NEW YORK — The phone calls went out from Saigon’s Xa-Loi Buddhist pagoda to chosen members of the foreign news corps. The message: Be at a certain location tomorrow for a “very important” happening.
The next morning, June 11, 1963, an elderly monk named Thich Quang Duc, clad in a brown robe and sandals, assumed the lotus position on a cushion in a blocked-off street intersection. Aides drenched him with aviation fuel, and the monk calmly lit a match and set himself ablaze.
Of the foreign journalists who had been alerted to the shocking political protest against South Vietnam’s U.S.-supported government, only one, Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press, showed up.
The photos he took appeared on front pages around the globe and sent shudders all the way to the White House, prompting President John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of his administration’s Vietnam policy.
“We have to do something about that regime,” Kennedy told Henry Cabot Lodge, who was about to become U.S. ambassador to Saigon.
Browne, who died Monday at a New Hampshire hospital at age 81, recalled in a 1998 interview that that was the beginning of the rebellion, which led to U.S.-backed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem being overthrown and murdered, along with his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the national security chief.
“Almost immediately, huge demonstrations began to develop that were no longer limited to just the Buddhist clergy, but began to attract huge numbers of ordinary Saigon residents,” Browne said in the interview.
Browne was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000 and spent his last years using a wheelchair to get around. He was rushed to the hospital Monday night after experiencing difficulty breathing, said his wife, Le Lieu Browne, who lives in Thetford, Vt.
Browne spent most of his journalism career at The New York Times, where he put in 30 years of his four decades as a journalist, much of it in war zones.