Nearly fifty-four years ago, an Associated Press correspondent made a series of photographs that would shock a president and impact U.S. policy on the Vietnam War.
GRAPHIC WARNING: Contains images which some viewers may find disturbing.
AP Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne interviews Quang Lien, leading spokesman for the Xa Loi Buddhist pagoda in Saigon, on June 27, 1963.
Malcolm Wilde Browne was 30 years old when he arrived in Saigon on Nov. 7, 1961, as AP’s first permanent correspondent there. From the start, Browne was filing the kind of big stories that would win him the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1964. But today, he is primarily remembered for a photograph taken 50 years ago on June 11, 1963, depicting the dignified yet horrific death by fiery suicide of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc.
Following years of growing tension, the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam reached its breaking point under the repressive regime of Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem. On May 8, 1963, in the ancient imperial capital of Hue, South Vietnamese soldiers opened fire on a group of Buddhists who were flying the Buddhist flag in direct violation of a government ban. Nine were killed.
In late May and early June, the Saigon Buddhists staged street demonstrations and memorial services for the victims of the May 8 incident. On June 1, two monks informed AP Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne, along with other foreign correspondents, that two elderly monks planned to commit ritual suicide in protest against the Diem regime.
The story of how that happened began at 9 p.m. on June 10, 1963, when journalist Malcolm Wilde Browne received a cryptic message that something important would happen at a memorial service organized by Buddhist monks the next morning.
Mr. Browne, I strongly advise you to come. I expect something very important will happen, but I cannot tell you what.
Malcolm Browne / AP Buddhist monks pray at Xa Loi pagoda, on June 11, 1963, prior to staging a protest march against the government’s oppressive actions against Buddhists.
As day broke on June 11, the service started with nuns and monks chanting in the temple. After a while, the group moved onto the streets, chanting in a procession. The group paused to surround a car, and then took out a can of aviation fuel.
The monks and nuns filed into the street, and all began to move in the general direction of the Xa Loi Pagoda.
“I realized at that moment exactly what was happening, and began to take pictures a few seconds apart,” wrote Browne in a letter to AP General Manager Wes Gallagher on Sept. 30, 1963.
Malcolm Browne / AP Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc is doused with gasoline during a demonstration in Saigon.
One of the monks sat down in the street, and fellow monks covered him in nearly five gallons of fuel. Moments later, Thich Quang Duc struck a match and set himself ablaze. It was then that Browne made the photo that left an indelible impression on people across the globe.
Malcolm Browne / AP Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. This is the photograph that is more widely known today.
A version of this image was the first published and was widely used in newspapers around the world. It was sent over the wire and used in papers worldwide a mere 15 hours after Thich Quang set himself on fire. The images journey in a pre-digital world, took a remarkable 15 hours over 9,000 miles of AP WirePhoto cable for Malcolm Browne’s Burning Monk to become breaking news. The photo compelled President John F. Kennedy to reassess U.S. policy on Vietnam, ultimately increasing the number of troops.
MONKS PRAY OVER QUANG DUC’S CHARRED BODY
MONKS WRAP QUANG DUC’S BODY IN THEIR ROBES AND BEGIN THE PROCESSION TO XA LOI PAGODA
Just as the new procession was getting under way, lots of other correspondents began arriving. … All of us accompanied the procession to Xa Loi Pagoda, a walk of about 10 minutes.
We were doing nothing more nor less than our jobs as newsmen.
As more pictures came into New York in succeeding days, the complete sequence became available. The picture that we now refer to as “The Ultimate Protest” was one of these. It shows Thich Quang Duc’s face and the fine drapery of his garments as he is engulfed in silvery tongues of flame. It is a shockingly beautiful image that immediately took on a life of its own, so that we no longer recall the first published image.
In many ways, “The Ultimate Protest” paved the way for the other iconic image of the war, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1972, of a young girl wounded by a napalm strike and running in agony toward the photographer, her clothes burned off. By then, the world was used to this visual assault. It was also growing tired of the long war.
Browne would later recount that the monks at the protest had trouble getting Thich Quang Duc horribly burnt corpse into a casket, “because he was splayed out in all directions.” After the protest Duc’s body was burned again when his fellow monks cremated him. The monks claim that his body was reduced to ashes except for his heart which while singed was still intact. The organ was declared Holy and is still kept as a holy artifact by the monks. Before Duc died he composed a letter to explain his actions and asked people to unite and work towards the preservation of Buddhism in Vietnam and around the world. This became known as the Letter of Heart Blood.
The car seen in the background has been saved and is still viewed
The burning monk photo became one of the first iconic news photos of the Vietnam War.
Browne died on Aug. 27, 2012 in New Hampshire at age 81.
Information for this article obtained from AP.org, and Wikipedia.
See my other two articles regarding the iconic photos of the “Napalm Girl” and “The Saigon street execution”:
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