They were names I didn’t recognize, names I’d never heard: Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, Roger Allen LaPorte, Florence Beaumont, George Winne, Jr. Five Americans who, between 1965 and 1970, publicly self-immolated — set themselves fatally afire — to protest the Vietnam War.
I am thinking of them on Memorial Day, when we traditionally commemorate Americans who gave their lives in the cause of war. I am thinking of them because we don’t dedicate a day to Americans who gave their lives in the cause of peace.
It was a cause that felt especially urgent to many protesters during Vietnam, the most divisive war the United States has ever fought, apart from the Civil War a hundred years earlier that nearly tore it asunder. Best estimates put civilian casualties during what Americans officially call the Vietnam “conflict” (and Vietnamese call the American War) at up to 50 percent of the total — approximately 1.3 million to more than 3 million people.
Many of the civilian deaths were, in the casual vernacular of war, collateral damage resulting from massive bombardments and aerial attacks directed at heavily populated areas by South Vietnamese and American forces. A small minority were intentional. In the war’s most shocking incident, U.S. soldiers gang-raped female villagers, then murdered and mutilated hundreds of unarmed civilians, including infants and children, in what became known as the My Lai massacre.
That was in 1968, after Herz, Morrison, LaPorte and Beaumont had already given their lives in protest. They were following the example of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, whose 1963 self-immolation at a busy Saigon intersection was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that horrified the world. The monk was protesting persecution of the majority Buddhist population by Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s virulently Roman Catholic president and American ally.
It was a death too horrible to imagine, yet undertaken willingly by each of the Americans who followed, convicted by conscience to give their last full measure to stop the escalating war:
Alice Herz, 82, self-immolated in Detroit on March 16, 1965. A German-Jewish immigrant, Herz was a longtime peace activist who told a friend that she had tried all the conventional forms of activism: protests, marching, writing articles and letters. What else, she wondered, could she do?
Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison, 31, is the best known of the American five, partly because he self-immolated beneath the Pentagon office of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and partly because his wife, who shared his pacifist views, publicized them immediately after his Nov. 2, 1965 death and in a 2008 memoir.
“As the horror of the war grew, it finally overwhelmed Norman,” Anne Morrison wrote. His “soul (was) burdened beyond endurance with the world’s suffering.” The couple had been deeply moved by Thich Quang Duc and other Buddhist monks who followed his example, but her husband’s death nonetheless shocked her. “Though I was aware of the Quaker injunction to ‘let your life speak,’ I was totally unprepared for this kind of witness,” she wrote.
A week after Morrison’s death, Roger Allen LaPorte, a 22-year-old former seminarian, set himself ablaze outside the United Nations building in New York City. A member of the Catholic Worker movement, he died a day later of second- and third-degree burns over 95 percent of his body. “I’m against war, all wars,” he said before losing consciousness. “I did this as a religious action (against) all the hatred of the world.”
On Oct. 15, 1967, 55-year-old former English teacher and Unitarian peace activist Florence Beaumont self-immolated in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles. Her husband George described her as a “perfectly normal, dedicated person” who had a “deep feeling against the slaughter in Vietnam.”
“The barbarous napalm that burns the bodies of the Vietnamese children has seared the souls of all who, like Florence Beaumont, do not have ice water for blood, stones for hearts,” he said in a statement that described her death as “a supreme sacrifice to humanity, to peace and freedom for all mankind.”
The last American to self-immolate in protest of the war was the son of a Navy captain and former member of an ROTC unit. George Winne, Jr. , 23, sat down at Revelle Plaza on the University of California-San Diego campus on May 10, 1970, weeks before his graduation and weeks after receiving his draft notice. Then, he ignited gasoline-soaked rags on his lap. He had positioned a sign nearby that read “For God’s sake, end this war.”
Yet the war didn’t end that year, or the next, or the next. It drug on for five years after Winne’s death, for more than a decade after Alice Herz — a woman old enough to be Winne’s great-grandmother — became the first American to make the ultimate protest for peace.
So you have to wonder if it mattered — the sacrifice of these five Americans who seem now to be nothing more than a faded footnote in the nation’s wartime history. Maybe, like many of the dead we traditionally honor today, they seem to have died in vain.
And yet: Such courage. Such conscience. Such conviction. Worth remembering, and honoring, on this Memorial Day.