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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 moving answer:

In the French Union there is no place for cowards. If I accept these terms I would be one.

Mus returned empty-handed and exhausted, but having a safe conduct from Ho he felt absolutely safe while behind Viet Minh lines. With this coherent and clear-cut view of the Vietnamese revolution, it still took Mus almost five years to break with the French authorities. In 1952, soon after his resignation, he published his great work Viet-Nam: Sociologie d’une guerre. From that time until his death in 1969 he spent more and more time in teaching and research in the United States.

Mus’s books and articles are preoccupied with the differences between Vietnamese and European culture and thought. He never doubted for a moment that the two were fundamentally different. What he wanted to do was to comprehend the factors behind the differences. One major distinction was what he believed to be the Vietnamese inability or reluctance to make abstractions and the related tendency to approach a problem by way of concrete particulars instead of confronting it in a direct logical or scientific way. However, being an extremely intelligent and sensitive man, he found it impossible to treat the subtleties and paradoxes of Vietnamese thought and society with straight-forward “European” logic.

Thus in spite of its importance and fascination, Viêt-Nam: Sociologie d’une guerre is extraordinarily convoluted. A frank Vietnamese leader, asked what he thought of the book, replied “obscure.” Having found it illuminating but very hard going, I was relieved to read that an eminent translator thought Mus’s style more difficult than Proust’s. It is for these reasons that this work, in which Mus in 1952 had grasped the essentials of the Vietnamese revolution, has never been translated into English. Paul Mus’s distinguished disciple Professor John McAlister has produced an excellent compendium of Mus’s ideas in his The Vietnamese and Their Revolution, but Mus’s work can never be wholly conveyed.

In the introductory chapters of Fire in the Lake, which are dominated by Mus’s work, Miss FitzGerald succeeds to an extraordinary extent in capturing his spirit. To do this she takes on his style. She becomes esoteric; for instance at one point she refers to “the courts of Hue and Thang-long” without bothering to explain that Thang-long is simply an old name for Hanoi, but adding an air of Oriental mystery. When dealing with matters that cannot be expounded logically she becomes allusive. Writing in Mus’s tradition, she lards these chapters with quotations from the I Ching in a way that hardly helps the argument at hand but is nevertheless suggestive and stimulating.

By using later studies she is able to elaborate some of Mus’s themes, notably the idea that Vietnamese are overwhelmingly concerned with social groups rather than with individuals. She points out that in traditional Vietnam there was no word for “I.” Men and women referred to themselves by their relationship, such as brother, sister, servant, etc. It was not until the twentieth century that the differential first person pronoun toi—which originally meant subject of the ruler—came into general use. This neat relationship between language and society does not hold for traditional China, which also laid emphasis on society rather than the individual. There, though people often referred to themselves by their role in society, there were always well established words for “I” and “me.”

The peculiarly complicated relationships and parallels between China and Vietnam were clearly and rightly a source of great difficulty for Professor Mus and hence for Miss FitzGerald. For instance Mus appears to have accepted the widely held Vietnamese belief that they were different from the Chinese in that their villages had a far greater independence from the central government. Like every other writer on Vietnam, he quoted the proverb “the law of the king gives way to the custom of the village.” There is some truth in this. Unlike Chinese villages, nearly all those in northern and central Vietnam had a Tinh or village meeting hall and a formally recognized council of elders or notables. Furthermore, up to a third of the village land was held in common by the village, though the rich and powerful gained most from this arrangement.

There is, however, another side to the question. This comes out clearly in Professor Alec Woodside’s splendid study Vietnam and the Chinese Models,1 in which the author attempts to disentangle the two traditions. He points out that, at least in the nineteenth century, the Vietnamese court was concerned with all levels of society, even to the extent of trying to make Vietnamese women give up skirts and wear trousers. Professor Woodside also points out that government officials were far thicker on the ground in Vietnam than in China. During the 1840s, while the average administrative district in China had a population of about 235,000, its Vietnamese equivalent had 30,000. This density of officials may have appeared low to Europeans but in East Asia it was exceptionally high. It is therefore surprising that the villages retained their independence to the extent that they did. On this Professor Woodside makes the interesting and plausible suggestion that Vietnamese officials did not realize their potential powers because they were influenced by the Chinese tradition of noninterference.

But neither Professor Mus nor Miss FitzGerald is mainly concerned with the differences between China and Vietnam. They are interested in Sino-Vietnamese culture itself as opposed to that of the West. Miss FitzGerald feels free to supplement Mus’s work on Vietnamese culture with more recent studies on the Chinese personality, notably those of Professor Richard Solomon. These studies have concentrated on Chinese patterns of upbringing, in an attempt to isolate the differences between Western and Chinese culture during childhood, a period of relative simplicity. To put it very crudely, these scholars make much of the Chinese repression of aggression opposed to the Western repression of sex; and they stress the importance for the Chinese of eating and providing food. They also stress the Chinese concern with shame—what you think others think of you—as opposed to the internalized guilt of Westerners. These traits tend to strengthen the group and those with authority in it rather than the individual, in whom they create a sense of “dependency.”

Many critics react instinctively against this American school with its unavoidable implications of Western normality opposed to Oriental deviance and immaturity. Perhaps because of her Freudian sympathies Miss FitzGerald is not put off. She accepts and uses their insights in a fruitful way. For example, describing a Buddhist hunger strike in Hue she points out that it was not a tactic that the NLF would have used. “By refusing food the Bonzes were in effect pleading for the Americans to feed them.”

One of Mus’s main ideas was that of the continuing relevance of the Sino-Vietnamese concept of Tien Ming, the Mandate of Heaven. This is a Confucian tradition by which the mandate or right to rule is removed from a dynasty or power and transferred to some other force. For Mus the important element of Tien Ming (Tien Minh in Vietnamese) is that it is a true revolution, a turn of the wheel: not only the ruler but the whole system changes. In ancient China new dynasties introduced new rituals and institutions. Thus in Vietnam when the French lost their mandate in 1945—later Mus was to doubt whether they ever really had one—Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh gained it; and at this point most of the Vietnamese changed their allegiance. Furthermore, not only did they accept new social organizations and purposes but they did not expect to continue in the old way. For Mus this explained the paradox that the peculiarly traditional peasants should support the revolution so immediately and completely.

When I was in Vietnam last year, influenced by Mus, I asked the intellectuals I met about Tien Minh. Members of the fascist Dai Viet party in the South accepted the idea, even admitting that Ho Chi Minh had appeared to have the mandate, having been a man with the right air of mystery at the right place at the right time and having the correct Tuong physiognomy. However, historians in Hanoi said that Tien Ming was a Chinese concept not really applicable to Vietnam. They admitted that it had been politically helpful that the puppet emperor Bao Dai had handed his seals of office to the Viet Minh. On the other hand, they argued that the war and the Japanese defeat of the French in 1945 had shaken the people out of their lethargy. Moreover the work of the Communist Party in the 1930s and that of the Viet Minh during World War II had raised political consciousness throughout the country. Therefore, they argued, the concept of Tien Minh was redundant.

  1. 1

    Harvard, 1971.

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