Malcolm Browne, whose indelible 1963 photograph of a monk setting himself on fire in Vietnam had an impact on President John F. Kennedy's Vietnam policy, died yesterday at age 81. The AP reports that Browne, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2000, "was rushed to [a New Hampshire] hospital Monday night after experiencing difficulty breathing."
The AP's obituary describes how Browne impacted the country's actions:
- 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.
In the 1960s, Browne was part of a group of journalists, including fellow AP-ers photographer Horst Faas and reporter Peter Arnett and David Halberstam of the NY Times, Neil Sheehan of UPI, Charles Mohr of Time magazine, Nick Turner of Reuters and others who "were accused by critics in Vietnam and Washington of aiding the communist cause. At one news briefing, Browne's persistent questions prompted an exasperated U.S. officer to ask, 'Browne, why don't you get on the team?'"
Browne, who also spent 30 years with the Times, was known for being uncompromising and a loner. He also gave advice to other reporters about covering the war ("If you're crawling through grass with the troops and you hear gunfire, don't stick your head up to see where it's coming from, as you will be the next target") and was crafty about getting this stories out: "South Vietnamese officials censored early news reports but to mixed effects. At least once, Browne sent a story to the AP by surreptitiously taping a handwritten note over an innocuous photo being transmitted to Tokyo."