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.
This controversy raises the crucial question whether the Vietnamese are unique. Could any other people have created and sustained such a revolution? Mus’s unequivocal answer was that it was only the unique Vietnamese tradition, culture, and social formation that enabled them to do it. However, Mus’s vision was strangely narrow, his background and historical events led him to concentrate almost exclusively on the polarity of France and Vietnam. Miss FitzGerald’s vision is broader. In spite of her firm belief in the uniqueness of the Vietnamese, she is forced to use outside parallels to develop her case. Several chapters of Fire in the Lake make use of Otare Mannoni’s Prospero and Caliban, a study of colonizers and colonized. This work was based on Madagascar. Feeling uneasy about using the parallel, Miss FitzGerald writes, “Much of his [Mannoni’s] analysis seems to fit Vietnam, and understandably so, for the Madagascans, like the Vietnamese, were ancestor worshippers”—a rather flimsy justification. But the main ideas that she has taken from Mannoni, such as the powerful but fragile mystique of the colonizers and the ambivalent resentment and dependence of the colonized, apply to nearly all colonial situations, not just to Madagascar and Vietnam.
There are other elements in her analysis which she believes to be specifically Vietnamese or East Asian but which have a far wider application. Using the perceptions of the Solomon school she writes:
Brought up in the traditional manner, the villagers of the 1960s had learned that their very lives depended upon their “self-control,” or, in Western terms, their ability to repress those feelings which might bring them into contact with others…. Between father and son, superior and inferior, the relationship was even more delicate. When mistreated by his landlord, the tenant…would tend not to blame the landlord for fear that the conflict might finally break all of the bonds between them. Indeed, his emotion for the landlord might not surface in the conscious mind as anger: he would feel “shame” or “disappointment” that his own behavior or his own fate had brought him to such a low status….
She goes on to show how the NLF brought out this latent anger and focused it. The analysis is convincing. But awareness that one’s pains and problems do not all come from oneself or from fate, and that, since many others also suffer, they are also the fault of society or outside oppressors, has stirred popular risings and revolutions in many other cultures.
At the beginning of the splendid section on the NLF, in order to underscore the uniqueness of the Vietnamese, Miss FitzGerald says that only the Cubans and the Vietnamese have created revolutions since the Second World War. She plays down the importance of the earlier war against the French in South Vietnam, claiming that the Viet Minh controlled only a few areas there, while the NLF in the early 1960s was a qualitatively new movement.
Here I think she has overstated her case. It is true that in 1954 the Viet Minh was less powerful in the south than in the north and center. On the other hand there are good reasons to argue that this was a result of military rather than political necessity. In the late Forties there was extremely heavy fighting in the South. There is no reason to question Mus’s thesis that the revolution of August, 1945, in spite of the vitality of other parties, sects, and gangs, extended throughout the country and that support for it in the South was deep and widespread. The overwhelming impression I gained from an admittedly very short time spent in the southern countryside was that the struggle was continuous, that there had always been poor patriots in the country and rich collaborators in the towns. I noticed that people in 1971 were still using the term Viet Minh.2
If the growth and strengthening of the NLF was only a quantitative change and not a qualitative one, and the revolution is best seen as beginning in 1945, then South Vietnam is not unique. In fact revolutions were the norm in colonial countries occupied by the Japanese. It is true that those in Indonesia and Burma were not so radical and those in Malaya and the Philippines failed, though in these last two geography and ethnic divisions helped foreign forces to crush them. Nevertheless the original Vietnamese revolution was only one of many. The dislocation and exposure of the weaknesses of authority in the Second World War caused powerful demands for wholesale social change even in countries as far away from Vietnam and Tien Minh as Britain. In colonial countries where authority depended on bluff the inevitable result was revolution or political—though not economic—independence.
Having said all this, I have no doubt that Miss FitzGerald is absolutely right to claim that there is something very special about the Vietnamese that has enabled them to withstand the powerful and barbarous attacks launched against them. Mus saw a source of this in the Sino-Vietnamese belief in the possibility of legitimate rebellion, something lacking in many other cultures, for example those of India and Japan. He also saw how important were the strong populist and egalitarian strains in Confucian tradition. Because he did not distinguish sharply between China and Vietnam, he did not stress the peculiarly Vietnamese phenomenon of a traditional nationalism. If a nation is a population sharing a culture and territory with the ideal of unitary or at least federal government and aware of foreigners to whom more or less equal status is given, the Vietnamese have been a nation since the tenth century—far longer than any European people.
It is also true that, as Miss FitzGerald writes, Vietnamese psychology and capacity for social cohesion have been of great importance in the struggle. In her chapters on the NLF she makes brilliant use of American intelligence material that has previously only been used to prop up absurd official theories. She describes how the NLF relies on the traditions of social and national revolution and she explains with marvelous clarity how the NLF has been able to succeed against enemies with far greater material power.
Why is the NLF successful? Because people like it and are prepared to support it. Why do they like it? Because it has attractive social policies and while Government officials usually behave abominably, NLF cadres behave well. Why do they behave well? Because unlike the officials with their huge outside resources, the cadres depend on the villagers. These explanations, though well stated in this book, have been made by others. However Miss FitzGerald goes on to make the more subtle and important point that the villagers respond well to cadres, even to those from outside, because they understand why the cadres behave well. On the other hand they are extremely suspicious of friendly gestures from the Saigon government or the Americans because they cannot see any reason for them.
Miss FitzGerald shows how the NLF provided social cohesion to villages in which, although social structures had been destroyed by the French and by Diem, the people were still traditionally and psychologically predisposed toward it. From this one can go on to make the point that once villagers have experienced the new type of social order, the organization itself is not indispensable. Under Diem and again after 1968, outside authorities tried to uproot the “VCI” (Viet Cong Infrastructure). This effort, though extremely bloody—thousands were killed—was often misdirected. Even so, there is no doubt that in some areas revolutionary organizations were effectively destroyed. However this has had surprisingly little effect. As Jeffrey Race has shown for the early Sixties,3 and as we can now see from the present situation, once the possibility of organization has been realized new organizations can be formed in a few days, even after intense and prolonged repression.
A similar pattern in Vietnamese society and the official American perception of it can be seen nationally. Here the indefinable relationship between the centralism of the nation and the localism of the village that I have already mentioned is crucial. For the presence of a national will has permitted effective coordination while local units remain independent enough to make Vietnam a segmented rather than an organic country. Trapped by their bureaucratic minds, American officials are always looking for nerve centers or key points which they believe can be found and destroyed, causing all Vietnamese resistance to collapse. They are unable to face the reality that for the Vietnamese nothing is indispensable except the people itself. Only genocide can defeat them.
Having established her scheme with great skill and coherence, Miss FitzGerald devotes the second half of her huge book to concrete studies of the political crises in the towns of South Vietnam. Here she relies greatly on the inside knowledge and expertise of Robert Shaplen and Jean Lacouture. However she far surpasses them. She has the advantage over Lacouture that she has had more time in which to acquire hindsight, and that she has an acute understanding of American bureaucracy.
The advantage over Shaplen is far more clear-cut. As she herself points out, Shaplen cannot see that Vietnam is going through a national revolution. Thus he finds himself in the impossible position of describing in detail the failures of US policies without being able to explain them. For him as for many right-wing Americans, the United States has simply had a run of bad luck. American officials have just happened to be incompetent and their Vietnamese colleagues have just happened to be brutal, cowardly, and corrupt. Shaplen cannot face the fact that these qualities are inherent in the collaboration. Because she understands the situation so well, Miss FitzGerald is able to make sense of his confusion. For the period 1966-1967, when she was herself in Vietnam, she is also able to add her own extremely shrewd observations. Because of her deep interest in and sympathy for traditional Vietnamese culture she is particularly good when writing about the abortive Buddhist Third Force.
The chief disappointment of Fire in the Lake is that it is so good one becomes greedy for more. For instance, one would like to see the chapter “Politicians, and Generals,” on the coups following the fall of Diem, supplemented by another on “Generals and Colonels.” I strongly suspect that many of the generals whose shifts and maneuvers she describes so well were in fact being manipulated by their subordinates, whose closer contact with their troops gave them more power. Another problem of the second half of her book is that it is one-sided. Although Miss FitzGerald is a firm supporter of the Vietnamese revolution her experience is all on the other side. Even her information on the NLF comes largely from American intelligence. This is almost inevitable, for it is extremely difficult to join the guerrillas. But there are sources she appears to have neglected, such as NLF representatives abroad, and NLF novels and short stories about the struggle, some of which have been translated into French. Although both sources would have to be treated with great care, they would nevertheless provide information which it is impossible to gain elsewhere.
Another difficulty comes from a problem facing all writers with radical views who want to convey the situation in Vietnam to liberal readers. Anyone brought up in the liberal tradition absorbs a profound sense of symmetry which includes the belief that “there are two sides to every question.” This approach is indeed applicable in many instances. Nevertheless there are some for which it breaks down—it is not very useful to look for the two sides of the question of Nazi concentration camps. In my opinion Vietnam also belongs to this lopsided category. Most liberals, however, find this difficult to swallow. Thus the writer has to choose between describing what he or she believes to be the truth of the situation or of providing a more plausible picture understating the case which “on balance” comes down on the side of the NLF.
Miss FitzGerald largely takes the first approach, stressing that it is not a war between two symmetrical sides, invaders against defenders or even government against revolutionaries. She constantly reiterates that the regime in Saigon is not a government in any normal sense. It does not provide justice, welfare, or security but their opposites. However, in order to be plausible to liberals she appears to feel obliged to put any moral scraps she can on the American side of the scales and to give the United States every benefit of the doubt. On the question of violence she quotes the leading architect of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, Sir Robert Thompson: “Normally communist behaviour towards the mass of the population is irreproachable and the use of terror is highly selective.”
However, when dealing with the “massacre” at Hue, she is even-handed. She states that most of those killed there during the Têt offensive died as a direct result of the fighting and the American bombing. She also states that more than 2,000 were killed by the NLF. She fails to mention the Saigon government execution squads seen by Richard West and other correspondents.
She is equally “balanced” on the other prop of the “blood bath” theory, the numbers killed in the North during the land reform. She refers to the “conservative” estimate that some 50,000 people died. The figure is presumably taken from Bernard Fall, but others have given lower figures. In any event, as Gareth Porter of Cornell has shown in a study to appear this autumn, most Western figures on this seem to have come from Hoang Van Chi, a refugee from the North who was employed by the Saigon Ministry of Information when he first made the charge. In an interview with Porter, Hoang Van Chi admitted that he had not translated the exact sense of the official North Vietnamese documents on which his claim was based. Porter concludes that although a larger number of people were punished, some of them wrongly, somewhere between 800 and 2,500 were killed. The figure is still appallingly high but it is a small fraction of the number killed during the one campaign of “accelerated pacification” in the Mekong Delta in 1969.
Another point on which I believe Miss FitzGerald has accepted the official American view too uncritically is on what has been called the decisive weakening of the NLF during 1968. Like most of the American left, she accepts the huge enlargement of territory held by Saigon and the increase of the Saigon army that followed as sufficient evidence that this time, for once, American and Saigon claims that they had “really hurt the enemy” were correct.
To my mind there is a far more plausible explanation of the situation from 1968 to 1972. The huge increase of US bombing in the summer of 1968 did damage the NLF and caused immense suffering to the population as a whole. However it was not until the autumn that the tide began to turn in favor of Saigon. The season is significant because it was only by then that President Johnson had declared a complete bombing halt in the North, negotiations had begun, and the eventual withdrawal of American troops became inevitable. At that time the Vietnamese leadership appears to have decided that there was no point in fighting American ground troops who would soon be gone. Therefore their main forces withdrew to base areas and many of their local forces disbanded.
The disadvantage of this policy was that Saigon would inevitably use the lull to reoccupy much of the countryside, which would cause great suffering to the rural population and weaken local NLF organizations. On the other hand, direct contact with officials from Saigon provided the best possible political education for the peasants in zones previously controlled by the NLF, who now possessed a theoretical frame by which to interpret their experiences. Furthermore, as I have already mentioned, a mobilized and politically educated population can fairly easily reconstitute destroyed organizations.
There was, however, another aspect of this policy which Vietnamese leaders do not appear to have taken fully into account. With the disappearance of the enemy and the relative military quiet, the optimism of the American middle class and their faith in technology reasserted themselves. The myth quickly grew up in military circles that “Têt 1968 might have been a political victory for the Vietcong but it was a military disaster for them.” Whatever Nixon may have felt in 1968, by the next year he was able to convince himself that the internal rebellion in South Vietnam had been destroyed and “Vietnamization” was a real possibility. Few military men have any illusions about the ARVN, and “Vietnamization” was clearly a much more limited concept than has often been supposed. The assumption was that given superb equipment, ammunition, transport, and communication, with American advisers at every level and a few years training, an ARVN unit could withstand attack for twenty minutes until US air power arrived. Thus, though public opinion forced Nixon to withdraw US ground troops, he had no intention of withdrawing American power from the region.
The campaigns in Cambodia and Laos showed that “Vietnamization” did not work even for the limited purpose assigned to it. As Miss FitzGerald puts it, “By building the ARVN the Americans were merely exploring this artificial tissue, without injecting any life into it.” Nevertheless Nixon’s sense of mission and his Churchillian determination not to be “the first President to preside over a defeat of the United States” prevented him from seeing this blindingly obvious fact.
The Vietnamese leadership came to see that Nixon would never give up his support for a pro-American government in Saigon and that rather than allow this he would bombard every inch of Vietnamese soil. They saw that at some point they would have to defeat an opposing army that was sustained by a residual US ground force and by the full might of the air force and navy. Sooner was better than later and, because Nixon’s responses would be marginally more limited in an election year, 1972 was the obvious choice. It was for this reason that the attack was launched, and as I write, the ARVN elite units are being ground up while the rest are disintegrating. The only effective response left for the United States is to flatten every building in territory held by the NLF, thus effectively deterring it from holding towns. Nevertheless, by election time, President Nixon could be bombing Saigon.
As usual Miss FitzGerald has grasped the essence of the situation. In a chapter completed before the present offensive began she wrote:
The NLF had lost strength but it was difficult to believe that it could not recover as the Americans moved out, for the simple reason that the GVN did not constitute a side in the domestic struggle.
Fire in the Lake is a magnificent achievement, huge, wide-ranging, fascinating, stimulating. It is the first book I would recommend to anyone to read on Vietnam.
October 5, 1972