Norman Morrison

* 29 December 1933, Erie

† 2 November 1965, Pentagon

“I believe that Norman Morrison lit a fire and gave himself away in order to shine a light for the rest of us. To make it impossible for us to close our eyes or avert them from the hard truths of war. To show us a different path…“

Anne Morrison Welsh

On 2 November 1965, Norman Morrison (31) doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon building in protest against the Vietnam War.

In the mid-sixties, self-immolation as a radical form of political protest started to be associated with protests against US military involvement in the Vietnam War. There were several cases of self-immolation for political reasons in the US and although not numerous, due to the massive media coverage they had a strong response even abroad. The first of them was Alice Herz (82, peace activist) who set herself on fire on 16 March 1965 in Detroit. She died ten days later. Her farewell letter contained a direct reference to Buddhist predecessors.

When a few months later Norman Morrison, an American Quaker immolated himself in protest at the Pentagon building on 2 November 1965, the reaction of public was even stronger. Morrison studied religion at the College of Wooster, Ohio from 1952 to 1956 and then entered a year-long Western Theological Seminary (today’s Pittsburgh Presbyterian Seminary). He also attended the Edinburgh University in UK for several months, travelled over Europe and the Middle East and then returned to Pittsburgh where he graduated in 1959 and received a Bachelor’s degree. In the same year he joined the Quakers and moved to Charlotte near New York where he worked as secretary of the local Quaker community. In 1962 he and his family moved to Baltimore where Morrison organized worship meetings.

Morrison’s wife recalls that they were discussing an article describing village bombing and children killing in the Vietnam War at lunch of the target day. Then she went to collect two older children from school and her husband stayed at home with their one-year-old daughter Emily. After she returned, both of them were gone, without any explanation. In the evening, a reporter called and asked her about her husband’s protest in Washington. She told him not to know anything about it. Shortly afterwards she received another call – a doctor from Pentagon hospital informed her about Morrison’s death of severe burns. Nothing happened to their daughter. According to one version, Morrison left Emily alone on the sidewalk, according to another he gave her to some passer-by. In a farewell letter to his wife, he wrote he immolated himself so that children do not have to die in Vietnam village anymore. He also vaguely mentioned Abraham’s sacrifice and therefore it is not clear whether he did not originally want to burn himself together with his daughter.

Morrison set himself on fire near the office of Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defence, who was present there and became an eyewitness to this tragic event. North Vietnam used his protest in its smear anti-American campaign. One street in Hanoi was named after him and a post stamp with his portrait was issued. Poet To Huu wrote an ode to this event. In 1999 Morrison’s wife visited Vietnam. Afterwards she published two memoirs of her husband’s protest and other family members’ life stories.

Catholic Roger Allen Laporte (22) also represents the first wave of US self-immolations. On 9 November 1965, Laporte sat in the lotus position in front of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library, part of the UN complex in New York and set himself on fire. He died a day later.

Bibliography: >>>

BIGGS, Michael: Dying without Killing. Self-Immolations, 1963–2002, In: GAMBETTA, Diego (ed.): Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, s. 173–208, 320–324.

MORRISON WELSH, Anne: Fire of the Heart. Norman Morrison's Legacy In Vietnam And At Home. Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Wallingford 2006.

MORRISON WELSH, Anne – HOLLYDAY, Joyce: Held in the Light. Norman Morrison's Sacrifice for Peace and His Family's Journey of Healing. Orbis Books, New York 2008.