Malcolm Browne, Journalist Who Took The 'Burning Monk' Photo, Dies

Aug 28, 2012
Originally published on August 28, 2012 10:36 pm

Malcolm Browne was a first-rate reporter who spent decades at The New York Times, covered wars around the world and won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing about the early days of the Vietnam war.

And yet he will forever be remembered for one famous picture, the 1963 photo of a Buddhist monk who calmly set himself on fire on the streets of Saigon to protest against the South Vietnamese government, which was being supported by the U.S.

In a war that would produce many shocks to the American public, Browne's photo was one of the first and remains an iconic image of the war a half-century later.

Browne, 81, died Monday at a New Hampshire hospital. He had been suffering from Parkinson's disease in recent years.

Browne went to Vietnam as a young reporter for the AP when the war was in its early stages, a small conflict well below the radar for most Americans.

In an interview last year with Time, Browne detailed how the famous photo came about. He said he had cultivated contacts with monks who had become active in opposing the government. He told Time:

"Along about springtime (1963), the monks began to hint that they were going to pull off something spectacular by way of protest ...

"The monks were telephoning the foreign correspondents in Saigon to warn them that something big was going to happen. Most of the correspondents were kind of bored with that threat after a while and tended to ignore it. I felt that they were certainly going to do something, that they were not just bluffing, so it came to be that I was really the only Western correspondent that covered the fatal day."

The photo had an immediate impact.

As the AP noted in its story on Browne's death, "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."

Opposition to the South Vietnamese government continued to grow in the months that followed. On Nov. 1, 1963, about five months after Browne's photo was taken, a group of South Vietnamese generals, with tacit U.S. backing, carried out a coup against South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem.

Browne's photo and his reporting pointed to the complicated nature of the Vietnam war that would last for more than a decade and cause great divisions in the U.S.

Browne wrote a memoir in 1993, called Muddy Boots and Red Socks, saying that he "did not go to Vietname harboring any opposition to America's role in the Vietnamese civil war." However, he went on to say that the "shadow war" carried out by the Kennedy administration changed his views.

After leaving the AP, Browne went on to work for the Times for three decades as a foreign correspondent and a science writer.

Browne is among a trio of AP journalists who distinguished themselves during the Vietnam war and have died recently.

Photographer Horst Faas, who won one of his two Pulitzer prizes in Vietnam, died in his native Germany in May at age 79.

And reporter George Esper, who was also 79, died in February. Esper was such a dogged reporter that he remained in Saigon and reported on its fall to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, when the few remaining Americans evacuated by helicopter from rooftops. Esper, still working in the AP bureau, was asked to leave the country a short while later by North Vietnamese soldiers.

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One of the world's great journalists has died. On the morning of June, 11, 1963, Malcolm Browne was a correspondent for the Associated Press, based in Saigon. Following a tip, he brought his camera to a pagoda near a busy Saigon intersection. An elderly Buddhist monk sat down in the middle of the street, then two younger monks doused him with gasoline, as Browne describes in this 1995 BBC interview.


MALCOLM BROWNE: He had a packet of matches in his lap. He struck one of them and instantly he was enveloped in flame. I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting. And that protected me from the horror of the thing, the smell of the burning flesh, the expression of anguish. He never cried out, but his face did become anguished. Eventually, of course, he just, he flopped over and twitched a few times and that was it.

CORNISH: Malcolm Browne's photo of the monk's self-immolation gave America, and the world, a chilling view into a then little understood conflict. Browne went on to report for the New York Times, where he spent three decades of his career. He died Monday at the age of 81. For more we're joined by Richard Pile, who ran the AP Saigon bureau after Malcolm Browne. Richard Pile, welcome to the program.

RICHARD PILE: Thank you.

CORNISH: And I'd like to start by offering my condolences for the loss of your friend.

PILE: A lot of people share this grief, and I thank you for that.

CORNISH: Browne is best known for the photo we mentioned, but he wasn't strictly a photo journalist. And I read that he happened to have been carrying a camera that day.

PILE: Well, we all carried cameras because Horst Faas, our great photo mentor, insisted that we do that. And as I have been told by Malcolm himself, that Horst told him that day to take a camera, and he was the only journalist there, as far as anybody knows, who had a camera.

CORNISH: Tell us a little bit about Malcolm Browne as a person. What was his personality like?

PILE: Well, he was always known as a kind of an eccentric character, kind of spooky in a way. He was a brilliant, intellectual type fellow. It's like he always had some mysterious secrets that nobody else could know. But he was a brilliant journalist and courageous. He was all the things that a war correspondent needed to be.

CORNISH: I also read that he actually left behind a guide to new reporters in Vietnam. What was in it?

PILE: That's right. He wrote a manual for new reporters, anybody coming into the bureau. Things like, be careful when you talk in public because there are police spies in the restaurants who like to eavesdrop on conversations. And keep your head down in combat, don't stick your head up to see where the bullets come from because the next one will be yours. These are all, you know, sort of like seemingly obvious, and they might make it sound as if reporters were paranoid about spooks and spies and that sort of thing. But in fact, the old rule that even paranoids are allowed to have enemies, applied there. And it was good advice that he gave us on all these things.

CORNISH: One thing that struck me about his background was that he was the son of an architect and got a degree in chemistry. He had a sort of science background. Is that right?

PILE: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I didn't really know a lot of that about him until one day I was covering the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania, and there he was. I said, Malcolm what are you doing here? He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, well, I've got a degree in nuclear energy. I didn't know that until he told me that.

CORNISH: When you look back now on your friend and his legacy, what do you think that legacy is? Especially to photo journalists or people doing wartime coverage.

PILE: He's not alone in this, but he's one of those who showed how it should be done. And how to get around obfuscation, how to get around bureaucracy that tries to prevent things from being said and done. He was confrontational with officials and people who tried to shut him up, and that sort of thing. He was an enemy of those who would obscure the truth.

CORNISH: Richard Pile, thank you so much for talking with us.

PILE: You're very welcome.

CORNISH: Richard Pile, a longtime reporter with the Associated Press, remembering his colleague, journalist Malcolm Browne. Browne died Monday at the age of 81.



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