Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Missing from Robert McNamara Obits: When Protester Set Himself on Fire outside His Window

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Missing from Robert McNamara Obits: When Protester Set Himself on Fire outside His Window

Article excerpt

Two of the most dramatic, and symbolic, incidents in the long life of Robert McNamara omitted from most of his obits this week were connected to citizen protest of wildly varying types. Yesterday I wrote here about a young artist's attempt to heave the former Defense chief over the side of a ferry boat. Today: the case of Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker from Baltimore who, in 1965, handed his infant daughter off to a bystander, doused himself with kerosene and set himself ablaze under McNamara's window at the Pentagon.

One week later, 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 U.S. antiwar circles, his name or face carried on antiwar posters for several years. The North Vietnam named a street after him and issued a stamp in his honor -- the possession of which was declared illegal in the U.S. 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. …

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