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April 17, 1931 – Aug. 27, 2012
NEW YORK (AP) – 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 this 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.
By his own account, Browne survived being shot down three times in combat aircraft, was expelled from half a dozen countries and was put on a “death list” in Saigon.
In 1964, Browne, then an AP correspondent, and rival Times journalist David Halberstam both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting on the conflict in Vietnam. The war had escalated because of the Nov. 1, 1963, coup d’etat in which Diem was killed.
The plot – by a cabal of generals acting with tacit U.S. approval – was triggered in part by earlier Buddhist protests against the pro-Catholic Diem regime. These drew worldwide attention when the monk set himself afire in protest as about 500 people watched.
One of Browne’s burning monk photos became one of the first iconic news photos of the Vietnam War.
“Malcolm Browne was a precise and determined journalist who helped set the standard for rigorous reporting in the early days of the Vietnam War,” said Kathleen Carroll, AP executive editor and senior vice president. “He was also a genuinely decent and classy man.”
Malcolm Wilde Browne was born in New York. He graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a degree in chemistry. Working in a lab when drafted in 1956, he was sent to Korea as a tank driver, but by chance got a job writing for a military newspaper, and from that came a decision to trade science for a career in journalism.
He worked first for the Middletown Daily Record in New York, where he worked alongside Hunter S. Thompson, author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Browne then worked briefly for International News Service and United Press, the forerunner of United Press International, before joining the AP in 1960.
A year later, the AP sent him from Baltimore to Saigon to head its expanding bureau in the war zone.