The worldwide publication of the photograph of the June 11, 1963, self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc (1897–1963) brought international attention to the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem. The self-immolation occurred on a busy street in Saigon in front of a large crowd mostly comprising Buddhist monks and nuns, but journalists and photojournalists and police were also present. Diem was deposed and assassinated in November 1963.
During the 1960s, the brutality, futility, and horror of the Vietnam War was compellingly depicted through photography and film. Visual exposure swayed opinion of U.S. civilians, whose country found itself entangled in the complex Southeast Asian conflict.
Television reports, including the CBS News Report, brought news and photographs of the war into American living rooms. This news program, hosted by broadcast journalist Morley Safer (who went to Vietnam), described the high number of U.S. casualties and included interviews with soldiers who described combat conditions. Then there were the CBS special reports by Walter Cronkite on the 1968 Tet Offensive, a humiliating defeat for the United States that led Cronkite to opine that the Vietnam War could not be won. In addition, there were the nightly news reports broadcasted by the three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC).
Images were also included in daily newspapers and monthly magazines, especially such photojournalism periodicals as Life magazine. The photos proved just as potent as the television reports. One disturbing image was that of South Vietnamese general Nguyen Loan (chief of the national police) shooting Vietcong officer Nguyen Van Lem at close range, through the bound prisoner's temple, in 1968.
But perhaps the most disturbing photograph was of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire in protest on June 11, 1963. He was practicing a centuriesold Buddhist tradition of self-immolation. This suicide was viewed as an act of sacrifice, a plea for the end of oppression, suffering, and murder of Buddhist monks at the hands of the Ngo Dinh Diem government. In the immediate situation, Quang Duc intended to draw attention to the May 9, 1963, murder of nine Buddhist monks as they attempted to fly the Buddhist flag. In the national situation, the act was viewed as a plea to end the military conflict in Vietnam. Thich Quang Duc's suicide was captured in a series of photographs that revealed his flame-engulfed body. His act was a dramatic protest against the oppressive regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, head of South Vietnam.
The circumstances that eventually led to Quang Duc's selfsacrifice dated as far back as 1955, when the administration of U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower endorsed the creation of South Vietnam and its government of the Republic of Vietnam. A questionable voting process led to the election of the anti-communist Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem. The U.S. government was satisfied with the election because it feared communistic incursion into this muchconflicted region and provided the Diem regime with economic and political assistance. In addition it gave military aid: Eisenhower provided U.S. military expertise to help train the South Vietnam army. That occurred in November of 1955, marking the start of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, which would continue for 20 years.
U.S. fears were probably fueled by Ngo Dinh Diem's assertions that North Vietnam planned to invade South Vietnam. At the time, North Vietnam (known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) was headed by communist leader Ho Chi Minh. When almost one million North Vietnamese crossed the border into South Vietnam between 1955 and 1956, Diem feared that his part of the divided Vietnam region was being infiltrated by spies. That led to a 1957 attack in North Vietnam territory, bolstered by aid from the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Meanwhile, Diem managed to pass legislation that gave his government exceptional power. Anyone suspected of being a communist sympathizer could be jailed, without formal charges or trial. This action led to protests, the loudest coming from the Buddhists, both the monks and nuns. Surprisingly, the peaceful Buddhists would, at times, take to the streets with the angered peasants and fight Diem's police force.
In the United States, the Eisenhower administration found that it essentially had inherited the problem of South Vietnam. Eisenhower's successor, President John F. Kennedy, also found himself buedened with this substantial problem. While both presidents viewed Diem as a strategic ally, they realized he and his government were unstable. Early in his administration, Kennedy provided Diem with only limited support. He provided military advisers and technical and financial aid. But he would not make the commitment of sending U.S. military troops to Vietnam. That came later.
In the early 1960s, during the Kennedy administration, religious tensions heightened in South Vietnam. A clash occurred between Buddhists and Catholics. Diem's regime favored Roman Catholics, providing jobs in public service. His authoritative regime was rife with corruption. Eventually, dissatisfaction erupted in protests and even street clashes. In
response, Diem initiated a crackdown, which sometimes resulted in violence and the death of protesters. In 1963, Diem's brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, targeted Buddhist pagodas throughout South Vietnam. He accused the Buddhist monks of harboring communists or being communists themselves. By May 1963, Buddhists decided to resort to the ancient tradition of self-immolation to demonstrate their objection.
MADE THE ULTIMATE PROTEST
In that same month and year, Thich Quang Duc was resolved to make the ultimate sacrifice. He decided to undergo the tradition of self-immolation to protest the regime of Diem and its persecution of Buddhists. His death occurred on June 11, 1963. He was 67 years old.
According to reports, Quang Duc was driven to a busy intersection in Saigon, accompanied by two fellow monks from the Linh-Mu religious order in South Vietnam. Quang Duc calmly stepped out of the vehicle and moved into the street. The monks placed a mat for him to sit on. He assumed the lotus position. Two monks then drenched him with gasoline. An eyewitness report described hundreds of monks and nuns gathered in the street, ready to prevent anyone from interfering with the self-immolation. Quang Duc then lit a match and set himself on fire.
PROTEST COVERED BY WESTERN JOURNALISTS
The Buddhists ensured that the world would bear witness. On June 10 (the day before), journalists were informed that something they should witness would take place in front of the Cambodian embassy. These journalists were not told what exactly would happen, but some were intrigued. These included award-winning author David Halberstam, who was then a reporter for the New York Times, and photojournalist Malcome W. Browne, who was then working for Associated Press. Halberstam captured the scene in words, and Browne captured the scene in vivid pictures.
According to Halberstam's report, after being doused with gasoline, Quang Duc recited a mind-calming mantra then struck the match and dropped it into his lap. Some in the gathered crown chanted; others cried; others bowed as the monk burned to death. In all, it took about ten minutes for Quang Duc's body to be totally burned by the flames. The monks then carried away his corpse for a second cremation and burial of his ashes.
Before his self-immolation, Quang Duc reportedly wrote: “Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of Buddha, I respectfully plead with President Ngo Dinh Diem for compassion towards the people of the nation and for implementing religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland for eternity.”
DIEM REGINE FELL
Right after the self-immolation, President Kennedy reportedly told the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, that the Diem regime's mistreatment of Buddhist nuns and monks and conditions leading to the protests had to end. Diem lost U.S. support. On November 1, 1963, he and his brother were overthrown and imprisoned. A day later, both were assassinated.
With his dramatic suicide, Quang Duc achieved what he wanted. He brought to the attention of the world the corruption, abuses, and brutality of the Diem regime, and he brought an end to that regime. In the early 21st century a statue of Thich Quang Duc was erected near the site of his suicide.
From: Duc, Quang." Encyclopedia of World Biography, edited by James Craddock, 2nd ed., vol. 36, Gale, 2016, pp. 161-162.