A struggle to contextualize photographic images:
American print media and the "Burning Monk.
Lisa M. Skow; George N. Dionisopoulos
In the late Spring of 1963, most Western reporters in
Saigon who knew of Buddhist plans to use staged suicides to protest
the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem, discounted them "as
an idle threat, on grounds that the nonviolent Buddhist faith would
never condone suicide" (Browne, 1965, p. 177). Throughout May
the Buddhists consigned themselves to marches and peaceful
By June, it was obvious that these protests "were
having no impact on the general populace," and the foreign news
media had "lost interest completely." Even the Saigon
police—"aware that beating or arresting robed clerics would
prompt the worst kind of publicity" -- seemed content simply to
disperse the audiences, leaving the monks alone (Browne, 1993, p.
9). However, the Buddhists were secretly preparing to escalate
their strategy of confrontation. Their experiments had demonstrated
that although gasoline "is easily ignited and burns with great
heat, it is consumed too rapidly to complete the destruction of a
human body and assure death." The monks found that a mixture of
equal parts of gasoline and diesel fuel would "produce a fire
that was both intense and sufficiently long lasting" (Browne,
1993, p. 9).
On June 11, 1963, a march of 300 Buddhist monks and
nuns blocked all entrances to a main traffic intersection in Saigon.
Thich Quang Duc, an elderly monk, was helped from an automobile to a
square cushion placed for him in the middle of the circle of
marchers. He sat in the lotus position and allowed fellow monks to
poor the combustible mixture over him -"soaking his face, body,
robes and cushion" (Browne, 1993, p. 10). When the younger
monks stepped away, Thich Quang Duc struck a match and was
immediately engulfed in flames. "’Oh my God,’ cried a
Western observer, ‘oh my God’" ("Trial by Fire,"
1963, p. 32).
The suicide of Thich Quang Duc was captured in an
award-winning series of photographs by Malcolm Browne, one of
several Western reporters that had been "alerted that something
dramatic was about to happen" (Nolting, 1988, p. 112). His
photos "circled the globe faster than Telstar broadcast"
("Road to Freedom," 1963, p. 177).
Today it is widely recognized that Browne’s pictures
of Quang Duc’s suicide are some of the most powerful visual images
to have come out of a period of our history that would provide other
dramatic photographs over the next decade. The riveting power of
Browne’s photographs was such that they focused Americans on an
area of the world that had only received marginal attention up until
then. In so doing, the photographs became a frame through which many
Americans perceived the events in South Vietnam during the Summer
and Fall of 1963.
What is not as widely recognized, however, is that
while these visual images engaged the American audience, their
meaning—and thus the frame they provided—was the subject of a
running dispute in the American print media. That is, while the
visual power of these photographs was undeniable, elements of the
print media competed with each other to provide the
"correct" interpretation of them. These efforts to
interpret Browne’s photographs were also attempts to prescribe for
an engaged American public a frame through which to interpret the
news about the unfolding political upheaval in South Vietnam during
this time period. How this frame was constructed depended largely
upon whether it situated the images -- and thus the events they
represented—against a backdrop of religious oppression or a war
for freedom against the communists.
We seek in this essay to examine that dialectical
struggle within the American print media. We undertake this effort
for the following reasons. First, we maintain that this case study
offers an opportunity to extend our rhetorical knowledge concerning
visual images. Lancioni (1996) has observed that during the past few
years a "wide range of visual forms have been the subject of
rhetorical analysis" (p. 398). These analyses have examined the
rhetorical dimensions of documentary photographs (Lancioni, 1996),
war memorials (Foss, 1986), political cartoons (Bostdorff, 1987,
Mehurst & Desousa, 1981) and iconographic images (Olson, 1983,
Olson, 1987; Olson, 1990; Olson, 1991). Although we draw from much
of this previous work, we will illustrate that our case study
differs from previous efforts in fundamental ways. These differences
allow us to examine an important aspect of visual imagery that has
been neglected thus far: the role of discursive rhetoric for
providing a context—and thus a rhetorical meaning—for certain
A second reason for our effort is that it allows us to
focus on what many believe constituted a turning point in American
media reportage from Vietnam. It is easy to forget that June 11,
1963 was before any real domestic opposition to American involvement,
before the Tet Offensive, before the first major American troop
build-up in 1965, even before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the
ensuing Resolution. On June 11, 1963, most Americans were more
preoccupied with the threats of Alabama Governor George Wallace to
block court ordered integration at the University of Alabama, than
with a small country half a world away. The Summer of 1963 marks an
important—and as yet unexplored—watershed in the American
experience in Southeast Asia. As media coverage during this time
"finally made Vietnam a tter of top priority" (Prochnau,
1995, p. 313), involvement there would begin to occupy a more
prominent place in American consciousness.
Many scholars maintain that American press coverage
during the summer of 1963 was some of the most controversial of the
entire war. Hallin (1986) wrote, "It was during this period
especially that the media were charged with shaping events rather
than reporting them, wrecking American policy in the process"
(p. 43). Schlesinger (1965) maintained that the anti-Diem campaign of
the Buddhists "engaged the sympathy of the American
newspapermen and through them many people in the United States"
(p. 987). President Kennedy’s Press Secretary, Pierre Salinger
(1966) singled out Browne as one of three reporters who "devoted
their activities in 1963 to the political crisis which developed in
Saigon—particularly the nasty conflict between the government and
the Buddhists. Whether they intended it or not, their articles
reflected the bitter hatred they had for the Diem government and
their avowed purpose (stated to a number of reporters in Saigon) to
bring down the Diem government" (pp. 325-326). MacDonald (1973)
claimed that the American media were purposefully distorting coverage
during this time to benefit the Buddhists. Others refer more
explicitly to the dramatic impact of Browne’s photographs. The
American Ambassador to South Vietnam during this time period,
Frederick Nolting (1988), maintained that "Browne’s
photograph of the old man sitting motionless in the midst of
the flames shocked the world," and turned American public
opinion "firmly against President Diem" (p. 112). MacDonald
(1973) believed that Browne’s photographs produced an
"exaggerated" impression of what was truly going on in
South Vietnam. Prochnau (1995) observed, "So much did Mal
Browne’s photos jar history that more than three decades later one
is still .part of a tourist attraction in Ho Chi Mihn City" (p. 309).
Browne (1993) himself, observes similarly that the "spectacular
self-immolation of the Buddhist monk made headlines, helped to bring
down a government, changed the course of a war and found a place in
the history books" (p. 3). Our analysis proceeds in the
following manner. First, we examine some of the previous work
concerning the rhetorical aspects of visual messages, detailing ways
in which our study differs. In the next section, we analyze the
struggle by elements of the print media to contextualize Brownes
photographs and through them, the news coming out of South Vietnam.
We focus on the time period from June 1963 until the November coup
which successfully brought down the Diem government in South
Vietnam. We have examined coverage from three newspapers (New York
Times, San Diego Union, and the Christian Science Monitor), a weekly
news periodical (Time), two religious periodicals (Christian
Century, America), and four additional magazines that covered
political events (Life, Nation, National Review, New Republic). We
feel that taken collectively these sources provide a diverse sample
of the popular print media of the time. The sample is varied enough
to offer for examination a range of message-types and political
perspectives. Finally, we end with some concluding observations
about our efforts here.
VISUAL RHETORIC AND THE DRAMATIC NEWS PHOTOGRAPH
Lancioni (1996) has observed that critical analyses
have examined the rhetorical messages of a wide range of visual
artifacts. This research suggests that the rhetorical meaning for a
visual artifact is determined by the artifact’s aesthetic form,
and the active cooperation of the audience in the construction of
that rhetorical meaning. Foss (1986) suggested that a viewer’s
response to a visual object "assumes two forms or occurs in two
steps—the aesthetic and the rhetorical the aesthetic precedes the
rhetorical and consists of a direct perceptual encounter with the
sensory aspects of the object The rhetorical response that follows
constitutes the processing of the aesthetic experience and thus the
attribution of meaning to the object." This rhetorical response
"involves a critical, reflective analysis of the work or a
cognitive apprehension of it" (p. 329). In the process of
attributing rhetorical meaning to a visual object the choice options
available to the audience will be circumscribed by the possibilities
allowed by the aesthetic attributes of the object But within
those prescribed parameters the audience will draw upon a
"learned vocabulary" based on "their own life
experiences" (Lancioni 1996, p. 403), and the "[c]ultural
knowledge [that] provides the basis for normative interaction and
persuasion" (Scott, 1994, p. 253).(1)
While these insights have proven beneficial in previous
research, we suggest that they are somewhat limiting in our case
study. The aesthetic impact of Browne’s photographs was immediate
and undeniable. They "leaped off every front page in the world
the next morning" (Karnow, 1983, p. 281), riveting attention,
as people "reacted with shock and horror to this spectacular
event" (Doyle & Lipsman, 1981, p. 67). President Kennedy’s
reaction was undoubtedly similar to that of many others, as he was
heard to exclaim "Jesus Christ," when the morning papers
were delivered to him. As Levine (1988) observed, it "is through
trauma that the unstaged photograph manipulates most
effectively" (p. 17), and the evocative power of such
photographs is provided largely by the belief that they are the
quintessential objective document—reality in black and white"
(p. 23). "The camera record justifies," explained Sontag
(1977), it "passes for incontrovertible proof that a given
thing happened" (p. 5). The aesthetic form of Browne’s
photographic "reality" or "proof" "fastened
worldwide attention" on Southeast Asia ("Condemn Religious
Tyranny," 1963, p. 900), as its undeniable force transfixed the
attention of the American public on the dramatic events
However powerful were the aesthetic images, the role of
the engaged audience in the cooperative construction of their
rhetorical meaning was somewhat more difficult There was precious
little in the way of life experiences or cultural knowledge that an
engaged American audience could utilize in the Summer of 1963 to
contextualize these photos in a meaningful way. As Trachtenberg
(1989) observed, "without an encompassing structure, individual
photographic images remai[n] dangerously isolated and misleading.
The structure endows each image with what Foucault calls ‘enunciability,’
the power to make a meaningful statement" (p. 85).(2) Thus it
fell to the American print media to provide a context—or
encompassing structure—within which these dramatic, but alien,
images would take on rhetorical meaning.(3) Olson (1983)
examined how the discursive rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt
"created a context" of meaning for Norman Rockwells
"Four Freedoms" paintings. This context reaffirmed the
reasons America was fighting World War Two (p. 24). However,
Roosevelt constructed this context without opposition. This was
certainly not the case concerning the powerful images coming out of
Vietnam in the Summer of 1963. A struggle ensued within the media
concerning how to contextualize and thus understand Browne’s
photographs—and through them, the unfolding political upheaval in
South Vietnam. As Smith (1986) observed, within the realm of foreign
policy "where our understandings are so imperfect" (p.
325), such a struggle"over images is more than a distraction it is
central. .because it provides a way for Americans. to make sense of
the world around them" (p. 324). In retrospect, it might be
argued that the American understanding of Vietnam was always
"imperfect." But it was distinctly so during the Summer of 1963.
We turn now to examine how elements of the American print media struggled
to contextualize one of the first images that could provide Americans
with a way to make sense of Vietnam.
PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES OF SOUTH VIETNAM SUMMER, 1963
Some of the initial media reports described Browne’s
photographs of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation on a more
aesthetic level. "An elderly Buddhist monk surrounded by 300
other monks calmly put a match to his gasoline-drenched yellow robes
at a main street intersection here today and burned to death before
watching Vietnamese" ("Monk Suicide by
Fire," 1963, p. 6). This type of description, however, was
unable to explain the motives underlying the act portrayed in these
powerful images, and thus gave little indication of what rhetorical
meaning could be attached to them. It was in the act of contextualizing
Brownes photographs that they took on rhetorical meaning. The frames
offered by the print media tended to bifurcate into two opposing
perspectives: onefeaturing a theme of religious oppression by Diem’s
government, the other featuring a theme of a struggle for freedom
against the communists. The photographic image of Thich Quang Dues fiery
suicide, the antiDiem protests by the Buddhists, and the war itself, would
take on vastly different meanings depending upon the context in which they
were placed. We tam now to examine those media that framed the events
against a backdrop of religious oppression in South Vietnam.
RELIGIOUS OPPRESSION IN SOUTH VIETNAM
For a great deal of media, Browne’s images seemed
"to symbolize what was wrong with American involvement, if not in
Vietnam, at least with Ngo Dinh Diem" (Prochnau, 1995, p. 308).
Coverage in the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Christian
Century, New Republic, and Nation to varying degrees, seemed to feature
the religious persecution being carried out by the SouthVietnamese government
Emphasis on the struggle between the oppressed Buddhist majority and
the oppressive Catholic-dominated regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem
concomitantly minimized any negative impact the Buddhist demonstrations
would have on the war against the communists. The New York Times stated
that this religious struggle was "the most bitter and basic point of
friction taking place in Saigon" ("Saigon Concedes," 1963,
p. 1). Christian Century claimed that "the simple, widely publicized,
incontestable fact is that the conflict is one between a Roman Catholic
and Buddhists" ("Vietnam Crisis," 1963, p. 1093). Charges
against the government included discriminatory practices, violence against
Buddhists, and inept
leadership by President Diem and his family-dominated
government Discrimination Against Buddhists. Setting the stage for the
charges of religious discrimination by the Diem regime was the common
referral in the media to the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam. The
New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and
Christian Century all featured that although the ruling Diems were
Catholic, 70-80% of the population of Vietnam was Buddhist For example, in
virtually every article by the New York Times, there is mention of the
Buddhist majority and ruling Catholic minority ("Diem Asks
Peace," "Buddhist Defy Regime," and "U.S. Warns South
Vietnam," 1963). The Christian Century put the matter bluntly;
"The fact is that a predominantly Buddhist land is ruled by a strong
Roman Catholic family which permits and evidently encourages a ruthless
suppression of religious freedom" ("Brutality in Vietnam,"
1963, p. 950) The"domination" ("Saigon Incident,"
1963, p. 2) and the "complete control" ("Vietnam
Crisis," 1963, p. 1093) by the Catholic Diem regime over the
Buddhist majority were common terms used to set the tone for the
charges of religious discrimination. Direct references to the
Buddhist majority, prejudice, and nepotic practices on the part of
the government were succinctly detailed in the New Republic;
the Buddhists’ "crime had been that, in a
country in which they represent about 70 percent of the population,
they had run afoul of the particular prejudices of the chief of staff
and of his relatives and associates, who are Catholics"
("Diem’s Other Crusade," 1063, p. 5) This notion that
something "isn’t quite right" in Saigon resonated in some
factions of the American media. The message shaped by these
media that a powerful minority dominates and controls
the majority in South Vietnam would be a powerful and purposeful
message to an engaged American audience trying to understand American
actions to defend "freedom" in that country. As presented in the
Summer of 1963, the Viet Cong were not the only enemies of freedom
or democratic ideals. Indeed, the Diem regime was portrayed as
a principle source of oppression for the majority in the vary
country he governed.
Mediated descriptions grounded the Buddhist uprising in
an incident which had occurred on May 8, 1963. To celebrate the 2057
birthday of Buddha, the Buddhists of Hue flew the five-color flag of
their religion. Police and government troops moved in to enforce
what David Halberstam called on the front page of the New York
Times, a "seldom used law" ("Saigon Concedes," 1963,
p. 1), banning the
public display of any flag other than the national flag
of Vietnam. During an ensuing clash, between nine and eleven Buddhists
were killed ("Mandarins of Hue," 1963, Sobel, 1973).(4)
Mediated descriptions portrayed the Hue incident as an attack on a
"crowd peacefully demonstrating for the right to fly Buddhist flags
on Buddha’s birthday" ("Saigon Incident," 1963, p. 2).
claiming that the Catholic flag was not subject to the
same censure, wrote that "they [the Buddhists] had compounded their
‘crime’ by flying the Buddhist flag .The flying of the
white-and-gold Catholic flag, widely displayed at all major public
events in Vietnam, apparently is not subjected to the same
interdiction" ("Diem’s Other Crusade," 1963, p. 5).
The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the refusal of the Saigon
government to take responsibility for the incident at Hue;
"Three simple words—‘I am sorry’—by President Ngo might
have settled the problem if only they had been uttered early
enough" ("Saigon Incident," 1963, p. 2). The incident
in Hue provided one way for engaged Americans to begin to understand
the events captured in Browne’s famous photographs, but it was also
only a part of the story of religious repression in South Vietnam. As
the New York Times described South Vietnamese society: Buddhists
are prohibited from flying their flag; relief supplies tend to go through
Catholic hands; new universities at Hue and Dalat are Catholic controlled.
Most high government officials, chiefs of provinces and military
officers are Catholics. The official political ideology, enforced on
everybody is derived from Catholic philosophy. Restrictive social
legislation, such as bans on dancing, contraceptives, divorce and
polygamy, runs counter to customs and beliefs of the majority.
("Diem and the Buddhists," 1963, p. 18)
The discrimination extended even into the government’s
campaign against the communists. The New Republic reported that
only Catholics were given weapons with which to fight the Viet
"Even in mixed Catholic-Buddhist villages guns
often go only to the Catholics" ("South Vietnam,"
1963, p. 9). Discrimination was described as common in the military,
as Buddhists were "bypassed for promotions because they refused
to change religion." Four "senior Buddhist priests were
sentenced to long prison terms without a defense, accused of being
members of a ‘communist’ cell" ("Diem’s Other
Crusade," 1963, p. 5).
Against this backdrop Browne’s photographs became a
symbol for President Diem’s assaults on fundamental tenants of
religious tolerance and freedom—actions that would have violated
basic values of the engaged American audience. As described in the
media during this time period, the religious struggle in Southeast
Asia seemed to greatly overshadow—and call into question—the
war against the Viet Cong. Indeed, a group calling themselves
the Ministers Vietnam Committee placed an advertisement in the New
York Times featuring the Browne photograph, and protesting the
"fiction that this is ‘fighting for freedom"’
(Congressional Research Service, 1985, p. 144). In attaching
rhetorical meaning to Browne’s images, the American public, and
undoubtedly the American President, himself a Catholic, was forced to
grapple with the question of just who constituted the real enemy of
"freedom" in South Vietnam.(5) Government Violence Against
Buddhists. Government clashes with Buddhist demonstrators became a
staple of reporting from Vietnam during the Summer of 1963. Some
media sources described a situation in which Diem’s forces were
intentional aggressors and the Buddhists were innocent victims pushed to
spectacular suicide as a last resort. The Christian Century reported that
"At least five Buddhists have been driven to self-immolation"
("Rome and Saigon," 1963, p. 1067), and that
"Catholics" were using their power to kill, intimidate and
imprison Buddhists who were calling for religious freedom ("Vietnam
Crisis," 1963, p. 1093).Print media reports emphasized the intensity
of the violence perpetuated against the Buddhist demonstrators, and were
shaped to blame the Diem government for the protests themselves. This
account from Nation is illustrative: "growing Buddhist
restiveness under Diem’s discriminatory measures has resulted in
demonstrations, riots and increasingly savage assaults on the
Buddhists by the government ("Same Old Diem," 1963, p.
538). As explained it is the government’s discrimination that has
caused the restiveness, the riots and the "savage government
violence. The coverage also detailed the forms that violence took.
Buddhists were portrayed as martyrs—persecuted for wanting only to
practice their religion in their own way through the "simple
flying of their religious flag. The New Republic reported that
"Buddhist flags defiantly flew from pagodas in which Buddhists
were barricaded while troops sought to starve them out by cutting off
their food and water supplies" ("Diem’s Other
Crusade," 1963, p. 5). By the beginning of September, Buddhist
demonstrations and government retaliation had reached a crescendo level.
An editorial in the Christian Century offered a detailed account of
government violence against the Buddhists: "Scores have been killed,
thousands imprisoned. Martial law has been declared. Troops are rushing
here and there, arresting Buddhist demonstrators, assaulting or
up places of worship, firing into assemblies of
students, monks and other citizens" ("Rome and Saigon,"
1963, p. 1067). Descriptions like these helped the engaged American
audience to understand the photo of the burning Buddhist monk by situating
its powerful imagery against a backdrop of violent religious oppression in
the streets of Saigon being carried out under government orders. The
described is one in which Buddhists are forcefully
being kept from practicing their religion by an authoritative government
dominated by Catholics, while the war against the communists—ostensibly being
fought for freedom—lies somewhere hauntingly in the
background. Inept Government. During the Summer of
1963, the Diem government was commonly portrayed as incompetent and
without the support of the South Vietnamese people. Showing Diem as an
unsuccessful leader who was incapable of uniting his people against the
Communists, implied that the Buddhists were guiltless in their struggle
against him. The New Republic stated bluntly that the "sheer idiocy
of the Diem regime astounds" ("Diem’s Other Crusade,"
1963, p. 5). Other media worried that Diem’s concern for preserving his
family-dominated government in the face of citizen unrest was taking
precedence over the war with the Viet Cong: "When the war to defeat
the Communist guerrilla infiltration at its most dangerous point takes
second place to the concerns of a family dictatorship, the time for a
change is at hand" ("Agony in South Vietnam," 1963, p.
18). Described as ruling South Vietnam "like a feudal
kingdom," ("Diem’s Other Crusade," 1963, p. 5), the Diem
regime was reported to have "forfeited the loyalty of the majority of
its people and the sympathy of the world" ("Rome and
Saigon," 1963, p. 1067).
As constructed by the media, Diem’s refusal to take
responsibility for the Hue incident was causing a rift between the
government and the Buddhists—who were portrayed as the people of
South Vietnam. The New York Times reported that the government of
Saigon was "still failing" to admit any responsibility for
the deaths in Hue ("Buddhists Defy Regime," 1963, p. 5).
"The Government, blaming communists for the deaths, prohibited
further demonstrations and alternately denounced and negotiated with
the Buddhist leaders" ("U.S. Warns South Vietnam,"
1963, p. 2). Diem had not yet "appealed to the people for
forgiveness" ("Saigon Incident" 1963, p. 2) although
such concessions were "certainly overdue ("Diem and
the Buddhists," 1963, p. 2). Thus the picture of the
burning Buddhist acquired meaning in relief against a background of
mediated accounts such as those found in the Christian Science
Monitor and the New York Times. These accounts suggested strongly
that the Buddhists—as represented in the picture—were not
responsible for events during the Summer of 1963. They were indeed,
blameless, helpless scapegoats for the brutal, nonrepresentative
government in Saigon. President Diem and his government became the
focus of blame through narratives that suggested that they had
created the crisis through repression, and insensitively failed to
handle it successfully. Focusing the blame on the Saigon government
served to justify the Buddhist grievances.
From this perspective the suicide of Thich Quang Duc
can be defined
as an understandable—if obscene—response. But there
elements of the American media that chose to define the
and thus the events in 1963 -- against a different
backdrop; a backdrop which suggested that the Buddhists were
responsible for diverting attention away from the real problem in
South Vietnam, the war against the Viet Cong.
THE VALUE OF ANTI-COMMUNISM
Another faction of the media offered a different
portrayal of the developing events in South Vietnam, and thus a
different rhetorical meaning for Browne’s photographs. Instead of a
struggle for religious freedom Time, the San Diego Union, America,
National Review, and Life offered a more skeptical view of the
Buddhists and their demands. In it, Buddhists were described as
unreasonable, as having strong ties with communism or even being
communists themselves. The Saigon government was largely blameless
and charges of religious oppression were without foundation. This
questioned the intent of the Buddhists and their effect
on what was portrayed as the real struggle in Vietnam the war for
freedom against the communists.
Buddhists Unreasonable. Buddhist claims of Catholic
discrimination were labeled as exaggerations by several news sources.
Time magazine suggested that the Buddhist demands included the
"abolition of real or fancied inequalities" and a
"myriad of often ill-defined grievances" ("The Queen
Bee," 1963, p. 22). America quoted a New Catholic News report
from Saigon as saying that "the charges that the government is
pursuing an anti-Buddhist campaign are plain exaggeration"
("New War in Vietnam," 1963, p. 849). The National Review
used subtitles such as "Bonzes Shift Blame" and
"Preposterous Proposals" to portray the Buddhists as
extremists ("What’s Really Going On," 1963, pp. 388, 389)
who were demanding unreasonable concessions and taking part in
outrageous displays of self-destruction. Described as "no
more than a symbol" ("Tiger by the Tail," 1963, p.
207), the Buddhist flag issue was trivialized. The National Review contextualized
the Buddhist suicides during that summer with an observation that
"Surely a man does not immolate himself because the government
has forbidden his religion to fly its own flags on a Holy Day"
("Road to Freedom," 1963, p. 177). Such reports framed the
Buddhist demands as unwarranted, while simultaneously delegitimating
other news perspectives concerning the crisis. Buddhist complaints
were made to appear carelessly construed and poorly analyzed. In the
face of a war against the communists in South Vietnam, such reports
communicated a strong message to the American public concerning the
legitimacy—or lack thereof of Buddhists claims of religious
persecution. Time magazine did offer readers one of the few
explanations concerning the nature of Buddhism—including insights
into the concept of suffering and self-sacrifice. However, after a
short examination of the Four Noble Truths, Time discussed
the "uselessness" and delusions of the Buddhist religion.
Calling the Eightfold Path "full of pitfalls," the article
explained that "in many Western ways, Buddhism is socially
useless. It has only a limited tradition of good works, the chief
duty of monks and nuns is contemplation" ("Faith that
Lights," 1963, p. 29). This description portrayed the Buddhist
religion as indistinct, unsophisticated, and presumably without value
to enlightened people. Media coverage like this addressed not only
the demands of the Buddhists, but their religion. In so doing, it
situated the suicide of Thich Quang Duc—and the protest movement it
symbolized—against a backdrop of a belief system judged to be
"socially useless" when assessed by Western criteria. As
the foremost practitioners of this belief, the monks would be cast as
equally useless, and their demands for social justice as petty
and unreasonable. Another perspective of this type of media
coverage suggested that the protests of the Buddhists had more to do
with politics than with religion, and that in pursuing their
anti-Diem agenda the Buddhists would endanger the real struggle for
freedom against the communists. Political Nature of the Buddhist
Demands. The interpretive frame featuring concerns regarding
religious tolerance and freedom was countered in the media by one
that featured the political nature of the struggle between the
Buddhists and the legitimate government in Saigon. Time observed that
the "Catholic angle can be greatly exaggerated" ("The
Queen Bee," 1963, p. 23); an opinion echoed in the National
Review: "Religion has been dragged in by the heels, to belabor
Diem, to blacken his reputation, and to inflame world opinion"
("Road to Freedom," 1963, p. 177). Claiming that
"the religious issue... has been phony from the start"
("Tiger by the Tail," 1963, p. 207), America began
questioning the motivation behind the Buddhists’
grievances: Sources admit in private that South Vietnam’s agitating
Buddhists are not concerned about religious freedom. They have
hoped, by raising the false issue of religious discrimination,
to enlist the sympathies of the Vietnamese and the world at
large and eventually to topple the government of Ngo Dinh Diem.
("Saigon in Perspective," 1963, p. 126) Although it was
conceded that the Saigon government was dominated by Catholics, there
was no religious discrimination against the Buddhists of South
Vietnam. Catholics were simply treated "like anyone else"
("Queen Bee," 1963, p. 22). America relied on an American
Government spokesman for added credibility concerning the exoneration
of Diem. "Frederick E. Nolting was essentially correct in his
nationwide T.V. interview of a few weeks ago. ‘Vietnam
has impressed me as a country of religious tolerance’ the retiring
U.S. Ambassador insisted" ("Tiger by the Tail," 1963,
Accused of selling the American public "a bill of
goods" ("Reporting from Saigon," 1963, p. 152), those
who led the fight against the government were made to seem like a
small, solitary faction of zealots, not representative of the
Buddhist majority in South Vietnam ("What’s Really Going on in
Vietnam," 1963). Such perspectives set the scene for claims of
Communist infiltration among the ranks of Buddhist
In a National Review article, the Archbishop of Hue,
Ngo Dinh Thuc intimated connections between the communists and the
"What an organization to serve as a refuge for our
friends the Communists, protected from the police by the right of
asylum given to the pagodas" ("What’s Really Going on in
South Vietnam," 1963, p. 388). He went on to say that the
"presence of Communists among the bonzes is very probable since
they have infiltrated even the Legion of Mary."(6) Coverage in
the San Diego Union similarly stated that the Buddhist protests were
benefitting the Viet Con& and then employed some rather tortured
wording to intimate a more direct association between the Buddhists
and the Communists: Recent Buddhist demonstrations in Hue and Saigon
may or may not have been Communist-instigated, but the Communist Viet
Cong are getting the main benefits. ("Split Helps Reds in
South Viet Non," 1963, p. 5) It would be incorrect to say that
the present disturbances have been instigated by the Communists, but
there is no denying that the Communists are reaping tremendous
propaganda value from them.... Some old hands are not convinced
that the Comunists have not entered the scene as agitators. This
view is endorsed by the fact that Buddhists never before
haw resorted to such extreme tactics in their demonstrations in
other areas of Asia. (Neilan, 1963, p. 7) Going beyond
implying a simple link between the Buddhists and the Viet Cong,
commentary in Time suggested that the two were similar forms of
ideology. Claiming that Buddhism and communism have many
points in common, Time even depicted the Buddhists as
being more communist than the Communists:"They (the Buddhists]
practice some things that the Communists so far have merely talked
about It may be true that Buddha differs from Marx, but such
differences can be rationalized" ("The Queen Bee,"
1963, P. 23).(7) In a different article, Time informed readers that
the Buddhists had also opposed another "fight for freedom"
in Asia. "During the Korean War, at least some Buddhists were
preaching that ‘to wipe out the American imperialist demons is not
only blameless, but meritorious’" ("The Faith That
Lights," 1963, p. 29). Although never stating explicitly that
the Buddhists were communists, reports like these gave powerful
implicit messages that the communists were at least heavily involved
in the protests. The coverage suggested further that although the
protests were initially viewed as religious, they were actually
political in nature. Indeed, the Buddhist protesters themselves were
a nonrepresentative minority opposed to both the Saigon government
and American "imperialist" involvement in Asia. Such
coverage framed the Buddhist protests as a campaign that, if not
communist inspired, at least benefitted the communists in
their campaign to destroy freedom in South Vietnam. The "burning
monk"—cast in relief against this background of a political
struggle against communists—would be viewed as an act of
anti-American political intimidation. There was only one war taking
place, that between the free South Vietnamese and the Viet
Cong. Virtuous Saigon Government. Coverage further depicted the
government of Ngo Dinh Diem as innocent of any discrimination or
violence against the Buddhists. Indeed, in some coverage the
Saigon government takes on the characteristics of both victim and
hero. Life described the president as a kind of police officer,
struggling to keep the peace among monks who threatened more
suicides: "As Diem sought to keep order—even diverting army
troops to help out—two other monks volunteered to commit suicide—one
by fire and one by disembowelment" ("Angry Buddhist
Burns," 1963, p. 24). Thus, Diem is portrayed as attempting to
stabilize the chaotic situation; he is the concerned official seeking
to "keep order’ and "help." Indeed he is even
diverting troops from the presumably more important struggle against
the Viet Cong. The Buddhists are, at best, passive volunteers for
gruesome sacrifices, and at worst, fanatics desperate to continue
their campaign of civil disobedience. The theme that the Buddhists
were responsible for diverting the government from its rightful duty
to battle the Communists was repeated in this coverage. The San Diego
Union reported that "The government strategic hamlet program was
beginning to build morale and win over the population, which had been
indifferent and hesitant previously" ("Split Helps
Reds," 1963, p. 5). Life related that the United States
"had put three billion dollars into the battle
against communism" ("Another Monk Gives," 1963, p. 30)
and that the Buddhists demonstrations "could mean disaster for
Vietnam and for the U.S. commitment there, just when the battle
against the Communists may be shifting in our favor’ ("Angry
Buddhist Burns," 1963, p. 24). Diem and his government were
also blameless in the earlier Hue demonstrations that precipitated
the crisis. The government was described as firing over the heads of
the demonstrators, and in "the melee" ("South Viet
Nam," 1963, p. 35), "nine people were killed in the
confusion" ("Split Helps Reds," 1963, p. 5). This use of
the passive voice deflects blame away from the government troops,
who were portrayed as simply trying to restore order amidst the
Even the nine victims of the violence—"killed in
are never described as Buddhists. Indeed, in the
National Review, Archbishop Thuc maintains that most of the victims
were Catholics or government sympathizers. According to the
Archbishop, among the Hue dead were "two Catholic catechumens
and four others, sons of policemen or of public officials"
("What is Really Going On," 1963, p. 388). Archbishop
Thuc further reframes the suicides by depicting them as murder,
accusing the Buddhists of forcing elderly monks to
sacrifice themselves: In Hue we heard the screams of the bonze
destined to be burned at
the Tu-Dam pagoda, the center of the General
Buddhist Association. The bonze refused to die and the other
bonzes overwhelmed him with hammer blows this was the reason for
the terrifying screams. ("What’s Really Going On,"
1963, p. 388) As portrayed, the Buddhists were not religious martyrs,
but cold-blooded killers willing to murder their own people to
advance a political agenda. The Diem government therefore, could not
be held responsible for the images of fiery suicides. Indeed, this
coverage seems to reverse the roles of the Buddhists and the
government describing the protesters as oppressors and the Diem’s
government as victim. Thus, the effort to provide a frame of
understanding for the images coming out of Vietnam in 1963 became a
dialectic when it was enjoined by elements of the media that sought
to keep the engaged American public focused on the real struggle in
Vietnam; the war against the communists. Their rhetoric employed news
source objectivity, ‘statements by credible officials, and
recognition of the pronounced political nature of the Buddhists’
actions to downplay concerns regarding Buddhist claims of persecution
by the Diem government. The clear message was that religious
discrimination against the Buddhists was not taking place in South
Vietnam, and that the self-immolation that had caught the attention
of the world had been misinterpreted by people who did not have an
accurate understanding of events in Southeast Asia.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
We suggest that our case study can extend and refine
our knowledge concerning the rhetorical structuring of visual images.
The power of Browne’s photographs of Thich Quang Duc’s
self-immolation seared into the consciousness of the engaged
audience, making them more cognizant of Southeast Asia. In so doing,
they became what Olson
(1987) has termed "speaking pictures,"
representing South Vietnam to an engaged audience. However, the
aesthetic power of these riveting but surreal images from a
mysterious place, was due, in part because the act they captured was
so unfamiliar to the Americans who participated vicariously in it’
Thus, unlike other studies concerning the rhetoric of visual images,
the background knowledge and "points of view" of the
American audience were insufficient to contextualize these images and
instill them with rhetorical meaning. It fell to the more discursive
forms of rhetoric found in print
media to establish a frame from which the audience
could rhetorically interpret the photographs. Olson (1983) has
observed that the appeal of Rockwell’s "Four Freedoms"
posters was broadened through the use of
"productive ambiguities." The paintings contained images
that were familiar enough so that Americans could identify with them,
but ambiguous enough to "promote varied identifications"
(p. 16). During World War Two the rhetorical appeal of these
paintings was intensified by explanatory texts in the Saturday
Evening Post and a government
campaign to "educate Americans on behalf of
participation in [the war]" (p. 15). With the Browne
photographs, however, the ability of the audience to be
"actively engaged with the visual text" (Lancioni, 1996, p.
399) was severely limited. Thus, in this case the ambiguity of the
images became a battleground in a dialectical struggle to provide the
correct "frame" from which to interpret and react to the
undeniable power of the visuals. This dialectic offered two competing
frames from which to interpret the compelling images of the burning
monk. The first situated them against a backdrop of religious
oppression and tyranny in South Vietnam. In so doing, it raised major
questions about the nature of American involvement in that country.
The second marginalized concerns about religious oppression and
featured the war against the communists as the only real struggle in
that area of the world. While acknowledging the difficulty in
determining who "won" this struggle, we are confident in
the following observations. It seems that the element of the media
that was supportive of President Diem
was never really able to counter the perception that
there was severe religious oppression in South Vietnam. This
impression was undoubtedly bolstered by President Diem’s
sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, who had an "unfailing instinct for
the wrong word at the wrong time." Her references to the
Buddhist suicides as "barbecues," helped perpetuate
"an intolerable image of the Diem regime, ...
never to be expunged" (Hammer, 1987, p.
145). We would maintain, however, that another part of the
explanation can be found in Browne’s images themselves. As Foss
(1985) stated, to be valid, rhetorical meaning attributed to a visual
artifact "must be grounded in the material characteristics of
the work" (p. 330). We suggest that the validity of some of the
pro-Diem frames offered by the media was problematic because they
simply could not be grounded in photographs themselves. Browne’s
pictures show a man sitting calmly and serenely as he is engulfed by
the angry flames. These were clearly not images of someone who was
forced to fiery suicide against his will by bloodthirsty comrades. It
would also be difficult to view these photographs and simultaneously
accept the argument that the demands of the Buddhists were
exaggerated. An act like the one depicted is not one to be undertaken
lightly. Levine (1988) observed that photographic images, "like
statistics do not he, but like statistics the truths they communicate
are elusive and incomplete" (p. 17). Previous research has
focused mainly on those types of visual images in which the engaged
audience could draw upon its collective background to facilitate its
role in cooperatively ascertaining rhetorical meaning for a visual
artifact. Our study suggests that when the knowledge of the audience
is insufficient this process becomes more problematic. In such cases
it falls to more discursive forms of rhetoric to contextualize
the visual artifact in such a way that the audience can be guided
toward an understanding of its rhetorical meaning. The print media
served that function in 1963 with regard to the burning monk
photograph and what it meant concerning American involvement in South
Vietnam. As elements of the media engaged in a dialectic to provide
the truths of Browne’s photographs, they offered interpretations
that Levine says are common in the struggle to gain a
historical understanding from photographs; "the notion that
things must be one way or the other" (p. 22). It is probably the
case that the "truth" behind these haunting images lay
somewhere between the two polarities offered by the media in 1963.
The Catholic dominated government of South Vietnam was undoubtedly
brutally repressive toward the Buddhists. But as Hammer (1987)
pointed out, "objectively, no single act of the Saigon
government seemed to have justified the sacrifice of Thich Quang
Duc" (p. 145). Others have maintained that in hindsight it is
clear that the Viet Cong were helped immeasurably by the anti-Diem
campaign of the Buddhists, and the coup which removed Diem in November
1963 (Ball, 1990; Nolting, 1988). As stated previously, in the
domain of foreign policy, the struggle over images "is more than a
distraction—it is central" (Smith, 1986. p. 324). Visual and
dramatic images—especially those for which the engaged audience
possesses a limited ability to calculate rhetorical meaning—may
serve as the catalyst for a struggle over interpretation. That this
struggle takes place within the discursive context of the media seems
a logical outcome of journalistic inquiry. One such struggle
concerning foreign policy in Vietnam
occurred in 1963. It would not be the last.
(1) Several studies have commented on the active role
of the audience in cooperatively establishing the meaning for a
visual message. Benson observed that a visual text "positions
as an active participant in the making of
meanings" (p. 197). Foss (1986) maintains that there is a
"predominant role [for] the audience in the establishment of the
meaning of a work of art" (p. 330), and this position has been
echoed by Lancioni (1996), Trachtenberg (1989), and Scott (1994).
Olson has examined the active
role of the audience in the attribution of rhetorical
meaning to the pre-Revolutionary drawing of Benjamin Franklin (1967),
a post-Revolutionary medal designed by Franklin (1990), and the
"Four Freedoms" paintings by Norman Rockwell
(1983). (2) Sontag (1977) concurs with this need for an
accompanying structure for photographs. "A photograph that
brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in
public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and
17). (3) We would suggest that even the concept of
artist intentionality would be troublesome. Others have maintained
that the intention of the creator of a visual artifact can provide
the audience with clues concerning its rhetorical meaning (Foss
1986). We recognize that Quang Duc’s act of self-immolation was
obviously an intentional, purposive, confrontational act (although as
will be explained, even that was called into question in some
quarters of the media), however it is somewhat more problematic to
assign any intentionality to Browne, the creator of the unstaged
photograph. While the power of the images is undeniable, their
meaning—and thus their ability to "influence people to feel,
believe, or act in desired ways"—had to be discursively provided to
an engaged American audience. (4) Saigon’s representative in Hue
was President Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Can, "an authoritarian
Catholic hated by Buddhists [and] human-rights activists"
(Browne, 1993, p. 6). (5) According to Sorensen (1965); "The
religious persecutions deeply offended John Kennedy," who
denounced the human rights violations in South Vietnam in a speech to
the United Nations in September, 1963 (p. 657). (6) Although it
was well known in Vietnam that Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc was President
Diem’s brother, this is never mentioned in the National Review
article. (7) The New York Times reported that the "Buddhists are
extremely sensitive to the charge that they are being exploited by
the Communists. This has been one of the sorest points in the
context that has lasted almost six weeks" ("Rift with
Buddhists," 1963, p. 8). (8) Hulteng (1976) observed that
"Pictures engage the emotions of the viewer, draw[ing] him[/her]
into the news situation being depicted, and let him[/her] share in a
vicarious but vivid sense the excitement, the tragedy, or the
exultation being experienced by the persons caught up in the
news" (p. 159).
Agony in South Vietnam (1963, June 27). Christian
Science Monitor, p. 18.
An angry Buddhist burns. (1963, June 21). Life. p.
Another monk gives himself. (1963, September 6). Life.
Bostdorff, D. M. (1987). Making light of James Watt: A
approach to the form and attitude of political
Journal of Speech, 73, pp. 18-42
Browne, M. W. (1993). Muddy boots and red socks: A
New York. Times Books.
Browne, M. W. (1965). The new face of war.
Brutality in Vietnam. (1963, July 31). Christian
Century, p. 950.
Buddhists defy regime in Saigon. (1963, June 13). New
York Times. p. 5.
Condemn religious tyranny in South Vietnam. (1963, July
Christian Century, p. 900.
Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
U.S. government and the Vietnam War. Executive and
Legislative roles and relationships, Part II 1961-1964. Washington:
US. Government Printing Office.
Corcoran, F. (1983). The bear in the back yard: Myth,
victimage Ritual in Soviet Funerals. Communication
Diem and the Buddhists. (1963, June 17). New York
Times. p. 18.
Diem ask peace in religion crisis. (1963, June 12). New
York Times. p. 3.
Diem’s other crusade. (1963, June 22). New Republic,
Doyle, E., -- Lipsman, S. (1981). The Vietnam
experience: Setting the stage. Boston: Boston Publishing. The
faith that lights the fires. (1963, August 23). Time, p. 29. Foss,
S. K. (1985). Ambiguity as persuasion: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Communication Quarterly, 34, pp. 326-340. Hallin, D. C. (1986). The
"uncensored war:" The media and Vietnam.
New York. Oxford.
Hammer, E. J. (1987). A death in November: America in
New York: E. P. Dutton.
Hulteng, J. L. (1976). The messenger’s motives:
Ethical problems of the news media. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice-Hall. Karnow, S. (1983). Vietnam: A history. New York.
Viking. Lancioni, J. (1996). The rhetoric of the frame revisioning
archival photographs in The Civil War. Western Journal of
Communication. 60, pp. 397-414.
Levine, L. W. (1988). The historian and the icon:
Photography and the history of the American people in the 1930s and
1940s." Documentary America, 1935-43. Eds. Carl Fleischauer and
Beverly W Brannon. Berkeley: University of California Press.
15-42. MacDonald, G. (1973). Report or distort? New York: Exposition
The Mandarins of Hue. (1963, May 27). Newsweek, pp.
49-50. Medhurst M. J., -- DeSousa, M. A. (1981). Political cartoons
as rhetorical form: A taxonomy of graphic discourse. Quarterly
Journal of Speech, 48, pp. 197-236. Monk suicide by fire in
anti-Deim protest. (1963, June 11). New York Times, p. 6.
Neilan, E. (1963, July 9). Diem could face fate like
Rheels. San Diego Union, p. A7.
New war in Vietnam. (1963, June 15). America, p.
849. Nolting, F. (1988). From trust to tragedy: The political
memoirs of Frederick Nolting, Kennedy’s Ambassador to Diem’s
Vietnam. New York. Praeger.
Olson, L. C. (1983). Portraits in praise of a people: A
rhetorical analysis of Norman Rockwell’s icons in Franklin D.
Roosevelt’s "Four Freedoms" Campaign. Quarterly Journal
of Speech. 69, pp. 15-24. Olson, L. C. (1987). Benjamin Franklin’s
pictorial representations of the British Colonies in America: A study
in rhetorical iconology. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, pp.
Olson, L. C. (1990). Benjamin Franklin’s
commemorative medal Libertas Americana: A study in rhetorical
iconology. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 76, pp. 23-45.
Olson, L. C. (1991). Emblems of American community in
the Revolutionary era: A study in rhetorical iconology.
Smithsonian Institution Press.
The queen bee. (1963, August 9). Time, pp. 21-25.
The religious crisis. (1963, June 14). Time, pp.
Reporting from Saigon. (1963, August 17). America, p.
152. Rift with Buddhists seems to widen in Vietnam. (1963, June 18).
New York Times, p. 8.
The road to freedom. (1963, September 10). National
Review, pp. 177-179.
Rome and Saigon. (1963, September 4). Christian
Century, p. 1067. Saigon concedes two Buddhist points. (1963, June
15). New York Times, p. 1.
Saigon incident. (1963, June 12). Christian Science
Monitor, p. 2.
Saigon in perspective. (1963, August 10). America, p.
Salinger, P, (1966). With Kennedy. New York. Doubleday—Company.
Same old Diem. (1963, June 29). Nation, p. 538.
Schlesinger, A. M. (1965). A thousand days: John F. Kennedy in the Widle
House. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Scott, L. M. (1994). Images in advertising: The need
for a theory of visual rhetoric. Journal of Consumer Research, 21,
Smith C. A. (1986). Leadership, orientation, and
Jimmy Carter, the ‘New Right,’ and the Panama
Canal. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 2, pp. 317-328.
Smith, R. B. (1983). An international history of the
Volume I Revolution versus containment, 1955-61.
Smith, R. B. (1985). An international history of the
Volume If The struggle for SouthEast Asia, 1961-65.
MacMillan. Sobel, L. A. (1973). South Vietnam
volume 1: U.S. communist confrontation in Southeast Asia 196-165. New
York. Facts on File. Sontag, S. (1977). On photography. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Sorensen, T. C. (1965). Kennedy. New York. Harper &
South Vietnam: Whose funeral pyre? (1963, June 29). New
Republic, p. 9.
Split helps reds in South Viet Nam. (1963, June 14).
San Diego Union, p. A5.
Tiger by the tail. (1963, August 31). America, pp.
207-208. Trachtenberg, A. (1989). Reading American photographs:
Images as history Mathew Brady to Walker Evan. New York: Hill and
Wang. Trial by fire. (1963, June 21). Time, p. 32.
U.S. warns South Vietnam on demands of Buddhists.
(1963, June 14).
New York Times, p. 2.
Vietnam crisis is religious. (1963, September 11).
Century, p. 1093.
What’s really going on in Vietnam. (1963, November
5). National Review, pp. 388-390.
Jill E. Rudd (Ph.D., Kent State University, 1991) is
Professor, Michael J. Beatty (Ph.D., Ohio State
University, 1976) is
Professor, and Sally Vogl-Bauer (Ph.D., University of
1994) is Assistant Professor in the Department of
Arts, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Jean A.
Ohio State University, 1986) is Associate Professor in
the School of
Communication Studies, Kent State University. An
earlier version of
this paper was presented at the 1996 meeting of the
Communication Association, San Diego, CA.
A struggle to contextualize photographic images:
media and the "Burning Monk." Lisa M.
Skow; George N. Dionisopoulos Communication Quarterly
Vol.45 No.4 Fall 1997 pp.393-409
COPYRIGHT @ 1997 Eastern Communication
Layout : Chris Dunk