This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
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.
But frankly it never occurred to me to interfere. I have always felt that a newsman’s duty is to observe and report the news, not try to change it. This attitude may be subject to criticism, but that is how I reacted on July 11, and how I would react again.
As a matter of duty, I photographed the whole horrible sequence of Quang Duc’s suicide, and relayed the pictures and story as fast as possible into The Associated Press network. It is difficult to conceive of any newsman acting otherwise.
But reaction came swiftly as, I am sure, the Buddhists had anticipated. At a single blow, they had won their battle to focus world attention on their campaign. It is significant within the scope of this article that had a Western newsman with a camera not been present at Quang Duc’s suicide, history might have taken a different tum.
Millions of words had been written about the Buddhist crisis, but the pictures carried an incomparable impact. I have been told that when Henry Cabot Lodge was called in to see President Kennedy about taking over the ambassadorship to Viet Nam, the President had on his desk a copy of my photograph of Quang Duc.
Buddhist leaders made huge enlargements of the photograph, most of them colored in by artists, which they carried at the heads of processions. Men and women, tears streaming from their eyes, bowed in reverent prayer before the photograph. Letters reached me that back-alley vendors of “feelthy pictures” in towns as distant as Lisbon and Dar-es-Salaam were hawking copies of the photograph.
Communist China printed up huge volumes of the photograph for distribution throughout Southeast Asia. Captions described the suicide as the work of “the U.S. imperialist aggressors and their Diemist lackeys.” A wave of suicides in Quang Duc style was reported from Burma, Ceylon, India, France, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere.
In the United States, a group of prominent clergymen used the photograph in full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post, over the caption: “We, too, protest.”
In short, that picture meant many things to many people, but none of those things did the Diem regime much good.