How many readers remember Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam? First published in 1972, the book was a sensation. It scooped up numerous awards, including a Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Ecstatic reviewers competed for superlatives: “the best book on Vietnam,” crooned The New York Times. Waxing hortatory, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote that “if Americans read only one book to understand what we have done to the Vietnamese and to ourselves, let it be this one.” Quoth Stanley Hoffmann in The New York Review of Books: “An extraordinary book.” Martin Bernal, writing in The New York Times Book Review, chimed in with “a magnificent achievement.”
There is a sense in which we agree with Mr. Bernal. Fire in the Lake really is a “magnificent achievement”—but not, however, considered as a work of reportage, which is what it purports to be. On the contrary, FitzGerald’s book—which has just been republished with a new Afterword by the author—belongs firmly to the Jane Fonda-Mary McCarthy-Susan Sontag school of surreal political romance. Readers will remember the plot: the noble, peace-loving North Vietnamese are beset by nasty American thugs. Naïve American “idealists” rush to Hanoi where wise natives tell them all manner of wonderful things. What Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief” works overtime as these privileged emissaries lap up lie upon lie and then rush home to disgorge them in the pages of the American left-wing press. In “Trip to Hanoi” (1968), for example, Susan Sontag told spellbound readers that the real problem for the North Vietnamese was that they “aren’t good enough haters.” Their fondness for Americans, she explained, kept getting in the way of their own efforts to make war.
They genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, “because they’re bigger than we are,” as a Vietnamese army officer told me, “and they’re used to more meat than we are.” People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man … and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen.
What do you suppose Senator John McCain, who enjoyed the caring hospitality of the North Vietnamese for quite some time as a POW, would have to say about this idyll?
For her part, Frances FitzGerald dilated on the alleged continuity between Confucianism and the Marxism-Leninism of Ho Chi Minh. “Like Confucianism,” she writes, “Marxism was a social morality. Like Confucianism, it was also a science that described the progress of society through history.” She spoke glowingly about the Communist “project of re-education, of changing human nature”—was it not a kind of “Tao, or, as the Marxists put it a ‘style of work,’ ‘a style of leadership’?” FitzGerald allows that what she delicately calls efforts at “land reform” in the 1950s were a “total disaster.” But she omits the little detail that some 50,000 peasants were murdered in the course of this particular educational experiment. Doubtless she agrees with the old adage about eggs and omelettes.
Like other specimens of this genre of political romance, FitzGerald’s book is buoyed by two distinct emotional currents. One is the idealization of the native—all those altruistic North Vietnamese soldiers fighting with each other to be the first to share his rations with the American prisoners. The other current is unbridled anti-Americanism. “The U.S. officials had enmired Vietnam,” FitzGerald writes toward the end of her book. “They had corrupted the Vietnamese and, by extension, the American soldiers who had to fight amongst the Vietnamese in their service. By involving the United States in a fruitless and immoral war, they had also corrupted themselves.” We agree that there was an element of immorality about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But its chief feature was the willingness to commit American troops without giving them the resources to win. It goes without saying that FitzGerald has nothing to say about that piece of immorality.
By the end of 1971, when FitzGerald was finishing her book, it was clear that if American troops left Vietnam, a bloodbath would follow. This of course could not be the fault of the Vietnamese: somehow America must be blamed. FitzGerald contrives to do this by inserting at opportune moments the name “Nixon”—at one time a reliable rhetorical prop that could be counted upon to conjure up the specter of evil. “If the force of the American peace movement has expended itself on obtaining American troop withdrawals,” FitzGerald explains, “then Nixon may well succeed in compelling the Vietnamese to kill each other for some time to come.” Got that? The peace movement forces the hand of weary politicians. American troops withdraw, whereupon the North Vietnamese promptly butcher their enemies. Who is to blame? Why Richard Nixon, of course. By withdrawing American troops he somehow “compels” the Vietnamese to slaughter each other. Here is the venerable philosophical idea of “action at a distance” updated for the terminally gullible.
When it was first published, Fire in the Lake was a hermetically sealed product: a moralizing passion play into which no droplet of reality was permitted to intrude. Time has not withered nor custom staled that infinite imperviousness. In her Afterword to this new edition of Fire in the Lake, FitzGerald adds Buddhist processions to Confucianism. But readers will search in vain for the terms “Viet Cong” or “boat people.” There’s a lot of admiring talk about “handicraft projects” and the revival of ancestor worship in this “sort of coda” to Fire in the Lake. But there is nothing about the fact that Vietnam is still a one-party totalitarian police state that routinely brutalizes its citizens. “With the reforms of the eighties,” FitzGerald enthuses, returning to her Marxism-is-Confucianism gambit,
the government did something more than open up the economy, for in the Vietnamese context Marxism-Leninism was more than an economic system and an ideology. Like Confucianism, it was a social system grounded in a claim to an immutable, scientific understanding of human nature and the laws of history; it was also a set of ethics, and the ethics, or “revolutionary virtues,” taught by Ho Chi Minh closely resembled those of Confucianism.
This of course is a calumny on Confucianism, whose teachings resemble those of Marxism-Leninism about as closely as a hippopotamus resembles a sparrow. Among the many questions FitzGerald might have asked, but didn’t, is this: Why was it that tens of thousands of people fled Vietnam when American troops left, crowding and overcrowding scores of rickety boats, risking—and, in many cases, meeting—death in a desperate effort to escape?
This is not a difficult question to answer. “Thousands of Vietnamese people and Montagnards were killed by the Vietnamese government and over one million people imprisoned in forced labor camps since 1975. Repression is so widespread in Vietnam today that the communist government has become one of the worst violators of human rights in Asia.” That is from a recent report of human rights abuses in Vietnam. You won’t find it cited in the new edition of Fire in the Lake.
As we write, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon are only a few weeks away. All across Europe the percussive drumbeat of anti-American sentiment resounds; naturally, it finds a grateful echo in American universities and throughout the liberal media. Had the Afghanistan campaign lasted a little longer, Frances FitzGerald might have gone there to report on the “immoral” depredations of the American military in their efforts to rout the Taliban and al Qaeda. (Though she would not have witnessed any Buddhist processions or Confucian rituals, since the Taliban was even more “revolutionary” than Ho Chi Minh when it came to religious freedom.) Perhaps she will turn her talents to that task when the United States once again forswears appeasement for action by eradicating the monstrous tyranny that oppresses Iraq and casts its loathsome shadow over the entire Middle East.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 1, on page 1
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com