UCSD Student George Winne Burned Himself to Death in Protest of the War – May 10, 1970

by on May 8, 2020 · 8 comments

in History, Peace Movement, San Diego

George Winne, 23, a History major at UC San Diego strolled out to the middle of Revelle Plaza on Sunday, May 10, 1970. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. A huge anti-war protest had occurred earlier that weekend in downtown San Diego. It’s not known whether Winne attended it, but it’s unlikely.

President Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the campuses across the nation blew up in protests. One protest at Kent State University in Ohio ended in the deaths of four students shot by National Guardsmen.

When Winne came out to the plaza, he carried a sign, which read, “In God’s name, end this war.” It was a simple message. He also carried rags which he had saturated with gasoline. Then he lit himself on fire, something he had undoubtedly seen on TV when Vietnamese monks self-immolated themselves in protest of the war in their country.

He immediately went up in a blaze and moved around the plaza until he was knocked down by other students trying to assist him. People threw their jackets or other clothing over him in efforts to smother the flames. He was immediately taken to Scripps Hospital by campus police, treated for third and fourth degree burns over 95 percent of his body. He died at 2 a.m. A student who tackled Winne and helped put out the flames suffered third degree burns on his hands and face.

Reportedly, Winne was conscious up until his death. He explained the reasons for his act were “very personal and spiritual,” and kept saying there was an urgent need to end the Vietnam war.

Who was Winne? George Winne, Jr.  He was a senior, set to graduate the next month. Born April 2, 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, he was the son of a retired Navy captain and had been raised with that military background. He attended the Colorado School of Mines for a while, where he was con­sidered an “outstanding ROTC cadet.” Transferring to UCSD, he first attended Revelle College, then transferred to Muir to major in history.

Winne had not been involved in any campus protest actions, but friends described him as a “loner type” who did have deep and sincere moral and political beliefs. He was vehemently against the war. His closest friend had said that Winne had become quieter and more withdrawn in recent months and had taken interest in Oriental mysticism and organic foods. It was also known that Winne had recently received a draft notice.

Of course his parents were at the hospital that Sunday night and , Capt. and Mrs. George Winne, said that the incident “came as a total surprise and shock.” His mother explained that he had been “very un­communicative and wouldn’t talk to me,” since Christmas. She explained that she knew that her son was becoming increasingly frustrated with the war, but that she thought him “too bright and too sen­sitive” for such an act.

His parents said that the before he died, Winne asked them to write a letter to the President , saying that “the world is in such a horrible mess and Nixon is part of it.” He was also said to be against guns, and had said, “get rid of guns. Guns just mean more guns.”

While being pumped with large doses of morphine at the hospital, Winne kept repeating the Lord’s Prayer and parts of the scriptures.

A memorial service was held in Revelle Plaza at noon a few days later. One of those who delivered an eulogy was well-known philosophy Professor Herbert Marcuse.

“In the name of God, end the war.”

Decades later, a memorial bench and bronze plaque were erected in his honor on Revelle Plaza by UCSD professors and students, led by Niall Twohig, a lecturer and PhD in Literature and Cultural Studies. Three years ago we published a tribute which is worth checking out by Curtis Yee, then a feature writer for the campus newspaper at UCSD, the Triton. Here is some of it:

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 protestors 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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Chris May 8, 2020 at 1:05 pm

A bit extreme.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 8, 2020 at 1:09 pm

Sure, it was “a bit extreme” but you need to understand the depth of how students felt 50 years ago. Winne made the extreme sacrifice in trying to call attention to the horrors of the Vietnam war, then just expanded into Cambodia. Do not downplay what he did.

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Avatar Chris May 8, 2020 at 7:49 pm

I truly mean no disrespect, but it’s really hard for me to understand or fathom a young college student here in the States being so emotionally affected to the point of wanting to off himself. Imagine what it’s like for they guys who actually experienced that war? And I know you know quite a few. Again I mean no disrespect but I just don’t think I’ll ever understand this.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 11, 2020 at 10:25 am

Chris, one has to get into the mind-set of young people back then. And don’t forget, we got reports of one hundred dead young Americans A WEEK from Vietnam. Patriotic people become desperate when their brothers are being slaughtered – FOR NO GOOD REASON.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 11, 2020 at 10:59 am

Of course, I would be hypocritical if I didn’t admit many of us at the time thought it was “extreme” also, but for different reasons.

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Avatar Marilyn Steber May 8, 2020 at 4:14 pm

A typo?
His closet{sic] friend, or closest?

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 8, 2020 at 4:31 pm

Whoops! Thanks, Marilyn and take care of yourself.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie May 8, 2020 at 4:38 pm

I just realized something! George Winne may have known William Schroeder, one of the Kent State 4 – those killed by Guardsmen on May 4, ’70. Both of them went to the Colorado School of Mines and both were in the ROTC at that school. Then Winne transferred to UCSD and Schroeder transferred to Kent State. It’s only a possibility and they both went to the school but maybe at slightly different dates.

Regardless, quite an historic irony. Two of the 5 people killed that month in protests went to the CO School of Mines in the ROTC.

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