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Fire in the Lake: A Revolutionary History of the Vietnam War

Sunday, June 10, 2007

I just came across an old book from 1973 about the Vietnam War in the basement in my (conservative) uncle’s house called Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam by Frances Fitzgerald and it seems quite interesting and after only reading a few passages it seems like a very intelligent and thoughtful book for its time. Making comments and insights that many mainstream political scientists and academics didn’t start making until the 1980s and even now. I found some reviews of the book from academic journals that I will post below. As the reviews (some moderate some more liberal) state I have to be careful about her simplistic generalization of the “Vietnamese mind” and of the NLF movement, as well as some historical inaccuracies here and there, but overall, I’m looking forward to reading it.

Review of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam by Frances Fitzgerald. Journal of Peace Research 10, no. 4 (1973): 402.

Fire in the Lake – the image of revolution in I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes – is both a journalistic and a scholarly account of the US involvement in Vietnam. It is a study of rare insight into the conflict, recounting not only facts but searching also for explanation into ‘states of minds’. US political blunders were magnified by misperceptions, lack of understanding of Vietnamese realities, and an unwillingness to confront the plain social, cultural, and national facts of life in Vietnam. Frances Fitzgerald visited Vietnam in 1966 as a journalist but studied later Vietnamese problems under the late Paul Mus, a leading authority on Vietnam. ‘I owe most of what I have learned to his wisdom and generosity’, the author writes. In fact, the book is a real source of knowledge about the Vietnamese society and the US-Vietnamese encounter. ‘The United States came to Vietnam at a critical juncture of Vietnamese history – a period of metamorphosis more profound than any the Vietnamese had ever experienced’. Social and national issues combined to make the struggle unique. But US leadership was ignorant of the revolutionary change – ‘the struggle to create a nation and to adapt a largely traditional society to the modern world.’ The war deepened Vietnamese national awareness and contributed to Vietnamese determination. ‘The American war has created a social and economic chaos but it has not stripped the Vietnamese of their vitality and powers of resistance. The Vietnamese survived the invasion of the Mongol hordes, and they may similarly survive the American war’ – the author concludes. Fire in the lake is a remarkable and most valuable book.

Marr, David G. Review of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam by Frances Fitzgerald. Journal of Asian Studies 32, no. 3 (May 1973): 564-565.

Unlike many other societies, America never has had a strong tradition of journalist-scholars or scholar-journalists. Even though both professions consider truth to be their lode-star, a clear class distinction has long existed-scholars denigrating the journalist’s preoccupation with contemporary relevance, and the journalists dismissing the scholar’s passion for endless footnotes and in-house For a variety of reasons this chasm is now being bridged, with erratic yet fascinating results.

Fire in the Lake is perhaps the best example in the field of Asian studies.

As the subtitle infers, Frances Fitz Gerald has really written two different books. The first attempts to define the Vietnamese national character, to sketch several thousand years of Vietnamese history, and to compare the politics of Ngo Dinh Diem with that of the National Liberation Front. Rather more modestly, the second half of the study bores into the knotty relationship existing between American and Saigon governing echelons and narrates key events of the past six years.

In my opinion, the author’s depiction of Vietnamese national character is little short of disastrous. After all, even under the best of conditions, such generalization is risky business, as Alexis de Tocqueville understood when he painfully researched Democracy in America. By contrast, the author of Fire in the Lake knows neither the language nor the literature of the people whom she intends to characterize, and she has happened to pick a time when her mother country is engaged in bitter hostilities with these same people. It is all reminiscent, in fact, of Ruth Benedict’s wartime attempt to typify the Japanese personality from foreign and secondary sources.

Happily, there is much more to Fire in the Lake than such simplistic parlor psychology. Frances FitzGerald’s analysis of the Diem regime’s fundamental political and social weaknesses is better than anything written by Robert Shaplen, Dennis Warner or Robert Scigliano. Her treatment of the National Liberation Front, while still flawed, is a distinct improvemen; over Douglas pike, Dennis Duncanson, J. J. Zasloff and even Bernard Fall. At last it is possible for Americans to start seeing “the enemy” as something more than organizational or ideological robots, as human beings with distinct aspirations
and powers of reasoning. All that remains is for the author, perhaps in a subsequent study, to relate the NLF cadre more closely to the villages and hamlets of South Vietnam instead of-continuing to regard them as somehow alien to the places where most of them have been born, nurtured and protected.

Fire in the Lake is a thoughtful book written in quality prose. without-claiming to be authoritative, it touches on most of the subjects that are likely to concern specialists of Vietnam for years to come. It must be read critically, but certainly not dismissed as mere popularization.

Taylor, Sandra C. “Teaching the Vietnam War.” The History Teacher 15, no. 1 (Nov. 1981): 57-66.

Fire in the Lake has been available in paperback since its publication in 1973, testimonial to its enduring quality. Although today’s students cannot share FitzGerald’s rage at American policy, and many may consider her explanation of Vietnamese communism as excessive, the book has considerable utility. It is a “period piece” and, properly utilized, can help explain the change in American public opinion from pro- to anti-war. Fitzgerald sets the war in its Vietnamese context, providing students unfamiliar with Asian history a glimpse of the cultural world of the Vietnamese. The clash of values between Americans and Vietnamese constitutes the heart of her work, and she accomplishes that so well that one can almost overlook her static and one-dimensional portrayal of Vietnamese society. Although the specialist in Southeast Asian history will not find the work satisfying, students will appreciate its style and power. The book’s real utility, however, lies in its ability to stimulate discussion of the differences between the traditional world of the Southeast Asian peasant and those American valueswhich underlay the decision to intervene.

Allen Luther A. “Review: Americans in Indochina.” Polity 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1974): 90-104.

Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake is a powerful, absorbing, massive book which fuses the involvement of a practicing journalist with investigative, multidisciplinary scholarship. It is notable especially for its imaginative interpretation. Better written than The Best and the Brightest, it sometimes covers decision-making and points up key personalities more effectively that Halberstam’s sprawling work. It pushes the narrative through three Nixon years. FitzGerald seeks to make the Vietnamese understandable to Americans today and to explain the chronic, mutual uncomprehensibleness that has plagued and continues to plague relations.

FitzGerald takes her title from the Chinese classic, I Ching, indicating from the start, the profound Confucian acculturation of traditional Vietnam. “Fire in the Lake” stands for revolution, the “cleansing fire to turn away the rot of the old order” and entailing “a leader who, in his absolute rectitude, his puritanical discipline, would lead the community back to the strength and vigor of its youth” (p. 30).

Combining history and culture with psychology, FitzGerald proceeds to characterize traditional family patterns as suppressing anger in children and traditional Confucianism as inculcating the acceptance of misfortune as fate. She interprets Vietnamese Communism as turning on its head the traditional paternalism of ancestor-worshiping rulers and parents towards their children. “The people” become “the parents” and the soldiers “the children” whose conduct toward civilians is under watchful regulation. The party cell becomes a substitute for the family and joining the Party is a move inwards rather than upwards. The fuel to this transformation is the cultivation of hatred for the foreign occupier of one’s country in place of stoical acceptance of colonialism as fate.

FitzGerald claims that Marxism offered a social morality like Confucianism, diverging rather on the proper forms for community. Lenin, by cultivating Marxist revolution in Asia, worked with Asian nationalism while circumstances in French Indochina gave credence to the Leninist theory of imperialism. She does not question Ho’s substantial role in world Communism, but she argues that his twentieth-century revolution in Vietnam is primarily nationalist with distinctively Vietnamese features reflecting Asian history and culture.

FitzGerald’s chronicle of South Vietnamese politics in the spring 1966 Buddhist uprising is outstanding, as she demonstrates the contradictory political endeavors of Americans and South Vietnamese…

FitzGerald puts her finger on a major feature of American policy in Indochina, the frustrating, unacceptable choice of sustaining ineffective control or acknowledging no control; that is, political and military defeat. Hence Ellsberg’s “stalemate machine,” Barnett’s “permanent war,” and Kissinger’s rejection of unilateral withdrawal.

In a hostile review, a Vietnamese scholar at Harvard challenged FitzGerald’s “cocksure analysis.” He resented her use of Manoni’s study of the French in Madagascar as analagous to the Vietnam case and castigated her for overlooking David Marr’s study of Vietnamese anticolonialism. Claiming that love (nghia) is more characteristic of the Vietnamese revolution than hate, he emphasized the moral and rational appeal of Ho’s social and political program and questioned Fitzgerald’s stress on the absolutism of the Vietnamese father (Vietnamese women have traditionally been more powerful than Chinese women). I Ching was only one of the Confucian classics; there were controversies over interpretation and also some Vietnamese resistance to Confucianism. Scholarly analysis of Vietnam deserved better than this “chop suey”; it required first and foremost extensive research in and subtle understanding of East Asian languages.

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