The Price of Peace

November 30, 2009
Anne Corpening Morrison Welsh

Anne Corpening Morrison Welsh. Courtesy Orbis Books

When I learned of the death of Robert S. McNamara last July, I was moved to tears. My tears were for all those who had suffered or died as a result of "McNamara's War"—millions of Vietnamese people, 58,000 GIs who never came home, those who came home wounded, and my husband, Norman Morrison.

I first met Norman at Chautauqua, New York, during the summer of 1955. I was an underclassman at Duke and he was a senior at the College of Wooster, headed for the Presbyterian ministry. Although I grew up in the Methodist church, at the time Norman and I came together we were on the way to being Quakers. I was attracted to his Scottish fearlessness and determination and his dedication to service. He took seriously the command to love one another and to work for peace on Earth.

Norman focused increasingly on the war and the suffering it produced. On November 2, 1965, he made the ultimate protest. Something compelled him to try to stop the war in the strongest way he could imagine, and standing about forty feet below McNamara's office window, he gave his life, suffering self-immolation in the Buddhist tradition.

Had I known of his plans, I would have gone to any length to stop him. When I returned home from fetching Ben and Tina from school, Norman and our one-year-old Emily were gone, but I thought nothing of it. It was only as it grew dark that I began to wonder where they were. The phone rang. It was a writer from Newsweek reporting that Norman had made some kind of protest. Then he fell silent; he must have realized that he was the first person to call me. "Mrs. Morrison, you had better call the Fort Myer Infirmary at the Pentagon," he continued gently.

The phone rang again. This time it was someone from Fort Myer. Norman had severely burned himself. They did not say whether he was dead; I knew intuitively that he was. I asked if Emily was hurt and was told no.

With shaking hands, I dialed friends who came over and drove me to Fort Myer. I sat silently in the back of the car, watching the lights play on the darkness of the road. I had no idea how to prepare for what lay ahead; all I could do was pray. If Norman had suffered burns on most of his body, I prayed that it had been a quick and merciful death. I prayed that his self-sacrifice would not be in vain.

As relieved as I was that Emily was physically unharmed, her proximity to danger was horrifying. Had she been injured or, God forbid, had died, it would have been unspeakable, and maybe impossible, for me to have forgiven Norman.

McNamara said nothing publicly at the time. Years later, we learned that he was called to the window by an aide, and what he saw moved him deeply. Thus, fatefully our lives became intertwined.

I heard nothing from McNamara (nor anyone else in the government) until 1995, when he published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of the Vietnam War. In the book, he called Norman's death "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." I wrote McNamara expressing gratitude for his "courageous and honest reappraisal of the Vietnam War" and his involvement in it. McNamara called and thanked me for my forgiveness. We had a relaxed conversation, almost as if we hadn't been on opposite sides of the chasm that had split our country three decades earlier.

The way Norman, a man of deep faith, lived and died was in many respects the antithesis of those things McNamara relied upon: reason, analysis, and strategy. Heaven knows we need plenty of reason, but it has its limits in working in the world.

If any one thing prepared me for Norman's witness, perhaps it was my faith, and what I experienced at Duke played a part. I was active in the Methodist student fellowship, and then I discovered Quakerism. In the classroom, Helen Bevington opened up the world of poetry, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, the nineteenth-century Jesuit who saw God in all mankind. I.B. Holley taught us American history, but more important, how to think and challenge conventional wisdom and assumptions.

As fate would have it, years later Norman did what McNamara could not do with his strategies to "win the hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese. We were assured of this on a family visit to Vietnam in 1999. During one meeting a tall, craggy fellow stood and recalled the image of his headmaster reflecting on Norman's death: "Tears were streaming down his face. Of course, we all cried. I could not believe someone in another country would die for us."

Recently my husband, Robert Welsh A.M. '60, Ph.D. '64, and I were invited to Norman's alma mater, the College of Wooster. We visited a college Vietnam memorial, where a plaque reads, "For all who suffered due to the Vietnam War. May their pain guide our paths."

May we as ordinary Americans serve our country respecting the human element that lies hidden in every international challenge. Robert McNamara in his way, and Norman Morrison in his very different way, teach us the power of war to destroy, and the power of conscience and compassion to renew a broken world.

Held in the Light: Norman Morrison's Sacrifice for Peace and His Family's Journey of Healing.