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The Burning Monk

A defining moment photographed by AP’s Malcolm Browne

historical context

Malcolm Wilde Browne was 30 years old when he arrived in Saigon on Nov. 7, 1961, as AP's first permanent correspondent there. From the start, Browne was filing the kind of big stories that would win him the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1964. But today, he is primarily remembered for a photograph taken 50 years ago on June 11, 1963, depicting the dignified yet horrific death by fiery suicide of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc.

Following years of growing tension, the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam reached its breaking point under the repressive regime of Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem. On May 8, 1963, in the ancient imperial capital of Hue, South Vietnamese soldiers opened fire on a group of Buddhists who were flying the Buddhist flag in direct violation of a government ban. Nine were killed.

In late May and early June, the Saigon Buddhists staged street demonstrations and memorial services for the victims of the May 8 incident. On June 1, two monks informed AP Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne, along with other foreign correspondents, that two elderly monks planned to commit ritual suicide in protest against the Diem regime.


AP Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne accompanies South Vietnamese marines on a mission to relieve the besieged government garrison at Ap Tan Long in 1962.


Journalists attend a briefing by military officers in Saigon, ca. 1963. The regular briefings became known derisively as the "Five O'Clock Follies" by those who believed the official information released there was inaccurate and misleading. At center, foreground, is Seymour Topping of the New York Times. Immediately behind him at right (no glasses) is Malcolm Browne of The Associated Press. View on >


Reporters, from left, David Halberstam of The New York Times, AP Saigon correspondent Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan of UPI, chat beside a helicopter in Vietnam in the 1960s. View on >

The timeline images are from a series shot by AP's Malcolm Browne in Saigon, Vietnam, June 11, 1963, unless otherwise noted. The timeline notes are taken from Malcolm Browne’s letter to AP General Manager Wes Gallagher of September 30, 1963, Foreign Bureau Correspondence, AP Corporate Archives.
View the Ultimate Protest series on >


In a pre-digital world, it took a remarkable 15 hours over 9,000 miles of AP WirePhoto cable for Malcolm Browne's Burning Monk to become breaking news.

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    On June 27, 1963, The New York Times, which had not published Browne‘s photograph, ran a full-page paid advertisement featuring the image. The ad, protesting the U.S. support of the Diem regime, was signed by 12 clergymen including some of the country‘s well-known religious leaders. The clergymen also protested the “immoral spraying of parts of South Vietnam with crop-destroying chemicals and the herding of many of its people into concentration camps called ‘strategic hamlets’” and “the fiction that this is “fighting for freedom.”

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    South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. AP PHOTO / NICK UT

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Impact and Legacy

The image we conjure up when we think of Browne’s picture is not the one that was published in American newspapers on June 12, 1963. The one the papers chose shows Thich Quang Duc as a black mass surrounded by flames. It had been sent by radio from Manila to New York. It was used widely, but not universally. And when it was used, it did not always appear on Page One.

Nevertheless, it was that picture which shocked President John F. Kennedy, who immediately ordered a review of his administration’s Vietnam policy. The review led to more troops, not fewer.
As more pictures came into New York in succeeding days, the complete sequence became available. The picture that we now refer to as “The Ultimate Protest” was one of these. It shows Thich Quang Duc’s face and the fine drapery of his garments as he is engulfed in silvery tongues of flame. It is a shockingly beautiful image that immediately took on a life of its own, so that we no longer recall the first published image.

In many ways, “The Ultimate Protest” paved the way for the other iconic image of the war, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1972, of a young girl wounded by a napalm strike and running in agony toward the photographer, her clothes burned off. By then, the world was used to this visual assault. It was also growing tired of the long war.