May 10, 1970: The movie M*A*S*H had captivated the nation, The Guess Who was at the top of the Billboard charts, and a little after 4 p.m., George Winne Jr., a UCSD graduate student, set himself on fire in the middle of Revelle Plaza.
Winne was standing in the the northeast corner of the plaza by Ridge Walk, covered in towels and holding a sign that read, “In the name of God, end the war.” A physics graduate student named Ralph J. Archuleta passed by Winne while he was dousing himself in gasoline. “I thought it was water and that he was just trying to cool himself off,” Archuleta said. He kept walking.
Then Winne set himself on fire.
Witnesses, many of whom watched in horror from their dorm room windows, said that he ran diagonally across the quad to the southwest side, all the while clutching the sign and screaming, “Stop the war! Stop the war!”
A group of student activists were meeting in the Blake Hall Commuter Lounge when they heard the screams. Keith Stowe, a graduate student, was the first to reach Winne. “I grabbed him by the ankles and tackled him to the ground,” he said. “I rolled over him, thinking it would put out the flames. It didn’t help.”
Several other students arrived on the scene and struggled to put out the fire using their jackets. Archuleta and two friends tried to extinguish the flames from a gasoline can still burning on the other end of the square, all while Winne shouted, “Somebody kill me. Kill me. Please God, kill me.”
Once the fire was out, a police car and ambulance transported both Winne and Stowe to Scripps Memorial Hospital. Winne had sustained third and fourth degree burns on 95% of his body. “He and I talked a little on the way to the hospital,” said Stowe. “We both could tell that he would die soon.”
After murmuring the Lord’s Prayer under his breath for nine hours, Winne passed away early the following morning.
Picking Up The Pieces
The following day, May 11, a massive crowd of students, faculty, and community members packed into Revelle Plaza to take part in a simple memorial service led by campus minister Lesley Atkinson and distinguished philosophy professor Herbert Marcuse. Students continued to pay their respects throughout the week, laying flowers and candles on the spot where Winne had been knocked to the ground.
Speaking to a still shellshocked campus characterized by tense anti-war protests and sit-ins, Chancellor William McGill penned a letter in the UCSD student paper The Triton Times, seeking to quell student frustration.
“As for me I intend to continue in my responsibilities,” he said. “The latter brings me a comforting sense of ritual and it is my hope that the solace of work may help to remind every one of us that although we are adrift in a world we did not make and seek to change, we are still an intellectual community.”
In spite of McGill and others’ attempts to return the campus to a state of calm, Winne’s action could not be ignored. The realities of the war and its consequences on the American psyche had never before disrupted the campus so violently, and it would not be so quickly forgotten.
Over the next few days, information about Winne’s personal life began to trickle out, information that would fuel the fire for an endless debate over the next 40 years: was Winne’s act worthwhile or wasteful?
Born on April 2, 1947, George Winne Jr. III was the son of Navy Captain George M. Winne and his wife Emily. He had a sister named Katherine who attended UCLA.
Raised in San Diego, Winne was “brought up in a military atmosphere.” He even applied for the US Naval Academy, but was rejected because he was nearsighted in one eye. Once he graduated high school, Winne attended the Colorado School of Mines, where he was considered an “outstanding ROTC cadet” before transferring to UCSD.
As a history major in Muir College, Winne was an astute student, always sitting in the front row of classes ready to ask questions. After only a few weeks at UCSD, he decided to continue his studies in graduate school, enrolling in courses in Latin and Greek to prepare himself for the future. One of Winne’s mentors, Professor Roger A. DeLaix, remembered him as having a uniquely academic curiosity.
“I came to expect that he would accompany me back to my office, picking my brain for more information,” wrote DeLaix, in a commemoration shortly after Winne’s death.
Despite being an astute student, Winne was quiet, described by other students as a “loner type.” DeLaix said he pondered questions on his own, taking time to “search quietly and effectively for answers.” But as the world around him began to change and the unrest of the 1960s continued to escalate, Winne withdrew more and more from the world. By December of 1969, he refused to speak even to his own mother, who referred to him as “very uncommunicative.”
While many of the details of Winne’s life are unaccounted for, the mood of the nation is well-documented. The Vietnam War was in full swing and those close to Winne said that he had become increasingly distraught about the war, a distress that many believed would lead directly to his death. “A once promising career became instead an impossible dream – then, I suspect, a futile nightmare,” said DeLaix. “Graduate school was no longer a real possibility [for Winne]; the draft was.”
A Time of Violence
By 1970, the war in Vietnam had been dragging on for almost 19 years. Over 48,000 US soldiers had died as a result of the conflict. By the war’s end in 1975, that number would total 58,220. The American public was tired of the war and in 1968, over 50% of the population believed that sending troops into Vietnam was a mistake. Despite President Nixon running on a platform of ending the war, the war continued on under his administration, leaving the American public frustrated and disillusioned.
“Demonstrations at Revelle Plaza were happening once or twice a week,” said Bill Lavelle, a former UCSD student who was on the scene when Winne self-immolated. “It was in your mind all the time.” Though college students could receive a deferment, impending graduation could mean compulsory enlistment. Rather than looking forward to a job in their field of study, many anticipated a new basic training uniform. Teach-ins and marches were a common campus occurrence.
Some students sought to continue their studies in graduate school or enroll in additional classes in an effort to keep conscription at bay. Lavelle recalled at least one UCSD graduate student who decided to starve himself to avoid the draft. “He was probably 5’10” and 113 pounds,” said Lavelle. “He was skin and bones.”
Following Winne’s death, a rumor began to circulate within the registrar’s office. According to then-Revelle Resident Dean Ernie Mort, there had been a particularly nervous student who “used to go over to the registrar’s office and [say], ‘When do I have to graduate?’” Many speculated that the student might have been Winne. “He kept coming back saying, ‘Is it absolute? Do I have to graduate on this day?’ I think this student was really upset about the fact that he might be drafted if he attended student graduation,” said Mort.
The account is unconfirmed, but no matter the identity of the student, it speaks profoundly to the state of campus climate. Several newspapers reported that just days before his self-immolation Winne had received a draft notice. Because he was born on April 2, Winne would have had a very high draft number of 271. Draft numbers were assigned in a national lottery where birth dates were selected at random. Each date received a number based on the order in which they were drawn. Starting from the first drawn number, September 14, young men were then called to a Military Entrance Processing Station to determine if they were fit for service. Notice or not, it is unlikely he would have been forced to enlist.
The Killing Field
On April 20, 1970, President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from South Vietnam in a televised address. Many hoped that this might signal the end of the war.
Ten days later, Nixon went before the American public again to announce that he would be expanding the war into Cambodia. The reaction was swift. Marches and protests took place all across the nation. At UCSD, students occupied the 5th floor of Urey Hall to protest war research taking place on campus. In an effort to support the war efforts, several professors were contracted by the Department of Defense.
On the same day as the Urey Hall sit-in, May 4, 1970, there was a shooting at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed by the National Guard.
Just days before, protesting students had burned down the ROTC building and the National Guard was called in to control and quell the violence. “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America,” Ohio Governor James Rhodes said of the students. “They’re not going to take over the campus.”
After two days of tense standoff between student protesters and the National Guard, guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed students, many of whom were protesters. Nine were wounded. Four were killed. Of the four, two had not been part of the protest. They had simply been walking to class.
The killing of unarmed US citizens, particularly young people, was a first for the war. The nation responded violently. Students took to the streets. Although many protests were peaceful, many were not. Within the week, several ROTC centers were burned and campuses nationwide were forced to shut down due to strikes. 74 students were arrested for protesting at UCLA. Two students were shot and killed by police at Jackson State in Mississippi. In California, Governor Ronald Reagan called for a four day statewide closure of all state schools.
In the midst of all of this, George Winne Jr. burned himself to death in the middle of Revelle Plaza. His death received almost no nationwide attention.
Casualties of the Memory War
In 1985, a 34-year old from Encinitas set himself on fire outside Geisel Library. The man, Stephen Thomas Roberts, burned for several minutes before nearby students and campus police were able to extinguish him. Helicoptered off to the UCSD Medical Center, he was put on a respirator and intravenous support until he died the following day. Roberts had been dealing with mounting money problems and was living out of his car with his girlfriend.
Though Roberts’ self-immolation was also gruesome, it has not held the same long-lasting effect as Winne’s. Several pieces were penned in the immediate aftermath of the incident, but the subject has not since then been notably revisited. What distinguishes Winne’s actions from that of Roberts’? Niall Twohig, a lecturer and PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies, believes that it’s due to what he calls “the memory war.”
Unlike traditional wars, Twohig explains that the memory war is fought through ideologies. “This war dismembers these dead ones,” he writes. “It does so, not simply by forgetting them, but by posthumously constructing them as either pathological individuals or ideological zealots… The memory war buries these dead ones by relegating their struggles or gestures to a period of resolved history that has no bearing on our present and future. It leaves us with propaganda.”
Since his death, Winne has become the subject of great editorial debate, a hero to some and a pariah to others, malleable in the hands of anyone who has stumbled upon him. Though both Roberts’ and Winne’s actions were similarly tragic, Winne’s were distinguished in that his death was politically motivated, his mindset was ambiguous, and he was a student instead of a transient. He was and remains perfect for co-opting.
Four years after his death in 1974, David Buchbinder of The Triton Times eulogized Winne, calling him “brave,” saying that “in his act of immolation he made himself a symbol of the anguish gripping America.” Fellow student Harry Lyons would rebut this, calling Winne “a very sick young man” and questioning whether his life could have been better spent engaging in “anti-war activities.”
In 1981, former Chancellor McGill would refer to Winne as “psychologically disturbed” and “self-destructive.”
“I don’t really think that people who commit suicide in the way in which this happened – as a symbolic act of self destruction – find it brings a war to an end,” he said. “There are infinitely many ways of bringing that view to the public without destroying yourself.”
On the 20th anniversary of Winne’s self-immolation, in 1990, student Walter Schmitt wrote to The UCSD Guardian, calling Winne a “hero of conviction.” Another student, Darryl Biniaz, shot back, lambasting both Winne and Schmitt: “To Walter, George Winne is a hero of conviction. To me, he’s dead.” In response, Biniaz was in turn called “crass” and “a perfect example of the widespread apathy and acceptance of the horrors of war” by student Jennifer Danek.
Frustrated by the endless discussion, in 2000, Benjamin Boychuk, then former Editor-in-Chief of The UCSD Guardian, flippantly summarized what he saw as the prevailing mood, saying, “Maybe Winne was a martyr, and maybe he was not. In any case, wasn’t it time America got over Vietnam?”
In Death, Life
Following the self immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who burned himself to death in protest of the religious inequality of the South Vietnamese government in 1963, Buddhist monk and peace advocate Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., seeking to explain the concept of self-immolation to his western compatriot.
In his letter entitled In Search of the Enemy of Man he writes, “The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not.” Though many argued about the validity of Winne’s self-immolation, it can perhaps be best understood when contextualized in its eastern history and the role self-immolation played in the conflict in Vietnam.
“To express will by burning oneself… is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide,” Hạnh writes. “The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope, nor does he desire non-existence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others.”
Winne’s close friend Patrick Crampton said that he was “very religious in his own way–after his own fashion.” Though Winne recited the Lord’s Prayer, a passage from the Christian Bible before his death, he was said to have also begun studying Buddhism in his final days. In the hospital, close to his death, Winne told his parents that “he would see [them] in Heaven.”
Winne, confiding in Crampton, said that he didn’t want to become a political martyr and told his father that he wanted to “focus attention on the horror of the war in Indochina” rather than on himself. He told his Mother that he “had picked the most dramatic way he could think of to call people’s attention to the most deplorable condition of the world and of this country.”
Winne didn’t want to be a martyr and he didn’t want to be put on a pedestal and have others marvel at his bravery. He just wanted the war to end.
The Struggle for a More Peaceful World
In 2014, Twohig spearheaded the construction of the May 1970 Peace Memorial, located in Revelle Plaza. While other memorials commemorating Winne’s life still survive on campus, like the eucalyptus grove just east of Geisel and Virginia Maksymowicz’s “30 Blocks”, Twohig felt it was important that the new memorial give context to Winne’s actions. The Peace Memorial commemorates not only Winne, but all those who marched that May. It reads: “For George Winne Jr., the student activists of May 1970, and all those who continue the struggle for a peaceful world.”
Despite the violent nature of his act, the intention of Winne’s protest was to advocate for peace in Vietnam, the same peace that other student protesters were striving towards. “It’s kind of an expression of connectivity rather than insanity,” Twohig said. Protesters put their bodies in harm’s way on behalf of those struggling overseas and Winne did the same when he self-immolated, only to a higher degree, an ultimate empathy.
A great deal of UCSD’s history has been distorted in the memory war, leaving people’s pasts vulnerable to erasure and revision. The UCSD campus has often remembered Winne and his legacy improperly, but perhaps the best way to remember him is to remember his intent: to stop the war. Winne’s self-immolation was shocking, but in this most violent act he also hoped to be an advocate for peace.
In a response to student frustrations nationwide, President Nixon established the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, sending representatives across the country to diagnose campus climate. White House staffer William E. Casselman went to visit UCSD, meeting with several students from Revelle to hear their concerns. The students told him about their fear of the draft, about their frustration with on-campus military research, about the protests and the sit-ins and all the unrest that was engulfing the campus. And finally, they told him the story of one student who burned himself to death in the nearby plaza: another casualty in the struggle for a more peaceful world.
Curtis Yee is the Features Editor for The Triton.
Update, May 11, 2017, 11pm: Some quotes which were drawn from news coverage at the time now link back to the original articles. Additionally, the piece has been updated to reflect that Benjamin Boychuk’s comments were flippant, not “exasperated,” as they had formerly been characterized. Also, the wording has been changed to clarify that audiences at the time would have been watching the M*A*S*H movie, which came out in early 1970, rather than the M*A*S*H television show, which came out in 1972.