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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

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.

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.

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