarried—is a deeply forgiving woman, a deeply Christian woman and has taught me personally a lot about the nature of forgiveness. I end this book, and we can talk about that later, I end this book, literally, on the last page of the book, going back to Anne Morrison and her message to me is, 'Let vengeance be for the vengeful.' But to answer your question, directly, when Mr. McNamara, sitting in this chair, came out with his book a year ago, 'In Retrospect,' that book provoked an instant kind of outrage in America, Anne Morrison's response—Anne Morrison Welsh's response—was otherwise.

"Her response was to salute it in terms of, 'Well, this perhaps will help us in the healing process.' And she wrote a beautiful letter and released it as a statement. And, unfortunately, I have to sit here and tell you that I felt that that letter was exploited by Mr. McNamara. I know for a fact that Mr. McNamara, with her permission, said he would like to use the letter. Well, very shortly after it appeared in a full page ad for his book, he was handing it out to reporters in Washington."

A new edition of Greg Mitchell's award-winning book "The Campaign of the Century" has just been published. 

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