What Is It About the Vietnamese?

Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

by Frances FitzGerald
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 491 pp., $12.50

As Frances FitzGerald would be the first to point out, Fire in the Lake is a synthesis. Quite rightly she has relied heavily on the work of others. Many sources are referred to both in the footnotes and in the text. But her book is largely dominated by the work of Paul Mus, Richard Solomon, Robert Shaplen, and Otare Mannoni. The proportion of influence varies greatly from chapter to chapter, but it is these four together with the author’s own observation and intelligence that give the book its coherence and flavor.

It is dedicated to the memory of Paul Mus. It was he who focused Miss FitzGerald’s passion for Vietnam and inspired the book. As a small child at the beginning of the century Paul Mus was taken to Indochina. His father, the headmaster of a lycée in Hanoi, was sufficiently liberal not to trap his son in the airtight French environment in which the families of most high officials were enclosed. Thus he absorbed Vietnamese influences throughout his childhood. However his upbringing and education were essentially French and he went to the University of Paris. There he became a professional orientalist, specializing in archaeology and Eastern religion. He then returned to Indochina for field work, but during the economic and political upheavals of the 1930s he began to be interested in current affairs.

Mus went back to France in time to fight in the Second World War. He joined the Free French and early in 1945, after considerable grooming by British intelligence, he was parachuted into Indochina in an attempt to persuade the local Vichy authorities to rise against their Japanese overlords. The coup of the ninth of March, in which the Japanese overthrew, disarmed, and interned the French colonial authorities, ended this scheme. Mus escaped and made his way back to Allied lines. To do this he was forced to rely on Vietnamese villagers for shelter and guidance. He found to his surprise that their attitudes toward him as a Frenchman had totally changed. He realized that he was no longer seen as one of the masters but merely as a more or less troublesome guest.

After the war he was appointed a political adviser to the French command. In this position he appears to have argued consistently for accommodation between the two sides. In 1947, with extraordinary courage, he agreed to go alone and unarmed to Ho Chi Minh’s headquarters in the hills to deliver a message from the French authorities. It called for a virtual surrender and Mus knew as he went that the journey was futile. Once again he was amazed by the Vietnamese countryside. Eight kilometers outside Hanoi he found the peasants continuing their traditional agriculture, living calmly, and to all appearances totally integrated with the Resistance. This was in great contrast to the dislocation and distrust of the French Zone with its ubiquitous barbed wire and fortifications. Mus delivered his message to Ho Chi Minh and received the theatrical but …

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