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On June 11, 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc assumed the lotus position in the middle of a Saigon street and proceeded to light himself on fire. As he burned to death, more than 300 fellow monks warded off police so that he could finish what he had set out to do. The monk's self-immolation was a statement of protest against South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, U.S.-backed leader accused of repressing Buddhists.
Bearing witness to the event were David Halberstam of the New York Times and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press, both of whom won Pulitzer Prizes in 1964 for their coverage of the Vietnam War. "Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring," Halberstam wrote in The Making of a Quagmire. "Two of his fellow monks poured gasoline over him, and he set himself on fire and died," Browne recalled in Reporting America at War: An Oral History. "He never cried out or screamed, but you could see from his expression that he was exposed to intense agony, and that he was dying on the spot."
Browne recalls shooting six to eight rolls of film, and his photographs -- one in particular -- horrified the world. "No news picture in history has generated as much emotion around the world as that one has," President John F. Kennedy said. (Browne admitted, "As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat. It's not something that I'm particularly proud of.") Communist China used the photos as anti-U.S. propaganda. In the United States, the photos took on an entirely different meaning: they stood as a symbol of a man who died for his beliefs.
As protests against Diem continued, several more monks burned themselves to death. Though the U.S. urged Diem to negotiate with the Buddhists, U.S. relations with the embattled leader eventually chilled. On November 1, the South Vietnamese military staged a coup and, the following day, assassinated Diem.