Friday, September 06, 2013

UNHEEDED VIETNAM HISTORY : The Norman Morrison Suicide

Did this change the course of "McNamara's War?"  What did Americans learn from it?  Why is history repeating itself so soon after the end of this immoral war?   

By Alice Steinbach

Dearest Anne:

For weeks even months I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was Shown as clearly as I was shown that Friday night in August, 1955, that you would be my wife. ... And like Abraham, I dare not go without my child. Know that I love thee but must act. ...


On the last afternoon of his life Norman R. Morrison stopped somewhere between Baltimore and Washington to mail a letter to his wife.

Norman Morrison
The evening rush hour was in full swing that chilly Tuesday on Nov. 2, 1965, when Norman, driving an old, borrowed Cadillac with his infant daughter behind him in a car crib and a gallon jug of kerosene beside him in a wicker picnic basket, paused briefly to post the handwritten, one-page letter. It was the next-to-last stop on Norman's short trip from living to dying. The final stop for the 31-year-old father of three was a small plot of ground just outside the Pentagon, some 40 feet below the third-floor window of Robert S. McNamara, then secretary of defense.

What happened there, in the gathering dusk as thousands of Pentagon employees poured out of the building, heading for home, was, and still is, inexplicable: a public act that in many ways remains a mystery even to those who knew and loved Norman.

But the bare-bones facts of what the young Quaker activist did can be telegraphed by stringing together a few of the front-page headlines that appeared the next day in newspapers around the world:

Those, more or less, appeared to be the facts. But facts had no dominion here. They were powerless in the face of such an impenetrable act, stunned into silence by the urgent questions that had no answers:

Why did Norman do it? Was he mentally unstable? Depressed? A religious fanatic? Was it a carefully planned act? Or a sudden, despairing impulse that demanded release?

And then there was the question that defied understanding: Why did Norman Morrison take his child with him?

The Morrison family

Unlike Norman, his 11-month-old daughter, Emily -- the child he "dared not go without" -- survived, unharmed, spared at the last moment like Abraham's son Isaac in the Old Testament story of a father commanded by God to sacrifice his child as a burnt offering.

When her mother picked her up that night at the Fort Myer dispensary in Virginia, Emily was wrapped in an Army blanket, her diaper replaced by a hospital towel. Some who were there say the distinct smell of kerosene clung to Emily. Others are less sure.

Either way, her survival only added to the horror of Norman's act: When he struck the match on his shoe, had he intended to take Emily with him in that final, 7-foot-high pillar of flame?

War mongering, mass-murdering McNamara surely now burning in hell
"There's a mystery implicit in what happened to Norman that I don't think I'm ever going to understand," says his widow, Anne Morrison Welsh, who is married now to a schoolteacher named Robert Welsh. "And I think that we all don't know why Norman took Emily. But he felt compelled. And like Abraham who took his child to the mountain, Norman wouldn't go without his child."

But of all those who sought answers then, and seek them now, as to why Norman took Emily with him, it is Emily herself who seems most certain of her father's intentions:

"I know," she says now, "that I was there intentionally for many reasons -- but ultimately to be a symbol of the children who were suffering in Vietnam. And through my father's love for me and his love for these children, I was a comfort and inspiration for him."

Still, 30 years ago the significance of Norman's act was anything but clear. In 1965, when the Vietnam War still seemed like a storm off in the distance and the body bags coming home hadn't yet reached the thousand mark, most Americans were not yet ready to hear the message of a young Quaker from Baltimore.

But some were.

Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, burns himself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11 1963
One week after Norman's self-immolation, a physician from Walnut Creek, Calif., wrote to Mr. McNamara and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explaining the meaning of his death:

"What he [Norman] was trying to say was: 'See what it is like for a man to die by fire. See it for yourselves. You, who make the impersonal war, devising strategies and tactics in your air-conditioned offices, look and see!"

On the first night of her widowhood, Anne Morrison, calm and composed on the outside but as shocked on the inside as the rest of the world, issued a statement to the press:

"Norman Morrison has given his life today to express his concern over the great loss of life and human suffering caused by the war in Vietnam. He was protesting our Government's deep military involvement in this war. He felt that all citizens must speak their true convictions about our country's actions."

Now, 30 years after the first combat troops were sent into Vietnam and 30 years after Norman Morrison's death, someone else has come forward to voice his true convictions about his country's actions in Vietnam. And suddenly Norman, along with the restless ghosts of 58,000 Americans who suffered and died in Vietnam, is back in the news, resurrected in a recent memoir by none other than Robert S. McNamara.

The passage of time, it seems, has brought the two men -- the young Quaker and the aging architect of the Vietnam War -- to the same conclusions about that war.

Wounded Kent State student John Cleary is attended to by other students, who helped save his life, May 4, 1970
Today, at 79, Mr. McNamara is delivering the same message in his best-selling book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," that Norman Morrison and thousands of other anti-war protesters tried to deliver three decades ago.

"We were wrong, terribly wrong," he writes of the United States' growing military involvement in Vietnam. 

And, Mr. McNamara now concedes, he knew at the time that the policy he helped create under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson was wrong.

He also invokes the name of Norman Morrison and writes of how deeply he was affected by what this man did on the evening of Nov. 2, 1965.

"At twilight that day," writes Mr. McNamara, "a young Quaker named Norman R. Morrison, father of three . . . burned himself to death within forty feet of my Pentagon window. . . . 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."

"I was horrified, horrified by it," Mr. McNamara says now of Norman's public self-immolation. "And I was also quite aware that my own family was deeply disturbed by the event, and many other members of the public were."

Still, the defense secretary did not attempt to call Anne Morrison. didn't know what I could say that would comfort her," he says. "Because, about a month after that, in December, I didn't think there was a chance of winning the war militarily. And I didn't see any way out, . . . anything I could say . . . that would console Anne Morrison."


Anne Morrison Welch, on the other hand, wrote immediately to Mr. McNamara after last April's publication of "In Retrospect," a book that caused hate mail to pour into Mr. McNamara's Washington office. Enclosed was a copy of a statement she released to the press in response to his book:

"To heal the wounds of that war, we must forgive ourselves and each other," she wrote. "I am grateful to Robert McNamara for his courageous and honest reappraisal of the Vietnam War and his involvement in it."

Mr. McNamara carries with him a copy of the public statement from Norman Morrison's widow. He often reads aloud to the press, in an emotion-choked voice, the paragraph expressing her gratitude to him for coming forward to set the record straight.

"I have it [her statement] right here before me on my desk," he says. "She is a noble woman. That anyone could have gone through what she did and then write the person who, in the mind of her husband, was responsible for the actions that resulted in his killing himself . . ." His voice trails off.

"I was deeply grateful to her for expressing forgiveness . . . and I was deeply moved."

This time he called her. And this time he knew what to say: "Thank you," Robert McNamara told the widow of Norman Morrison.

"We had an amazingly relaxed and personal conversation," Anne says. "Almost as if we knew each other, almost as if we hadn't been on opposite sides of the chasm that split our country apart three decades ago."


With the publication of Mr. McNamara's explosive book, Anne Morrison Welsh and her family suddenly have been thrust back into the public eye.

The renewed media scrutiny is a painful experience for this very private family whose past contacts with the press, says Anne, have made her hesitant to speak publicly anymore. But her reticence about being interviewed, she says, also has to do with the "incredibly emotional impact on me" of Mr. McNamara's book.

"Making myself accessible to interviews and talking about these very, very personal issues," says Anne, now 60, "is more of an emotional upheaval than it ever was. I don't know why. But it's all right up there in my throat."

Still, she responds to the suggestion that, given Robert McNamara's attempt to "put Vietnam in context," it might be equally appropriate to place Norman Morrison in context, both historically and spiritually, for those who lived through the turmoil of the 1960s.

And, just as important, for those who didn't.

So, with some reluctance, Anne Morrison Welsh and her two daughters, Emily and Christina, agreed to an interview -- but only if it were done letter to letter rather than face to face.

Her own emotional reckoning with Norman's death has been long and slow, she says. Only in the past few years has she felt more free to talk about it.

Read the rest of The Baltimore Sun Norman Morrison story here:

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