Burning-monk photographer Malcolm Browne dies at age 81

Malcolm W. Browne, a former Associated Press correspondent acclaimed for his trenchant reporting of the Vietnam War and a photo of a Buddhist monk’s suicide by fire that shocked the Kennedy White House into a critical policy re-evaluation, has died. He was 81.

Browne died Monday night at a hospital in New Hampshire, not far from his home in Thetford, Vt., said his wife, Le Lieu. The couple met in Saigon.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000 and spent his last years using a wheelchair to get around. He was rushed to the hospital Monday night after experiencing difficulty breathing, Le Lieu Brown said. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he died.

Browne spent most of his journalism career at The New York Times, where he put in 30 years of his four decades as a journalist, much of it in war zones.

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 1964, Browne, then an AP correspondent, and rival Times journalist David Halberstam both won Pulitzer Prizes for their reporting on the conflict in Vietnam. The war had escalated because of a Nov. 1, 1963, coup d’etat in which U.S.-backed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and murdered, along with his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, the national security chief.

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 on June 11, 1963, when a monk set himself afire in a Saigon street intersection in protest as about 500 people watched.

Although several Western reporters also had been alerted to the event in advance, only Browne took the Buddhists at their word and was there to witness the horrifying event. His photos of the elderly monk, Thich Quang Duc, being doused with aviation fuel and torching himself made front pages around the globe.

At the White House, President Kennedy told Henry Cabot Lodge, about to become America’s ambassador to Saigon, that he was “shocked” by the photos, and that “we have to do something about that regime.”

"That was the beginning of the rebellion, and it ended in the overthrow and killing of Diem," Browne recalled in a 1998 Associated Press interview. "Almost immediately, huge demonstrations began to develop that were no longer limited to just the Buddhist clergy, but began to attract huge numbers of ordinary Saigon residents."

The burning monk became photo became one of the first iconic news photos of the Vietnam War.

Malcolm Wilde Browne was born in New York on April 17, 1931. He graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania with a degree in chemistry. Working in a lab when drafted in 1956, he was sent to Korea as a tank driver, but by chance got a job writing for a military newspaper, and from that came a decision to trade science for a career in journalism.

He worked first for the Middletown Daily Record in New York, where he worked alongside Hunter S. Thompson, author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Browne then worked briefly for International News Service and United Press, the forerunner of United Press International, before joining the AP in 1960. A year later, the AP sent him from Baltimore to Saigon to head its expanding bureau.

In his 1993 memoir, “Muddy Boots and Red Socks,” Browne said he “did not go to Vietnam harboring any 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.

Amid the furor over tendentious coverage, some reporters claimed to have received death threats, and Browne said his name was among those on a list of “supposed enemies of the state who had to be eliminated.”

In the 1998 interview, he said that he “never took that seriously,” but that when government agents tried to arrest his wife, who had angered officials by quitting her information ministry job, Browne stared them down by standing in his doorway brandishing a souvenir submachine gun.

Tall, lanky and blond, Browne was a cerebral and eccentric character with a penchant for red socks — they were easy to match, he explained — and an acerbic wit befitting his grandfather’s cousin, Oscar Wilde.

He ridiculed the word “media,” for example, as “that dreadful Latin plural our detractors use when they really mean “scum.”

Overall, associates saw him as complex, rather mysterious, and above all, independent.

"Mal Browne was a loner; he worked alone, did not share his sources and didn’t often mix socially with the press group," recalled Faas, who died in 2012. "And stubborn — he wouldn’t compromise on a story just to please his editors or anyone else."

Browne wrote a 1965 book, “The New Face of War,” and a manual for new reporters in Vietnam. Among its kernels of advice: Have a sturdy pair of boots, watch out for police spies who eavesdrop on reporters’ bar conversations, 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.”

South Vietnamese officials censored early news reports, but to mixed effects. At least once, Browne sent a story to the AP by surreptitiously taping a handwritten note over an innocuous photo being transmitted to Tokyo.

By 1965, impressed by how television appeared to be dominating the public discourse, the reporter who had never owned a TV set left the AP to join ABC News in Vietnam.

Browne quit ABC after a year after beginning over management questions.

After a venture into magazine writing, Browne joined The New York Times in 1968. He worked in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, left again to edit a science magazine, and returned to the Times in 1985, mainly as a science writer. He also covered the 1991 Gulf War, again clashing with U.S. officials over censorship issues.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Timothy; a daughter, Wendy, from a previous marriage; a brother, Timothy; and a sister, Miriam.

Browne will be buried on the family’s property in Vermont, his widow said.

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