Of the foreign journalists who had been alerted to a shocking political protest against South Vietnam’s U.S.-supported government, only one — Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press — arrived in June 1963 to document it.
His photos of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself ablaze on a Saigon street ran on front pages around the world and prompted President Kennedy to order a reevaluation of his administration’s Vietnam policy.
“No news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one,” Kennedy said, according to the 2006 book “Cold War Mandarin.”
Browne, 81, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000, died Monday at a New Hampshire hospital, said his wife, Le Lieu Browne of Thetford, Vt.
The dramatic photographs of the monk marked the beginning of a rebellion that 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, Browne said in a 1998 interview.
In 1964, both Browne and New York Times writer David Halberstam won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting on the war and the fall of the Diem regime. 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 ablaze as about 500 people watched.
“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.
Hal Buell, an AP deputy photo editor when the burning monk photos were taken, said the image “put the Vietnam War on the front page more than anything else that happened before that. That’s where the story stayed for the next 10 years or more.”
Malcolm Wilde Browne was born April 17, 1931, in New York and earned a degree in chemistry from Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. Drafted into the Army in 1956, he was sent to Korea as a tank driver but ended up writing for a military newspaper.
He joined the AP in 1960 and the next year was sent to Saigon, where he became a charter member of a small group of reporters covering South Vietnam’s U.S.-backed military struggle against the Viet Cong, a home-grown communist insurgency.
Within the year he was joined by photographer Horst Faas and reporter Peter Arnett. By 1966, all three members of what a competitor called AP’s “human wave” had earned Pulitzer Prizes for Vietnam coverage.
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 his 1993 memoir, “Muddy Boots and Red Socks,” Browne said he “did not go to Vietnam harboring opposition to America’s role in the Vietnamese civil war” but became disillusioned by the Kennedy administration’s secretive “shadow war” concealing the extent of U.S. involvement.
Much of Browne’s career was spent at the New York Times, which he joined in 1968. He worked in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia before leaving to edit a science magazine and returned to the newspaper in 1985 to write mainly about science. He also covered the 1991 Gulf War.
The cerebral Browne had a penchant for red socks — they were easy to match, he explained — and an acerbic wit befitting his grandfather’s cousin, Oscar Wilde. Associates saw Browne as complex, rather mysterious, and above all, independent.
He wrote a 1965 book, “The New Face of War,” and a manual for new reporters in Vietnam that advised: Have a sturdy pair of boots, watch out for police spies who eavesdrop on reporters’ conversations in bars, and “if you’re crawling through grass with the troops and you hear gunfire, don’t stick your head up to see where it’s coming from, as you will be the next target.”
In addition to his wife, his survivors include a son, Timothy; a daughter, Wendy, from a previous marriage; a brother, Timothy; and a sister, Miriam.