Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Burning of Norman Morrison

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe how the so-called "New Left" formed in response to the Vietnam War and the dramatic death of one anti-war protestor, Norman Morrison, who burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon.

The leaders of the anti-war movement came from college campuses rather than assembly lines, which put them frequently at odds with the working class during the Vietnam War. Risking accusations of undermining America’s struggle against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the “New Left,” as it came to be known, certainly rejected what it saw as American militarism. American military might, symbolized by the hydrogen bomb, provoked more fear than security in the minds of the men and women who would lead the opposition to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Todd Gitlin, a sociologist who served as president of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1963-1964 and became a leader in many of the radical movements of the decade, remembered that:

"Rather than feel grateful for the Bomb, we felt menaced. The Bomb was the shadow hanging over all human endeavor. It threatened all the prizes . . . The Bomb that exploded in Hiroshima gave lie to official proclamations that the ultimate weapon was too terrible to be used. It had been used."

The existence of the hydrogen bomb, with its capacity to destroy all life on Earth, led college students like Gitlin to conclude that institutions like the universities, the military, and the federal government had failed in their basic mission of nurturing and protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America rotted from racism, greed and militarism. Some form of radical change would be necessary to keep the madmen in Washington from vaporizing the world in a mushroom cloud.

The New Left sprang from the socialist and communist Old Left of the 1930s and from the armies of idealistic young people, black, white and brown, who participated in the Civil Rights campaigns of the 1950s and early 1960s. Many leaders of the New Left were “red diaper” babies, the children of communist and socialist activists. These young men and women grew up perceiving a link between capitalism and working class poverty. Religious intolerance, anti-Semitism, racism and sexism served as weapons used by capitalists to turn workers against each other, a game of divide-and-conquer that left America’s labor force poor and politically disenfranchised.

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) originated as a youth chapter of the League for Industrial Democracy, a socialist group that once claimed the authors Upton Sinclair and Jack London as members. The SDS would soon split from the Old Left, which focused almost entirely on workplace fairness and economic inequality, to tackle issues of personal freedom.

Al Haber, a jazz and folk music fan who admired the revolutionary ballads composed by the singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, led the SDS chapter at the University of Michigan, a hotbed of civil rights and anti-nuclear weapons activism. Haber asked his friend, Tom Hayden, to compose the so-called "Port Huron Statement," a manifesto of youthful radicalism, to be presented and debated at an SDS national convention June 11-15, 1915. The Port Huron Statement distilled much of the New Left’s political dreams in the 1960s.

For the most part, the 64-page statement consists of a rather pedestrian laundry list of left-wing demands for cuts in military spending, increased investment in social welfare programs, ands support for civil rights reforms. But the statement’s emphasis on values marked the document as truly revolutionary. For the first time, the New Left spelled out the radical 1960s worldview. The decade’s revolution should be about more than higher wages for workers and gaining voting rights for African Americans. The family, the attitudes toward materialism, education, and conformity would all need to change. According to the statement:

"We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things . . .

Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity . . . The goal of man and society should be human independence: a concern not with image or popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic; a quality of mind not compulsively driven by a sense of powerlessness, nor one which unthinkingly adopts status values, nor one which represses all threats to its habits, but one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences, one which easily unites the fragmented parts of personal history, one which openly faces problems which are troubling and unresolved; one with an intuitive awareness of possibilities, an active sense of curiosity, an ability and willingness to learn."

Whites overwhelmingly made up the New Left, which drew its inspiration from African American groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC.) In conscious imitation of SNCC’s community organizing campaigns, which trained the poor in how to obtain assistance for food, help for utility payments and dealing with landlords, and to inform parents about pre-school and other programs available for needy children, Hayden moved into a poor neighborhood to "create an interracial movement of the poor.”

The New Left rejected the leadership model of the Old Left communist and socialist parties, which to a much greater degree rested on rigid hierarchy and strict adherence to party doctrine. This allowed both creativity and an openness to leadership from unexpected sources. The minds of young activists opened to a broader world through college, by television and movies, by popular music, and the opportunities provided by programs like the Peace Corps in which idealists could both explore the world and help the poor and struggling in Africa, Asia and South America. Young, curious minds explored Eastern religions, saw traditional Native American societies as an alternative to Western cultures built on possessiveness, and rediscovered the literature and art created by earlier dissidents such as the Transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These cultural trends led the New Left to push against the provincialism, bigotry and violence they saw in America and in Vietnam.

SDS members began their campaign to save the world by going to the American South to risk their lives in civil rights sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and protests. White members wanted to employ the direct-action tactics of groups like SNCC to address a wider range of issues, including the Vietnam War. In any case, by the mid-1960s many whites felt that the major battles connected with the civil rights struggle had been won. At the same time, black nationalists in groups like SNCC began to insist on their independence from white allies and began nudging them out of the movement. White activists moved on to peace activism.

A small core of peace activists, made up mostly of Unitarians and pacifist Quakers, had protested American foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War. Protests against the Vietnam War at first drew little media attention. In New York in May 2, 1964 a dozen men burned their draft cards during a rally held by the Student Peace Union. President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to launch Operation Rolling Thunder in February 1965 intensified opposition. A new tactic, the teach-in, made its debut at this time. Teach-ins involved professors, students and off-campus activists gathering at a college to raise awareness of and interest in the anti-war movement through discussions, debates, study sessions, and film screenings. Activists held a teach-in that October at the University of California at Berkeley.

Also in March, SDS members picketed at the Oakland Army Terminal, the point of departure for troops headed to Vietnam, and organized the first mass protest against the war on April 17, 1965. About 20,000 protestors assembled for an SDS-sponsored anti-war rally in Washington, D.C. Folk singers like Joan Baez and Judy Collins performed as civil rights veterans such as Robert Moses denounced the American war effort. Moses pointed to the hypocrisy of Americans supposedly battling for democracy in Vietnam when the white South routinely denied African Americans the right to vote and economic opportunity. “What kind of America is it whose response to poverty and oppression in Vietnam is napalm and defoliation,” the printed announcement for the rally asked, while its “response to poverty and oppression in Mississippi is . . . silence?”

As a result of the April protest, SDS chapters formed at 300 campuses across the nation, more than 100,000 students joining the cause. The SDS and similar groups targeted Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at university campuses, picketed Central Intelligence Agency recruiters visiting colleges, protested against companies like Dow Chemical that manufactured war materials such as napalm and Agent Orange, and rallied against university science, chemistry and engineering departments conducting weapons research and development for the Pentagon. Other forms of anti-war activism included letter-writing campaigns aimed at newspapers and the Congress, withholding of taxes owed, and acts of civil disobedience such as blocking the movement of trains carrying troops.


Norman Morrison committed the most riveting, and the most shocking, act in the history of the young anti-war movement on November 2, 1965 when the 31-year-old Quaker, inspired by the protest of Buddhist monks in South Vietnam two years earlier, doused himself with gasoline, struck a match, and burned himself to death in front of the Pentagon.

That afternoon his wife, Anne Morrison, remembered picking up the couple’s older children, five-year-old Christina and six-year-old Ben. Norman Morrison had already left the family’s Baltimore home with their one-year-old daughter, Emily, and had driven to the Pentagon complex in Washington, D.C., the headquarters of the most powerful military in the world. Accounts vary, but many witnesses said Morrison, a pacifist, handed Emily to someone just before setting himself ablaze at 5:20 in the evening, just under the window of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s office. Morrison would be one of eight Americans who burned themselves to death in protest of the Vietnam War.

Morrison had been moved by an account about the napalm attack by American forces on the South Vietnamese village of Duc Tho published the previous day in the leftist newspaper "I.F. Stone’s Weekly." The paper quoted a French priest crying, “I have seen my faithful burned up in napalm. I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits.” Anne Morrison remained uncertain of the details of that traumatic day, but she believes she discussed the article with her husband just before lunch. Norman Morrison cut the article out, and before his suicide he stopped by a U.S. Post Office and mailed a letter telling his young wife, “Know that I love thee, but I must act for the children of the priest’s village.” Morrison’s wife received the letter after his death became international news.

“So he did care immensely about the Vietnamese, be he also wanted to stop the war for America’s sake, so that no more of our soldiers would get killed either,” recalled his widow, who remarried in 1967 and is now known as Ann Morrison Welsh. “And so we wouldn’t lose our sense of moral dignity and integrity. He was afraid that if we kept fighting in Vietnam we would lose some of our conscience. And I think that we did.” Like so many family members who lost loved ones in Vietnam, Anne Welsh would feel the absence of this domestic war casualty. Years later, she told Vietnam historian Christian J. Appy, “It took me a long time to face Norman’s death because I was so shocked and horrified. The next morning I didn’t want to get out of bed. But, here are three children. They need breakfast. They had to be taken care of. So you just move on.”

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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