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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 gatherings. 

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 visual  messages. 

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. 



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 portrayed. 

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. 


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 thousands of 

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. 



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). One source, 

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 Cong: 

"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 sealing 

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 reality 

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 were other 

elements of the American media that chose to define the burning monk 

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. 



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 view 

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, P. 207). 

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 demonstrators. 

In a National Review article, the Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc intimated connections between the communists and the Buddhists: 

"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 chaos. 

Even the nine victims of the violence—"killed in the confusion" 

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. 


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 the spectator 

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 attitude (p. 

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. 24. 

Another monk gives himself. (1963, September 6). Life. p. 30. 

Bostdorff, D. M. (1987). Making light of James Watt: A Burkean 

approach to the form and attitude of political cartoons. Quarterly 

Journal of Speech, 73, pp. 18-42 

Browne, M. W. (1993). Muddy boots and red socks: A reporter’s lift. 

New York. Times Books. 

Browne, M. W. (1965). The new face of war. Indianapolis: 


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 17). 

Christian Century, p. 900. 

Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. (1985). The 

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, Ideology, and 

victimage Ritual in Soviet Funerals. Communication Monographs, 50, 

pp. 305-320. 

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, pp. 5-6. 

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 Vietnam, 1963. 

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 Press. 

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. 18-42. 

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. Washington: 

Smithsonian Institution Press. 

The queen bee. (1963, August 9). Time, pp. 21-25. 

The religious crisis. (1963, June 14). Time, pp. 35-36. 

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. 126. 

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, pp. 252-273. 

Smith C. A. (1986). Leadership, orientation, and rhetorical vision: 

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 Vietnam War. 

Volume I Revolution versus containment, 1955-61. London: MacMillan. 

Smith, R. B. (1985). An international history of the Vietnam War. 

Volume If The struggle for SouthEast Asia, 1961-65. London: 

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 & Row. 

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). Christian 

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 Associate 

Professor, Michael J. Beatty (Ph.D., Ohio State University, 1976) is 

Professor, and Sally Vogl-Bauer (Ph.D., University of Kentucky, 

1994) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication 

Arts, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Jean A. Dobos (Ph.D., 

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 Speech 

Communication Association, San Diego, CA. 

A struggle to contextualize photographic images: American print 

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 Association 


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