In 1963, after suppressing internal revolts, President of South Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem was increasingly being seen as a totalitarian. Though he depended largely on US aid, Diem refused to be counselled by them on his handling of the war, which was spiraling out of control. In June, Buddhists revolted at Hué and Saigon, which Roman Catholic Diem used military force to disperse.
On the 21st, the monks showed their anger by a rally in Saigon. A 73-year old Thich Quang Duc sat crossed legged in the centre of a human circle. A monk poured gasoline on him. With a look of serenity, Quang Duc struck a match at 9:22 AM. As flames engulfed his body, he made not a single cry or a muscle. In his will he wrote to President asking him to be kind and tolerant towards his people.
Malcolm Browne, a correspondent for the Associated Press based in Vietnam, was tipped off by a monk the night before. “I had some hint that it would be something spectacular, because I knew these monks were not bluffing. They were perfectly serious about doing something pretty violent,” he recalled.
Browne shot 10 rolls of film with his Japanese-made Petri camera — “a cheapie” he called it. The AP distributed the photo, but it wasn’t very widely published due to the graphic nature. The New York Times for instance published a photo of the monks blocking the firetruck instead. But it would eventually did appear in the Times — two weeks later in a full-page ad purchased by a group of clergymen.
But the photos were widely printed inside the papers. The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times both carried it on June 12, 1963. So did Time and U.S. News & World Report. LIFE carried a spread in the June 21, 1963 edition. Henry Cabot Lodge, then the American ambassador to South Vietnam noted that a copy of Brown’s photo ended up on President Kennedy’s desk and the president would note that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Browne won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year.
Although Diem’s decline and downfall had already begun, the immolation was widely seen as the pivotal point. Diem was later assassinated. After Diem’s death, America tried to influence their puppet leaders entirely – they could not risk another Diem – thus plunging the entire region into disaster.