Path to War (2002), an HBO film, recounts the story of President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Scenes depicting the debates between the hawks and doves of his administration, set in the White House and elsewhere, form the core of the movie. The cast includes Michael Gambon as Johnson; Alec Baldwin as Secretary of Defense McNamara; Donald Sutherland as presidential advisor Clark Clifford; and Victor Slezak as Morrison. Daniel Giat wrote the script, and John Frankenheimer directed.
Morrison is a thread in the movie, appearing in four scenes, placed several months apart. He is shown, horrifically, setting himself on fire across from McNamara’s office as McNamara watches. At a White House meeting, blow-ups of the North Vietnamese stamp commemorating Morrison are passed around, and Johnson sneers at Morrison’s act. In his office McNamara gazes out the window at the spot where Morrison died and murmurs “Incredible….” The Committee for Non-Violent Action holds a silent vigil at the site on the anniversary of the burning.
Path to War repeats the lie that President Johnson didn’t want to become involved in the Vietnam War. (This is the so-called “quagmire myth”). In truth, he reversed President Kennedy’s intention to withdraw from the war and widened it catastrophically. As well, Norman Morrison’s act seems to have been portrayed inaccurately. He is shown holding Emily, his baby, as he prepares to burn himself, though it appears that he had actually set her down some distance away. McNamara is shown watching Morrison from his office, though it seems he did not. The cast is remarkable, however, especially Gambon as Johnson. The production values –the budget was $17 million –are superior
We still live with the legacy of the Vietnam War. The permanent war in the Middle East, lately rebranded as the war against ISIS, is based on the lessons learned by the Pentagon about how to fight a war that Americans will tolerate. (These are use of a volunteer army, air bombing, and drones; shaping the reports of the media; keeping American losses down; etc.) Like Johnson, McNamara, Clifford and the rest, we have become insulated from the horror we inflict. Morrison’s act was wrong –we must live and struggle –but he was not insulated.
(Stamp honoring Norman Morrison issued by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam above).