This repost is for those too young to remember Vietnam, their father’s hell.
Memorial to Thich Quang Duc – Ho Chi Minh City
Thich Quang Duc was a Buddhist – a Vietnamese Buddhist living in South Vietnam in 1963.
South Vietnam had been created by the Geneva Accords whereby the French dissolved the colonial administration, Ho Chi Minh’s communists ruled the north and President Ngo Dinh Diem presided over the south, with U. S. support.
The division of the country was never intended to be permanent by the Geneva Agreement but Diem refused to hold elections which he was sure to lose and the U.S. supported him for we knew that Ho Chi Minh would win any free election.
Diem was a staunch Catholic in a country that was probably 90% Buddhist. He was viewed by millions as a Francophile. Diem filled government positions with Catholics and made it clear that promotion in the army or the government depended on being Catholic. Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu was commander of the army. Officers and enlisted men converted in droves when it was made clear to them that their careers were over unless they were Catholic. Diem’s older brother was Archbishop of Vietnam and the Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country. It’s holdings were exempt from taxation and not subject to land distribution or reform. Catholics were exempt from forced labor, expected of all lower class citizens.
Diem flew the Vatican Flag regularly at public events in South Vietnam and devoted his country to the Virgin Mary in 1959.
Buddhists could not hold public demonstrations without official permission; American aid went disproportionally to Catholic villages and organizations; Buddhist villages were threatened with being moved to the interior unless they mass converted to Catholicism. A number of Catholic organizations maintained their own militia in support of the government.
The Geneva Accords allowed 300 days of free passage between north and south. Hundreds of thousands of Catholics fled the north, setting up and supporting their own Catholic friendly government in the south. The Catholic minority was effectively ruling the country.
This was the world of Thich Quang Duc in 1963.
He was born in 1897 and from early on he was trained as a Buddhist monk. He rose to prominence and was responsible for the building of over thirty temples and pagodas throughout Vietnam. He became Chairman of the Ceremonial Rites Panel of the Congregation of Vietnamese Monks and Abbot of the Phuoc Hoa Pagoda.
The Buddhist uprising came on Vesak, the birthday of Buddha when the government forbid the flying of the Buddhist flag over Hue after flying the Vatican flag the week before for Vietnam’s Archbishop.
A large crowd of Buddhists protested the ban, defying the government by flying Buddhist flags on Vesak and marching on the government broadcasting station. Government forces fired into the crowd of protesters, killing nine people. Diem’s refusal to take responsibility — he blamed the Viet Cong for the deaths — led to further Buddhist protests and calls for religious equality. As Diem remained unwilling to comply with Buddhist demands, the frequency of protests increased.
On June 10, 1963 news agency correspondents were advised that “something important” was going to happen the next day on a main road outside of the Cambodian Embassy. Most news reporters ignored it as the Buddhist protests had already been going on for a month.
David Halberstam of the NY Times was there as was Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press. What they saw and recorded would change the world.
The Malcolm Browne photo that shook the world
Duc arrived as part of a procession that had begun at a nearby pagoda. Around 350 monks and nuns marched in two columns, preceded by an Austin sedan carrying banners printed in both English and Vietnamese. They denounced the Diem government and its policy towards Buddhists, demanding that it fulfill its promises of religious equality
The act itself occurred at an intersection a few blocks Southwest of the Presidential Palace. Duc emerged from the car along with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road while the second opened the trunk and took out a five-gallon gasoline can. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Duc calmly seated himself in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. A colleague emptied the contents of the gasoline container over Duc’s head. Duc rotated a string of wooden beads and recited a few prayer words before striking a match and dropping it on himself. Flames consumed his robes and flesh, and black oily smoke emanated from his burning body.
David Halberstam wrote “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
Police tried to reach him, but could not break through the circle of Buddhist clergy. One of the policemen threw himself to the ground and prostrated himself in front of Duc in reverence. The spectators were mostly stunned into silence, but some wailed and several began praying. Many of the monks and nuns, as well as some shocked passersby, prostrated themselves before the burning monk.
Duc’s last words in a letter he left behind were :
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dihn Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
Diem reacted to Duc’s death by having the army crack down on Buddhist demonstrations and isolated some 30 senior dissident army officers. Madame Nhu, wife of Diem’s young brother and de facto First Lady of Vietnam (Diem was a bachelor), a former Buddhist and now a converted Catholic said she would “clap hands at another Buddhist barbecue show!”.
The pictures by Halberstam and Browne spread round the world. The self immolation was the critical point in the collapse of the Diem regime. The army, which had vowed loyalty, killed Diem and his brother in November 1963, no doubt with the approval of JFK and only days before JFK’s own death in Dallas.
President Kennedy saw the pictures over breakfast and exclaimed “Holy shit!”. Later it would be stated by the historian Seth Jacobs that Duc’s death reduced America’s experiment with the Diem regime to ashes.
I was 20 when he died. I had never seen such bravery and commitment.
Although we did not know it at the time, the death of the monk Thich Quang Duc marked the beginning of the end of our Vietnam policy, though fifty thousand plus Americans and countless Vietnamese would die before it was all over. In three years I would be loading flat cars at Ft. Wolters Texas for deployment, and spend two years making notifications to the N.O.K in New York of soldiers K.I.A. My brother would be in the war zone.
The monk will be dead 59 years on June 11.
photo credit: Malcolm Brown – World Press Photo of the Year – 1963