Of NORMAN MORRISON Thirty years ago a Baltimore Quaker set himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Did it make a difference?


July 30, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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?

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?

"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.

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."

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