On the morning of June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a 66 year-old Buddhist monk, seated himself in the lotus position at an intersection in downtown Saigon, had a fellow monk drench him with gasoline, and set himself ablaze.
Quang’s’s self-immolation was photographed by Malcolm Browne, chief of Saigon’s Associated Press bureau. Within days the grim, astonishing photo was published on the front page of newspapers and periodicals around the world.
When I saw the photo on the cover of U.S. News and World Report, it changed my life.
It changed my life. What do I mean by that?
Sometimes events redirect our lives: obtaining one’s driver’s license; meeting one’s soulmate; receiving one’s summons to serve in the armed forces.
Other life altering occasions may be recognitions, profound realizations from which there can be no retreat. From that instant forward innocence is lost, perspective has shifted, and every succeeding moment must take the new understanding into account.
The image of Quang Duc’s horrific suicide seared me. It was almost as if I had pushed my face into the inferno he had made of his body. Seeing the photo, I understood this: Quang had chosen this terrible form of death as a protest, an intractable statement that principles and beliefs he cherished absolutely, concepts that forged meaning and purpose for his life, had been violated beyond reconciliation. His anguish was addressed to everyone in the world. It was addressed to me.
I was at that time two months shy of my sixteenth birthday. With regard to foreign affairs, I had so far lived inflated with ignorance, an oblivious blimp floating among the clouds, beyond contact with the contentious world below. My appreciation of American history and international relations was the product of an elementary school education whose purpose was to transmit rudimentary skills requisite for employment in an industrial society and to foster virtuous attitudes toward family, church, and country.
I was aware that the United States was involved in a military conflict with a nation in Asia called Vietnam for reasons that had something to do with protecting that country from a “Communist takeover.” I knew nothing at all about Vietnam, its history, its culture, its people, or what our national stake might be in its future. I had seen a panel show on television the previous summer in which an Australian journalist had displayed a map of “Indochina”, explained the “Domino Theory”, and warned that the Diem (he pronounced the name “Ziem”) regime was unstable and in need of economic and military aid from the U.S.A.
Throughout my childhood in the 1950s I had absorbed the axiom that Communism and Soviet Russia were the greatest peril on earth – to America, to freedom, to truth, to religion, to capitalism, and to right thinking. They had “the Bomb” and they intended to use it on us. In school we had performed “duck and cover” air raid drills and at home we heard frequently broadcast CONELRAD alerts on the radio. The “Reds”, we were told, had erected an “Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe, had conquered China, and were making daily inroads into Africa.
In the late 1940s there had been a “Red Scare” here in America. Someone had “lost China.” There were Communists in the State Department, in Hollywood, maybe even living right next door to me. The Rosenbergs were executed for giving them atomic secrets; there had been an “Alger Hiss” case, and a House Committee on UnAmerican Activities that summoned movie stars to identify any people they worked with who might be Communist agents participating in a seditious scheme of world domination.
Our soldiers had fought them in Korea. Now we had to sweep them out of Vietnam. There was no middle ground, no room for compromise. It was Them or Us. We were Good and they were Evil.
All these things contributed to a pervasive atmosphere of cultural unease about foreign governments. Who else could we trust other than our own leaders, their wisdom and experience tempered by Constitutional guarantees, universal good will, and an American history of selfless support for the well being of all nations who had not declared themselves to be our enemies?
In Redondo Beach, the seaside suburb of Los Angeles where I lived, the threats and disturbances of international affairs felt remote, a distant clatter of jeopardy that had never disrupted my own life. It seemed impossible that Russian tanks could roll down Pacific Coast Highway as they had done in Hungary in 1956. There was no reason to imagine that Soviet battleships would drop anchor off Palos Verdes peninsula to bombard our homes, hospitals, schools, and churches. Apart from the ruthless homegrown Reds that J. Edgar Hoover had warned about in Masters of Deceit, and who the John Birch Society assured us were holding meetings in clammy cellars in every small town in America, the most imminent danger was from the air. Guided missiles from Moscow could rain down on us at any moment. After all, the Russians already had Sputnik orbiting the Earth, no doubt spying on our every move from 300 miles over our heads.
Closer to home, there had been a revolution in Cuba in 1959. Ragged jungle fighters in olive drab fatigues, organized by a bearded man named Castro, had stormed Havana, overthrown the Batista government, and set up a Communist state. We were so perturbed about it, we would not allow anyone to buy or sell products from Cuba. Shockingly, the new Kennedy administration had botched an armed intervention called the Bay of Pigs in 1961. We didn’t lose wars. Did we?
In the dozens of movies I had seen about World War II and Korea, we always won. Tough, brave men played by Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Robert Mitchum, or Audie Murphy always outsmarted the Germans or foiled the Japanese because we were more courageous, more ingenious, more determined. God was on our side. We were the Good Guys. Weren’t we?
Everybody loved America. Why shouldn’t they? We had given the world Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin. We invented cars and airplanes, movies and television. We exported corn and Coca-Cola, cigarettes and Chevrolets, walnuts and Salk vaccine. We had saved Europe in two World Wars.
In October 1962 the prospect of nuclear war with Russia suddenly became immediate. Americans clustered around TV sets to hear President Kennedy inform us that the Russians had installed missiles with atomic warheads in Cuba. Daring Premier Khrushchev to retaliate, Kennedy had ordered a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships approaching the island.
The crisis was resolved. Kennedy was lionized for his resolute behavior and credited for his bold success. The episode provoked anxious whispers about the practice of “brinksmanship” with nuclear weapons that put all of modern civilization at catastrophic risk should there be an occasion when cooler heads did not prevail.
In June 1963 I basked in blissful certainty. Other countries might be reckless, trigger happy, and self-aggrandizing, but at least America and its leaders were beyond reproach. Our motives as a nation, our hopes as a people, our thrust as a culture were steeped in peace and aimed at prosperity. Our best and brightest people were in charge. We were the Good Guys.
The suicide of Quang Duc abruptly challenged my equanimity. His death was not an act of rage that made victims of innocent bystanders. It was a calculated performance of deepest conviction.I did not know what a Buddhist monk believed or why those beliefs required such a drastic and terrible demonstration. The one thing that was undeniable about it – the great realization that changed my life – was that Quang Duc held beliefs in opposition to those of my country that he was willing to die for.
Whatever Quang’s beliefs might be, they deserved my respect. Which of my beliefs was I willing to burn myself to death for?
That thought led to another. Was it possible that the United States was backing the wrong side in Vietnam? Could the leaders of my country be wrong?
It was the first time that idea had ever entered my head. Could America be wrong?
Why was it up to us to stop a “Communist takeover” in any other country than our own? We were not at war with Vietnam. I trusted that our government, making the decision to send military “advisors” there, had access to facts not generally known to the public, at least not to me. Surely there was sound reasoning in Washington that warranted the effort. We did not make problems; we solved them. Didn’t we?
Having tugged on that thread, it could never be sewn back into the tapestry. What exactly were our aims in Vietnam? Who decided that this was our fight? Could they have been mistaken? Worse, were we being deceived by those leaders in whom we had invested out trust?
Fifty months later, when I received my draft notice from the Selective Service Board, I was drawn reluctantly into the conflict. I had become opposed to the war. Regardless of my attitudes toward Vietnam or warfare itself, I was compelled to accept military service.
By 1967, when I entered the U.S. Army, the Vietnam War had divided the nation as bitterly as the American Civil War. In response to widespread protest against the war, a popular bumper sticker in red, white, and blue declared “My Country – Right or Wrong”.
Displayed as an unequivocal statement of patriotism, the sentiment instead proclaimed a defiant abdication of moral responsibility. A “Country” is not a thing that stands apart from the people who inhabit it. A “Country” is not a geographic necessity, an accretion of historical occurrences, or a declaration of idealistic notions. A “Country” is an aggregation of living human beings whose present behavior may be informed by the past but cannot be bound to it. A “Country”cannot always be “right” any more than a person can always be “right”. When our “Country” is wrong, acquiescence does not serve our conscience. The past does not stamp its endorsement on the present. Patriotism requires the courage to admit when we are wrong.
Under a democratic form of government, we select our leaders to make decisions on our behalf. What they decide is an expression of our collective will. What they do, they do with our approval. We are responsible for their actions.
As citizens of a democratic nation, it is crucial that we have access to facts in order to assess the actions of our elected officials. We are obligated to question their decisions, to understand what they are doing in our name, and to judge whether those actions square with our sense of what is right. We cannot be governed in secrecy. We must never tolerate mendacity or the occlusion of truth.
Quang Duc’s moral outrage was not directed against America, but against rulers in Vietnam that the United States had selected, supported, and supplied without public discussion or approval. His death – his statement – was therefore meant for us, for me, as well as for the Diem regime.
The publication by the New York Times in 1971 of the secret “Pentagon Papers” exposed the extent to to which the American public had been duped by its leaders. The successive administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had never disclosed the political, economic, and military aid first provided to maintain French colonial domination, and then later to encourage Diem to suppress dissent by his critics, his brutal persecution of Buddhists, and his seizure of Vietnamese resources to fashion an imperial dynasty for his family.
The government of the United States made all of its citizens complicit in creating and sustaining a pointless civil war in Vietnam. Had there been any substance to the vague and flimsy justification that we made war to prevent a “Communist takeover”, why were we the only country that thought so? Was it worth over 50,000 American lives, uncountable hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars?
Was it worth the fissure of trust between the American people and their government?
Thank you, Quang Duc, for changing my life, for calling on me to awaken, to demand of my leaders that they act with the fullest sense of responsibility, empathy, compassion, and right. That is what the United States stands for.