Norman Morrison’s Transcendent Language of Self-Immolation

A Quaker Theology Reprint:

Norman’s Triumph:
The Transcendent Language of

Quaker Norman Morrison’s act of self-sacrifice –burning himself to death on the steps of the Pentagon on November 2, 1965, in protest of the Vietnam War — was shocking, unforgettable, and has been written about extensively.

morrison-normanBut there have been few better summaries of this startling action, what went into it, and its impact that has reverberated for fifty years, than an essay by Nicholas Patler. For those unfamiliar with this chapter in recent Quaker history, Patler’s essay is an excellent introduction

In fact, it was so compelling, we at Quaker Theology wanted to publish it. However, it had already been published by the journal Quaker History.

So with permission, we are re-posting it here, to bring it to a wider readership.

The full paper is online here, as a PDF document. It is available free, with no registration required.

This account begins . . .

On a chilly November day in 1965, a thirty-one year old Quaker pacifist named Norman Morrison, a father of three, left his home in Baltimore with his infant daughter Emily and drove forty miles to Washington, DC. Once there, as dusk settled over the capitol city, he drove to the Pentagon where he drenched himself in kerosene and struck a match on his shoe.

It is not clear if he had handed Emily to someone standing nearby or had sat her down out of harms way. As Norman burned alive, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, looking out of his office window only yards away, was horrified. He watched as Pentagon attaches rushed to try to put out the flames, scorching themselves in the process. 

Sometime earlier that afternoon, Norman had mailed a letter from the Washington-area to his wife Anne in Baltimore: “Dearest Anne, Please don’t condemn me … 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 … Know that I love thee but must act for the children in the Priest’s village.”

This latter reference was in regards to an article that Norman had read that morning in which a Catholic priest described graphically “women and children blown to bits” from U.S. bombing and napalm raids on Vietnamese villages

“What can we do that we haven’t done?” Norman asked Anne that morning as the two discussed the disturbing article in the quiet of their suburban kitchen. They had done everything they could think of: prayed, lobbied officials in Congress, withheld their taxes, wrote articles and letters to newspapers and people in power, and worked locally on the grassroots level.

But the war was escalating quickly and Norman predicted that it was going to get far more destructive, with America possibly becoming desperate enough to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam (which McNamara later confirmed was a serious option). That past July, President Johnson had announced that he was increasing U.S. military presence in Vietnam to 125,000 men, followed by the doubling of monthly draft calls.

One month later, CBS aired the destruction of Vietnamese villages by U.S. Marines. For close to six months leading up to that November day, Norman kept up with news coverage of American bombers raining down Agent Orange, napalm and bombs on the north daily . . . .

It continues here . . . .

Norman Morrison’s Transcendent Language of Self-Immolation, was written as part of Nicholas Patler’s work for a Masters degree in historical studies at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.


5 thoughts on “Norman Morrison’s Transcendent Language of Self-Immolation”

    1. Maybe Norman’s act WAS an act of hope.? My understanding is he took his life in this way to make a statement and change the course. And, as we now know, his act did just that. Just as Alice Herz wrote to her daughter that it was an act of hope, not of despair. It’s not a naive hope, but one led by the Light.

  1. I heard Anne speak at a conference at Bryn Mawr in 1995 entitled Quakers and the Vietnam War. She was absolutely, and even then, devastated and angry over what her husband had done, the danger he had put his young daughter in and the how his act had adversely affected their family. It seemed to me at the time I heard her speak, that may, just maybe, she was beginning to deal with what he had done.

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