A few of us smelled a rat. The Viet Cong had never before let themselves get surprised into a jam like that, and it seemed an odd coincidence that the Americans were freed on May 1—a big Communist holiday. It turned out later that the Viet Cong had not only released the two men, but had sent a squad of escorts with them to make sure they got into no further trouble on the way back to the nearest government guard post.
For a long time, U.S. information policy tried to avoid publishing American battle casualties. On one occasion, U.S. military authorities reported to newsmen that an Army enlisted man had “slightly injured his arm” on “a training exercise with Vietnamese troops, when he accidentally tripped over a wire.”
But about one week later I learned that the man involved was a sergeant friend of mine, and I looked him up at a hospital. It turned out that he’d been on patrol with Vietnamese troops, all right, and he had tripped over a wire. He had tripped because the wire was connected to an electrically detonated Viet Cong land mine, which had blown away half his elbow.
Time and again correspondents were told by American authorities that U.S. information channels were kept plugged to avoid diplomatic friction with the Vietnamese government. “If they say one thing and we say another, where does that leave us?” a U.S. spokesman said. “We can’t offend our allies.”
These official attitudes and the evidence of our own senses led to a high degree of skepticism in the foreign press corps about all official statements.
But difficult as conditions were, they were destined to become much worse. On May 8, 1963, a crisis erupted—the Buddhist upheaval. It is quite possible that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime would have survived a lot longer than it did against the Buddhist insurrection but for the role of the foreign press. Involuntarily, foreign correspondents became potent political tools—a role the dictates of our profession strictly proscribe.
Some of the key leaders of the Buddhist revolt were educated in Japan or in the West (for example, the Venerable Thich Quang Lien, a 37-year-old monk with a degree from Yale) and had a keen insight into American public opinion.
They were aware that one of Diem’s major strengths was his ability to control the press strictly, keeping the less attractive aspects of his regime out of print. They also knew of the prevailing official American view, which tacitly approved of Diem’s system of press control. Key Americans felt, with considerable justification, that a well publicized Buddhist crisis could only divert energy from winning the war against the Viet Cong.
But the Buddhists were determined to override Diem’s press blackout—a blackout that had permitted him to crush nearly every anti-Communist political opposition group in the country without any particular press attention. Obviously, it was a time when only the most drastic measures could have any effect against a regime flanked with tanks, a modern army, and a huge secret police apparatus. The Buddhists desperately needed the eyes of the world in support of their cause, and sought an appropriate eye-catcher.
A human sacrifice
The eye-catcher turned out to be an affable, 73-year-old monk named the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist school teacher. On June 11, 1963, Quang Duc burned himself to death in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection, surrounded by 350 chanting, wailing, banner-waving monks and nuns. The police were too stunned to do much about it.
The Buddhist leaders were aware that a ghastly human sacrifice like Quang Duc’s would be pointless unless the Western press—the only free press in the country—carried the word to the outside world.
Chief monks had told all correspondents in Saigon several weeks earlier that two monks had volunteered for death if Buddhist demands were not met. One monk was to burn himself, and the other was to disembowel himself. The days dragged on, and there were many street demonstrations in which nothing significant happened. Press interest lagged. It happened that I was the only Western newsman present during the street procession in which Quang Duc died.
I have been asked why I didn’t try to do something to stop that suicide once I realized what was happening. Actually, I probably could have done nothing in any case, since the monks and nuns had clearly rehearsed their roles for the ceremony many times, and had prepared methods for blocking interference. Police fire trucks were halted by monks who threw themselves under the wheels.