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Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review) This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam--the traditional, Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review) This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam--the traditional, ancestor-worshiping villages, the conflicts between Communists and anti-Communists, Catholics and Buddhists, generals and monks, the disruption created by French colonialism, and America's ill-fated intervention--and reveals the country as seen through Vietnamese eyes. Originally published in 1972, FIRE IN THE LAKE was the first history of Vietnam written by an American, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award. With a clarity and insight unrivaled by any author before it or since, Frances FitzGerald illustrates how America utterly and tragically misinterpreted the realities of Vietnam.


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Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review) This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam--the traditional, Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review) This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam--the traditional, ancestor-worshiping villages, the conflicts between Communists and anti-Communists, Catholics and Buddhists, generals and monks, the disruption created by French colonialism, and America's ill-fated intervention--and reveals the country as seen through Vietnamese eyes. Originally published in 1972, FIRE IN THE LAKE was the first history of Vietnam written by an American, and subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award. With a clarity and insight unrivaled by any author before it or since, Frances FitzGerald illustrates how America utterly and tragically misinterpreted the realities of Vietnam.

30 review for Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

  1. 4 out of 5

    Michael Finocchiaro

    Outstanding analysis of the Vietnamese people and the American War from Frances FitzGerald written in 1972, so 3 years before the fall of Saigon. A triple crown winner (Bancroft Prize, National Book Award and Pulitzer), it is an impressive piece of scholarship and analysis. As stated in the title, the book is split into two parts: the first part is an attempt to explain the Vietnamese as a people before colonization, during the French Indochina period and during the two Indochina wars. The Outstanding analysis of the Vietnamese people and the American War from Frances FitzGerald written in 1972, so 3 years before the fall of Saigon. A triple crown winner (Bancroft Prize, National Book Award and Pulitzer), it is an impressive piece of scholarship and analysis. As stated in the title, the book is split into two parts: the first part is an attempt to explain the Vietnamese as a people before colonization, during the French Indochina period and during the two Indochina wars. The second part is more detailed on the American War, ending as I said in '72 after the Tet Offensive and Nixon's schizophrenic intensification of the war while withdrawing troops. The Vietnamese are a proud people that issue from southern China and live on the eastern coast of the Indochinese peninsula. Their religion remains to this day primarily ancestor worship / Confuscism with a smattering of Buddhism and Catholicism. Their relationship with neighboring countries - Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia - has been tense with warfare and animosity. I really liked the Thai proverb that FitzGerald quoted on page 41, "While it is worthwhile to try and help an elephant that is trying to stand up, but perfectly useless to help one that happens to be falling down." Following the defeat of the French colonists in the late 50s, there was an artificial split along the 17th parallel between north and south Vietnam which FitzGerald argues was arbitrary and ultimately fatal to any effort from the west to hold up over time. The Americans from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson and then Nixon, all suffered from a colonialist viewpoint thinking that the Vietnamese were a backwards and malleable people. Worse, they harbored an illusion of the domino theory: if Vietnam was to fall to communism, all of American interests in south-east Asia and the Pacific would be compromised. These two fallacies were used to justify any number of atrocities from support of corrupt regimes such as those of Diem and Thieu, to forcing peasants off their land into Strategic Hamlets, to the bombing of villages and the use of chemical warfare (napalm and other herbicides) to "destroy them in order to save them." This of course just served to strengthen the resolve of the NLF, or more commonly known as Viet Cong (where Cong was to mean Communist). Even the name Viet Cong was actually inaccurate because Ho Chi Minh's brand of communism came into conflict with that espoused by China and the Soviet Union and this was a constant source of tension for the North Vietnamese regime. As she says on page 169, "The solution of the Viet Minh (this was the Viet Cong's name prior to the fall of French colonialism in 1956 more or less), like that of the NLF, was the systematic encouragement of hatred." This hatred was incredibly powerful and could be directed at Vietnam's enemies with incredible effectiveness in recruiting. The author goes to pains to explain how the Vietnamese peasant who happily grew rice on his patties and raised his family with little or no outside interference, was pushed off his land (by French colonizers and then by American military and the South Vietnamese army) losing contact with his sustenance as well - and more importantly for his hate - with his ancestors, so the well to draw upon was deep and common to a majority of the population. As she points out, it was the real origin of the revolution of Ho Chi Minh. She does an excellent job of analyzing the origin and workings of the NLF and Ho's use of reeducation, or khiem thao, whose purpose was "to free the individual from old social constraints only to impose new ones" (p. 208). She goes on to explain that the "French invasion effectively destroyed the Confucian design for society and the universe. It did not, however, change the impulse to a social and ideological coherency.... 'Individualism' had much the same connotation for the Communists as 'egotism' or 'selfishness' had for the non-Communist Vietnamese: it was immoral behavior and the very expression of anarchy" (p 210). This allowed Ho's army to recruit massive numbers of peasants both north and south of the dividing line and to keep loyalties despite devastating losses in battle and to the environment. Ho's intimate understanding of the Vietnamese mindset was key in his ability to organize and effectively push out two successive colonization efforts in Vietnam. Ms. FitzGerald spares no words in her condemnation of the political quagmire that the French left and that the Americans took over and worsened in South Vietnam: "Unable to understand the natives, the French colonialists of the 19th century, along with their American and European counterparts in the rest of Asia, invented all the racist clichés that have passed down into the mythology of the American soldier: that Orientals are lazy, dirty, untrustworthy, and ignorant of the value of human life" (p. 297). She cleverly uses Shakepeare's The Tempest as an analogy to how the Americans interacted with the Vietnamese. Do you recall the famous photo of the Buddhist monk immolating himself in the street? Well, that actually happened twice: in 1963 and later in 1966. Sadly, both times, the Buddhists paid severely for their act of defiance. I was struck by the amount of money the US poured into Vietnam: "In one year (1966) American spending on the war leaped from $150M to $2B per month (!!) - a sum whose equivalent would have paid every South Vietnamese more than $100 per year" (p. 303). All the money, needless to say, went to military expenditure (and local graft) and none actually went to the people in South Vietnam who were suffering from the war. The economy was devastated, a rice-producing country had to import rice to feed its citizens and then only industries that thrived were drug dealing and prostitution where the customer was the American soldier, or more benignly selling Cokes to the GIs. There was a comedy of pushing for free elections - comedic because in one example, General Thieu won by 95% of the vote and because the lists were cleaned of any credible alternatives to the junta - leading to a nice analogy, "it was as if a customer in a restaurant, when asked what he wanted for dinner, kept insisting that he liked to read the menu, but that he would leave the choice to them. To the Vietnamese it was quite evident that the customer did not care what he ate, but that he preferred to keep it a secret, so that at any moment he might get up, blame the management on poor service, and leave without paying the bill" (p. 332). This is of course not unique to Vietnam, but nonetheless belied the shambles that was American policy towards South Vietnam during the war which directly led to the rejection of American values and the ultimate defeat of the American army. At the end of the book, she talks of Nixon's War and the acceleration of bombardement and death as the Americans prepared to withdraw. This left open - when it was written in 1972 - the question of what the Vietnamese would do once the Americans had left. She accurately predicted that "it will mean that the moment has arrived for the narrow flame of revolution to cleanse the lake of Vietnamese society from the corruption and disorder of the American war. The effort will have to be greater than any Vietnamese have undertaken, but it will have to come, for it is the only way the Vietnamese of the south can restore their country and their history to themselves" (p. 442). Having read Embers of War about the French Indochina War, I found Fire in the Lake incredibly thought-provoking and readable and found I learned a lot about the war that I was never taught and rarely read about during my education in the US (or from my stepdad, veteran of 3 tours in 'Nam). It was eye-opening and heart-wrenching. Sadly, I realize that the mistakes have just continued to create suffering for the Salvadorans, the Nicaraguans, the Afghanis, the Iraqis, and the list goes on. Things will not improve under Drumpfism either. Don’t miss FitzGerald’s latest book The Evangelicals from 2017. It is equally engaging, informative and compelling!

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kay

    Oh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basic understanding of events and would be able to follow the author's arguments reasonably well. I was wrong. Another reviewer here likened reading Fire in the Lake to drinking from a fire hose, and I wholeheartedly agree. FitzGerald unleashes a torrent of statistics, quotes, and scholarship embedded in a rigorous sociological perspective and never Oh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basic understanding of events and would be able to follow the author's arguments reasonably well. I was wrong. Another reviewer here likened reading Fire in the Lake to drinking from a fire hose, and I wholeheartedly agree. FitzGerald unleashes a torrent of statistics, quotes, and scholarship embedded in a rigorous sociological perspective and never lets up. She harks back repeatedly to her central thesis, which is that Vietnamese society was (is?) so foreign, so completely based on different principles and assumptions, that the Americans hadn't a prayer to intervening successfully or winning the war. The family, the village, the land, and a Confucian world order of people in correct relation to each other in a reflection of heavenly order and harmony -- these are notions she harks back to repeatedly. Indeed, these leit motifs recurred much too often for my taste. Given that the author seemed to assume the reader could follow her sophisticated analysis, it struck me that at the same time she was not above cramming her thesis down the reader's throat. Fire in the Lake is a difficult book, rendered even moreso by the passage of time. Events were still unfolding in Vietnam when this book came out. The edition I read was printed in 1972, and I can only hope that the new edition, which contains an afterword by the author, offers more "closure," if I may use the term. The book ends without an ending, trailing off in speculation about what would happen when the Americans left. There is no neat summing up of events or the luxury of looking back to bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. That may account, in part, for my feeling as I read of being cast adrift on a dark sea; I knew the ending of the story but I didn't quite understand how the ending was reached. And, unlike everything else I've read or heard about Vietnam, this book is not at all concerned with American soldiers and their experiences or even that much with the reaction to the war at home. The Vietnamese and Vietnamese culture are her touchstones, and only insofar as American actions affected them does America enter into the picture. (And that, now that I think of it, is perhaps this book's most redeeming feature.) I'm not in a position to say whether FitzGerald's book was accurate, but indeed if even a small portion of her assessments are correct then her blistering condemnation of American foolhardiness and willful blindness in Vietnam is certainly understandable. Still, I found myself holding back at times from her arguments, even as I was impressed by them, partially in annoyance at her highhanded and theoretic approach and partially in mere confusion. How could I have lived through this era and know so little about the Vietnam war? True, I was a child at its beginnings, yet I was in college during the last few years and had participated in anti-war marches and rallies and, in general, thought I "knew" enough about the war to know that I opposed it. But it seems I knew very little, after all, at least in terms of who the major political figures were -- certainly the major Vietnamese figures -- and what the major U.S. policies and campaigns were. And so, it seems, more reading is needed before I can say whether this book was insightful or merely a useful irritant, goading me on to reaching a better understanding.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michael Brady

    One day in the late 1970s, while attending the University of North Dakota, I was told by an older student who had spent his youth and his innocence as an American GI "busting his hump" across South Vietnam, that this was the best book ever written about America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Here I am, some 40 years later, much older than he was then, finally learning the truth of his sage advice. "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam" is thoughtful, incisive, and One day in the late 1970s, while attending the University of North Dakota, I was told by an older student who had spent his youth and his innocence as an American GI "busting his hump" across South Vietnam, that this was the best book ever written about America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Here I am, some 40 years later, much older than he was then, finally learning the truth of his sage advice. "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam" is thoughtful, incisive, and passionate while maintaining a sense of detached credibility. Frances Fitzgerald wrote "Fire in the Lake" in a series of layers, each building upon those that precede and underlie it, Vietnamese, French, American. Her writing is dense with detail, yet skillfully fluid. I won't pretend its 590 pages flew by, but each one was as important for its content as it was enjoyable for its craft. Much of what I thought I knew about American involvement in Vietnam at the time, and in the decades since, was woefully incomplete until now. I regret waiting so long to read this fine history of one the most formative issues of my generation.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ronando

    This book is like drinking from a firehose! I am taking the entire year of 2007 to study Vietnam. "Fire in the Lake" is my 7th book and thank god I read the other ones first. There is so much information in this book that you will be blown away by just the shere volume of the history and politics surrounding Vietnam. Frances Fitzgerald does a thorough job of dissecting Vietnam and presenting it to the reader all the way down to the perspective of the captured NLF soldier, the peasant villager This book is like drinking from a firehose! I am taking the entire year of 2007 to study Vietnam. "Fire in the Lake" is my 7th book and thank god I read the other ones first. There is so much information in this book that you will be blown away by just the shere volume of the history and politics surrounding Vietnam. Frances Fitzgerald does a thorough job of dissecting Vietnam and presenting it to the reader all the way down to the perspective of the captured NLF soldier, the peasant villager that was forced to evacuate their village, to the hubris American architects of the war. The only problem is that she tended to jump all over the place and it was rather dry. I don't suggest reading this book over any others. Better to read Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History! I have 6 more books on Vietnam to read for 2007 and I know that this book alone will be more of a historical lesson than all the others combined.

  5. 4 out of 5

    David Fox

    Nams Bad Habit I first became aware of Fire in the Lake shortly after it received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. Knowing that it was the definitive political/social/cultural history of modern Viet Nam I purchased it immediately. I then proceeded to carry it around with me, packing & un-packing it for the next 20 years, without once cracking it open to even purview it. Disappointed with my resolve I sold it in a garage sale. Move forward another 15 years or so & I see it marked down in a book Nam’s Bad Habit I first became aware of Fire in the Lake shortly after it received the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. Knowing that it was the definitive political/social/cultural history of modern Viet Nam I purchased it immediately. I then proceeded to carry it around with me, packing & un-packing it for the next 20 years, without once cracking it open to even purview it. Disappointed with my resolve I sold it in a garage sale. Move forward another 15 years or so & I see it marked down in a book store going out of business. Political guilt grips my psyche & I buy it for a song. It then sits on my book shelf for another 2 or 3 years before I finally muster the courage to pick it up & tackle it. Why the years of resistance? Well, I knew from the reviews that it was not going to be an easy read filled with colorful anecdotes told in a whimsical manner. It was a serious, blistering analysis of why we were doomed to failure even before Johnson fabricated the reasons for escalating a tense situation into the defining military debacle of the late 20th century. And, in some small way, my reluctance to commit the time to read & finish this compelling historical tour de force, bizarrely mirrored the twisted relationship that transpired between the Vietnamese, the U.S. & the French. All of us had problems with commitment – I could not commit to a heavy, political treatise with an ending too well known & neither the French nor us nor the Vietnamese could commit to resolving what they knew too well, would have a bad ending. Now, while I am simplifying to an extreme degree here, what we had in Nam was a series of shot-gun weddings that were doomed from the very beginning. Tossing aside that analogy for a moment it was more like a bad drug habit – Viet Nam was the user; the French & the U.S., the narcotic. For 23 plus years, stretching from the early 1950’s till the war ended in 1975, according to FitzGerald, the Vietnamese had an unhealthy dependency, first with the French, & then us. They needed us, but didn’t want us. They wanted our approval & then despised themselves for the weakness. They wanted us to save them & they wanted us to let them go. Like that shot-gun wedding, with neither bride nor groom committed, it was a done deal from the get-go. It is that dependency, the sickness of the relationship & all of its manifestations that FitzGerald so brilliantly explores. Using a scalpel with the skill of a seasoned surgeon she excises back the layers of damaged tissue, cutting away at the malignant tumors that plagued the body of the relationship. Now, here is the interesting piece for the American audience. After the surgery, how was the patient – better, worse or the same? Was the patient cured or still ailing? In retrospect, was it worth the millions of deaths? And, oh by the way, did the good guys or the bad guys win? I guess it all depends on what you think of drug dealers.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Paul Haspel

    The fire in the lake symbol from classical Chinas I Ching book of prophecy is part of the books 49th of 64 hexagrams, Revolution, and it features the following declaration: Revolution. Not before the day of its completion will men have faith in it sublime success! Determination in a righteous course brings reward; regret vanishes. Virtually all Vietnamese people from the Vietnam War era would have known the significance of this reference, and many would have readily applied it to the likelihood The “fire in the lake” symbol from classical China’s I Ching book of prophecy is part of the book’s 49th of 64 hexagrams, “Revolution,” and it features the following declaration: “Revolution. Not before the day of its completion will men have faith in it – sublime success! Determination in a righteous course brings reward; regret vanishes.” Virtually all Vietnamese people from the Vietnam War era would have known the significance of this reference, and many would have readily applied it to the likelihood of success for North Vietnam’s revolutionary cause of uniting all Vietnam under a communist government. For virtually all Americans of the time, by contrast, the reference would have been absolutely unfamiliar. That, in the mind of journalist and author Frances FitzGerald, is intrinsic to the problems that the United States of America and its South Vietnamese allies faced in prosecuting the Vietnam War, as Fitzgerald sets forth in her book Fire in the Lake. Fitzgerald, who reported from Vietnam for years for publications like The New Yorker, brought hard-won experience and insight to this 1972 study of The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (the book’s subtitle), and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her setting-forth of the two sides’ widely differing perspectives on the conflict, and of the intractable problems that the United States government faced in its efforts to prosecute the war. As FitzGerald’s sees it, the U.S. government is hampered from the beginning by its failure to realize certain facts regarding the Vietnamese people and their war. First, the Vietnamese people, whether in North or South Vietnam, are a proud and strongly nationalistic people, who wanted a unified Vietnam governed and administered by the Vietnamese; with their long history of anti-colonial struggle against larger nations like China and France, they were just as likely to be as suspicious of American “allies” as they were of Chinese or French ones. Second, Vietnam’s philosophical legacy was bound up in Buddhist and Confucian traditions that both privileged the communal over the individual – traditions that many people in Vietnam would find echoed in the communist cause being espoused by Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese government, and the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.) that most Americans know better as the Viet Cong. These facts created major problems for U.S. leaders who sought to foster a viable system of democratic capitalism in South Vietnam, as did the corrupt and authoritarian characteristics of South Vietnam’s leaders. Emblematic, in that regard, is FitzGerald’s portrait of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled as first President of South Vietnam from 1955 until his assassination in November of 1963 (20 days before U.S. President John F. Kennedy was himself assassinated). In FitzGerald’s reading, Diem was “a reactionary. And like so many reactionaries, he idealized the past and misconceived the present. His whole political outlook was founded in nostalgia – nostalgia for a country that did not exist except in the Confucian texts, where the sovereign governed entirely by ritual and the people looked up to him with a distant, filial respect” (pp. 99-100). Diem’s reactionary nostalgia led him to implement unrealistic policies that alienated the country’s Buddhist population, and that eventually led to his removal in a coup d’état with American consent. None of those problems – reactionary policies, association with colonial regimes, alienation of large sectors of the population – afflicted Diem’s adversaries in the war, most notably the N.L.F. While FitzGerald acknowledges the brutality of the N.L.F. (and could have done so with more emphasis), her practical interest is in why the N.L.F. enjoyed the support that it did in ordinary villages across Vietnam. From the N.L.F. point of view, their major task in indoctrinating peasant recruits into their socialist ideology involved “breaking down the traditional barriers of fear and giving the peasants…some sense of their community with each other. When they joined their units, few of the young men had any sense of the coordination – both physical and mental – with which a modern society must operate” (p. 199). But the N.L.F.’s task of political training was made easier by the family- and village-centered world within which most Vietnamese had grown up: “Brought up within the small, enclosed world of the family, most of the young recruits found it natural to trust each other, to share their food and their complaints, to discuss and to compromise the interests of group action” (p. 201). In South Vietnam, meanwhile, the relationship between the South Vietnamese on the one hand, and their American allies on the other, was fraught with internal contradictions. FitzGerald states those contradictions thus: “[The South Vietnamese] wanted the Americans to save them from their own people; but as the Americans were not their own people, they sought to preserve their autonomy from a power that was by definition untrustworthy….That the Americans were already interfering in Vietnamese politics was a connection that neither they nor the Americans were willing to make. This contradiction between desire for, and hostility to, the American presence was to govern the whole history of the relationship between the Americans and the Vietnamese…” (p. 300) The story of American involvement in Vietnam presents the student of the conflict with a distressing pattern of escalation – from President Kennedy providing military advisers, to President Johnson sending in combat troops, to President Nixon widening the war with an invasion of Cambodia – and with an ever-expanding body count on all sides. In short, as the American nation moved from one presidential administration to another, and then to still another, “the war did not end. It expanded and grew bloodier” (p. 403). Why did this happen? FitzGerald sums it up as follows: “[T[he American government did not want to face the consequences of peace. It was, after all, one thing to wish for an end to the war and quite another to confront the issues upon which the war had begun. President Johnson had wanted to end the war; so, too, had President Kennedy. But to end the war and not to lose it: the distinction was crucial, and particularly crucial after all the American lives that had been spent and all the political rhetoric expended.” (p. 404) Fire in the Lake was originally published in 1972 – one year before the conclusion of the Paris peace accords, and three years before the final fall of Saigon to the communists – but its findings hold up remarkably well. The 2002 edition of Fire in the Lake that I have before me includes an afterword in which FitzGerald describes her postwar visits to Vietnam, and the examples of change and continuity that she observed there. Reading Fire in the Lake on a recent visit to Vietnam – seeing both Hanoi and Saigon, both north and south – I found FitzGerald’s book remarkably helpful in explaining the complexities of Vietnamese society and the tragedy of what, in Vietnam, is called “the American war” or “the Resistance War.” I believe that any open-minded reader would find Fire in the Lake comparably informative and helpful.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Czarny Pies

    I added one star to my review of this book after reading several of the Good Read reviews below. It is my belief that this book will not age well because it was written at a time when all the relevant archival material would have still been classified. Eventually a better history will be written. However, this book opened the discussion with brilliance and thus has done us all a great service. The great virtue of "Fire in the Lake" which appeared while the Viet Nam war was still going in is that I added one star to my review of this book after reading several of the Good Read reviews below. It is my belief that this book will not age well because it was written at a time when all the relevant archival material would have still been classified. Eventually a better history will be written. However, this book opened the discussion with brilliance and thus has done us all a great service. The great virtue of "Fire in the Lake" which appeared while the Viet Nam war was still going in is that presented a credible and well argued case that the Viet Nam war had been unwinnable from the beginning. FitzGerald's work is one of journalism. She was in Viet Nam during the war and interviewed many of the key players. Moreover she had read very carefully and understood all the sociological studies on colonialism/imperialism. Future historians will have more documents to consult and should speculate less. However, FitzGerald's speculation is based on deep reading and extensive experience with the country. Her theorizing may in fact hold very well after the facts are all in.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Billie Pritchett

    Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and like a fool here I am giving it three stars. The reason is because it was tedious for me to read. There are a couple of different ways in which this book could have been organized, and it wasn't organized along either line. The book could have been organized in essays. Then, each chapter/essay would have an argument and be seeking to demonstrating something. This book didn't do that. The book could have Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize and like a fool here I am giving it three stars. The reason is because it was tedious for me to read. There are a couple of different ways in which this book could have been organized, and it wasn't organized along either line. The book could have been organized in essays. Then, each chapter/essay would have an argument and be seeking to demonstrating something. This book didn't do that. The book could have been organized chronologically, working from the earliest history of Vietnam onward. The book comes closest to being organized chronologically but it isn't even that. It jumps around all over the place. I hope to read more books about Vietnam, but this is most definitely not a good beginner's book for Vietnam. Maybe for later.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Muhammad Ahmad

    An extraordinary work of history and sociology. Frances Fitzgerald writes with rigour, authority and erudition and illuminates the reasons why America's involvement in Vietnam was always doomed. In the first section of the book, Fitzgerald looks at the vietnamese through their history and culture, and how the NLF was able to align its programme with both. By contrast the GVN could never take root and American indulgence towards successive dsyfunctional governments meant that the more resources An extraordinary work of history and sociology. Frances Fitzgerald writes with rigour, authority and erudition and illuminates the reasons why America's involvement in Vietnam was always doomed. In the first section of the book, Fitzgerald looks at the vietnamese through their history and culture, and how the NLF was able to align its programme with both. By contrast the GVN could never take root and American indulgence towards successive dsyfunctional governments meant that the more resources it poured in, the more dysfunctional and irresponsible the local government became. The extraordinary detail of the book however begins to weary the reader because so much of it is now trivial in hindsight. It shows that even the best of non-fiction cannot endure as history does, because its truths are relevant only to its own times.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Nate Brown

    There is a lot of high quality, first hand information here obscured by a cloud of pretension and overly indirect language. She is not is a very friendly writer. I was also underwhelmed by her overly cultural interpretation of Vietnamese actions during the war. Often things that could easily be explained by mere rational self-interest were chalked up to the utterly foreign and un-Western way of thinking of the Vietnamese. On the other hand I appreciated her uncompromising condemnation of US There is a lot of high quality, first hand information here obscured by a cloud of pretension and overly indirect language. She is not is a very friendly writer. I was also underwhelmed by her overly cultural interpretation of Vietnamese actions during the war. Often things that could easily be explained by mere rational self-interest were chalked up to the utterly foreign and un-Western way of thinking of the Vietnamese. On the other hand I appreciated her uncompromising condemnation of US policy later in the book. Other writers, even ones critical of the US, tend to portray the whole conflict as merely an unfortunate mistake rather than one of the major crimes of the 21st Century. (3 million Southeast Asians died, Agent Orange is still causing birth defects etc.)

  11. 5 out of 5

    James

    Written as the Vietnam War was ongoing, it takes the time to examine the Vietnamese and their national psyche without losing perspective. I assumed that it would reflect the immediate bias and make assumptions of reader knowledge, but the author avoided that.

  12. 4 out of 5

    John

    Wonderfully insightful and engagingly written book about the delusions that led US leaders to commit American ground and air forces to war in Vietnam. Triple Crown winner: Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Bancroft Prize. Not too many of them.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ivan Vendrov

    Review: How did America lose the Vietnam War? How could the most powerful nation in world history fail to subdue a small, rural country that had already spent more than a century under colonial rule? Most of the answers I've heard to this question relate to the broader context of the Cold War. The support from the Soviet Union and China was decisive, or domestic dissent from the Communist-sympathizing left forced a premature American withdrawal. In contrast, Fitzgerald focuses almost exclusively on Review: How did America lose the Vietnam War? How could the most powerful nation in world history fail to subdue a small, rural country that had already spent more than a century under colonial rule? Most of the answers I've heard to this question relate to the broader context of the Cold War. The support from the Soviet Union and China was decisive, or domestic dissent from the Communist-sympathizing left forced a premature American withdrawal. In contrast, Fitzgerald focuses almost exclusively on Vietnamese politics, history, and culture to explain why the war was always unwinnable. (Notably, this isn't a post-hoc justification, but a true prediction: the book was written in 1971, 4 years before North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon.) The book is opinionated and forcefully written, but not moralistic; the author treats everyone, from Vietnamese peasants to American high officials, not as villains and victims but as ordinary human beings trapped in a grand trends-and-forces narrative. Highly recommended; I don't see how you can understand the Vietnam War without reading this book or something like it. My (personal) summary: She makes the case that the Americans lost the war through a deadly feedback loop of cultural misunderstanding and agency problems. After the collapse of the French colonial regime, Vietnam's Confucian traditions required that a single leader and a single way of life (political and personal) win out in the entire country. When the Americans started intervening, the dominant candidate was Ho Chi Minh and his version of Communism. The United States simply failed to provide a credible alternative to Ho Chi Minh. The series of dictators they installed never managed to get significant popular support, and imprisoned or executed all the people who seemed capable of leading Vietnam in a "middle way" between Communism and American-supported military dictatorship. And without that credible alternative, nothing could win the war: not billions of dollars of aid (enough to provide a living wage to every person in South Vietnam at the time), not the greatest aerial bombing campaign the world has ever seen, not even the forced displacement of almost a third of the country's population into refugee camps.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Richard Subber

    I dont know how much of an audience there was for Fire in the Lake in 1972. I feel confident in guessing there wasnt enough. The American war in Vietnam was far from over in 1972 when FitzGerald wrote this densely researched journalistic review of U. S. policies and actions and ignorance in Southeast Asia. She makes it easier to understand why the American war effort was doomed from its earliest phase. Read Fire in the Lake to get the whole story as it was knowable in 1972. Be prepared to I don’t know how much of an audience there was for Fire in the Lake in 1972. I feel confident in guessing there wasn’t enough. The American war in Vietnam was far from over in 1972 when FitzGerald wrote this densely researched journalistic review of U. S. policies and actions and ignorance in Southeast Asia. She makes it easier to understand why the American war effort was doomed from its earliest phase. Read Fire in the Lake to get the whole story as it was knowable in 1972. Be prepared to acknowledge that much of what you previously believed—and thought you knew—was wrong. The American commitment to “containing Communism” was prominent, and, I believe, mostly sincere, albeit tragically uninformed. South Vietnam was the wrong place to try to “contain Communism.” There are more than 58,000 names on the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Read more of my book reviews and poems here: www.richardsubber.com

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Ozawa

    This was a bit of a slog, unfortunately. It was interesting and informative, and about a topic that is important to me, but there were times when it was overly wordy. I felt like the main ideas were spelled out and reiterated to a tiring degree.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Peter

    Francis FitzGeralds Fire in the Lake (1972) is a classic analysis of Vietnams history and culture. Written as the Vietnam War was winding down, it received the Pulitzer Prize as well as other major awards. That I have not read it until now, forty-five years later, testifies to a dismally woeful education. But to read it now, when I have a (slightly) better grasp of the issues, is very satisfying. This is a book that should have been more heavily incorporated into the recent The Viet Nam War Francis FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake (1972) is a classic analysis of Vietnam’s history and culture. Written as the Vietnam War was winding down, it received the Pulitzer Prize as well as other major awards. That I have not read it until now, forty-five years later, testifies to a dismally woeful education. But to read it now, when I have a (slightly) better grasp of the issues, is very satisfying. This is a book that should have been more heavily incorporated into the recent The Viet Nam War (2017), the PBS documentary by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick (an earlier PBS documentary was aired in 1983). FitzGerald explains why we in the West so dismally misunderstood the Vietnamese mind, leading us to place our bets in the wrong game and on the wrong people. We failed to distinguish between communism as seen by the Vietnamese and Communism, the religion-by-the-same-name, practiced in Russia; we misinterpreted Ho Chi Minh’s goals and tenacity. And, perhaps most important, we didn’t understand the differences between North and South in culture, politics, and society. For me, the value-added by Fire in the Lake is in its description of the historical and cultural differences between Vietnam’s north and south, differences that shaped the onset and progress of the Viet Nam War. China in Vietnam Vietnam was conquered by China around 200AD, an event that brought Chinese Confucian philosophy into Vietnamese culture. Confucius believed that when society was on the right path (Tao) the future and the past should be identical—normal traditions would be restored and reinforced by ritual. Novelties like technical innovation, foreign invasion, mass disease, internal unrest, and disorder could occur but they would be like “the Winds of Heaven,” that is, temporary forces that might cause the culture to bend from its norm but would eventually be tamed as traditions reasserted the norms. In Chinese Imperial times there were three institutions: the family, the village, and the emperor. Within—and between—each there were firm duties and responsibilities: the father was owed filial piety and the complete obedience of his wife; each member of a village was bound by strict codes of conduct in their relationships with others, and the chief was owed complete obedience. At the Imperial level, there were duties running between the villages and the Emperor—duties that were mediated by the mandarins who were the Emperor’s administrators and were promoted for their knowledge of and adherence to traditions. This strictly male hierarchy was essential to social stability. Until the seventeenth century the population of Vietnam was in the North, with the administrative center at Hanoi. The economy was primarily resource extraction and cottage production with international trading centered in the Red River Delta of the Gulf of Tonkin. Confucian philosophy was deeply ingrained in the North, an observation that helps explain the asceticism and discipline found there even now. But as the region population grew and arable land stayed fixed in the mountainous central and northern region, the Mekong Delta area in he agricultural south grew under the protection of warlords. The South began to take on its unique regional characteristics: primarily agricultural, Buddhist, plagued by banditry and corruption, with devotion to self-interest replacing community interest. The village-centric structure broke down and the family became the primary social unit. Thus, much later, South Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem was a family operation with the elite government slots fill by Ngos. By the mid-seventeenth century Viet Nam was partitioned into two warlord-led sections: the Trinh family held the North, with their capital and their emperor in Hanoi. The Nguyen family held the South with their capital and emperor in Saigon and, later, in Hue. This partition further exacerbated the breaking down of the simple family-village-emperor model because now, with two emperors, the Confucian construct was broken. These regional differences were very much in play during the Viet Nam War: in the North, a highly disciplined governmental hierarchy (with Ho Chi Minh standing in for an emperor), a disciplined army, and a commitment to community welfare; in the South a corrupt family-centric government with little interest in the general welfare in spite of the populist rhetoric of the Ngo regime. The French in Vietnam The development of Vietnam’s culture and economy was not just a matter of differences in resources and philosophy. The French had long had a trading relationship in southeast Asia and by 1884 their influence had grown so strong that France displaced the regional governors and created Indochine, a French colony that included Laos and Cambodia. French colonization, particularly in the agricultural south, created large French-owned plantations that turned the independent farmer into an employee with few rights. In the North the French had an industrial base centering on mining and smelting. European ideas of good governance differed dramatically from Vietnamese notions. The French introduced “rational” government management that emphasized European efficiency but was devoid of the Confucian emphasis on relationships. The French way of life—publicly affluent, neglectful of the people, and materialistic—broke down the social contract that had ensured stability and safety. And—possibly most important—French objectives in Indochina had nothing to do with general welfare: it was all about extracting resources and labor from the Vietnamese. Until 1902 the capital of Indochina was in Saigon; in 1902 it moved to Hanoi as French interests in the North increased. Throughout its governance of Indochina the French invested heavily in the region’s infrastructure—roads, bridges, electrical power in the cities—but little of that aided the Vietnamese: infrastructure costs were borne by taxes on peasants, and wages remained low as unskilled Vietnamese were readily available Thus, rents generated by the investments went largely to the users, that is, to the French. The resulting resentment was no small part of France’s legacy to Vietnam. During WWII Ho Chi Minh was a leader of a guerilla army fighting the Japanese; much of his training came from U.S. advisors. After the war he was a central figure in organizing the Viet Minh, a guerilla army largely drawn from the population in the south. His goal was to drive the French out of Vietnam and restore Vietnam’s national unity (a useful fiction). The Viet Minh became increasingly effective against the French and with U.S. assistance the French sought unsuccessfully to maintain their hegemony. The result was the First Indochina War from 1945 to 1954, when the French were pulverized by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu: the French defended themselves fiercely with their blood and U.S. money—at this time the U.S. was bearing eighty percent of France’s military costs in Indochina—but eventually they had to agree to a truce and commit to meeting with the Viet Minh to develop a permanent solution. The result was the 1954 Geneva Conference involving France, the Viet Minh, Russia, China, the U.S. and the U.K. Ho Chi Minh sought a united country governed by the Communist Party while his opponents favored a split of the country into two independent states: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The outcome was a compromise that was not a solution: a temporary split into two countries—the Viet Minh-led North and the “State of Vietnam” in the south—and an agreement to hold a referendum in 1956 to determine the question of national unity. This compromise satisfied both Ho Chi Minh, who was confident of victory in the referendum, and the U.S., which kicks the can down the road whenever possible. However, none of the major parties signed the agreement—the State of Vietnam and the U.S. refused because they correctly believed that the communists would win at the referendum; the north refused because the counterparties refused to sign the agreement, suggesting a poor foundation for trust. The State of Vietnam was led by Emperor Bao Dai, the Nguyen dynasty’s last emperor. Bao Dai’s adherence to Confucian principles was out of touch and he was isolated in his citadel at Hue. Understanding the inevitable brevity of his tenure, and already familiar through his travels with France as a place of residence, Bao Dai emigrated to France and abdicated in 1955, appointing Ngo Dinh Diem, his prime minister, as his successor. Diem was initially considered the bright light of the west and was staunchly supported by the U.S. But while Diem’s rhetoric endorsed democracy and the general welfare, his government became a family operation led by his brother Nhu, and heavily influenced by Nhu’s wife, called Madam Nhu. Nhu was a brutal enforcer of Ngo interests and became a lightning rod for public resentment. South Vietnam under Diem was dynastic, repressive, and corrupt; all characteristics that had separated the south from the north for so long. During Diem’s regime his repression of any opposition created backlash from many sources. Among them were the Buddhists and some religious “sects,” including Catholics (of which Diem was one) and several faux-Christian organizations (the Hao and the Hoa) that had developed a considerable following. These religious institutions became politicized and open, usually violent, protests began. Public resentment of the Diem regime boiled over in 1963 when a Buddhist bonze (monk) publicly toasted himself on a Saigon street. It was clear to all concerned—especially the U.S.—that Diem’s time was up. Accordingly, the Ngo family was assassinated by “parties unknown.” Diem’s demise created a vacuum filled by a sequence of increasingly corrupt and ineffective Vietnamese presidents. The National Liberation Front After the Geneva Convention the Viet Minh was disbanded, but following the cancellation of the 1956 referendum Ho Chi Minh understood that force was the only path to national unity. In 1960 a political-military entity—the National Liberation Front (NLF), popularly known as the Viet Cong—was created to operate in South Vietnam, manned largely by former Viet Minh. Following the North's tradition of treating political victories as equal in significance to military victories, the NLF was a political organization with its own guerilla army. Both the NLF and the North's army (the NVA) had the same command structure with Ho Chi Minh at the top but different mandates: the NVA was a defensive force focused on maintaining order in the north; the Viet Cong was an offensive force projecting the North’s influence into the South. The Viet Cong’s members were primarily southern peasants and included many former Viet Minh members. During the last three years of Diem’s regime the NLF engaged in training and in attacks in rural areas where the fruit hung low. When U. S. intervention escalated in 1965, the NVA became increasingly involved in the south where the contest between the Viet Cong and joint U. S.-ARVN forces intensified. A major change in North Vietnam’s tactics began in 1968 with a series of attacks on sixty South Vietnamese cities, including Hue and Saigon; the North hoped that by bringing the cities into the fray it would benefit from a popular uprising in the South. The U.S. had noticed the massing of large Viet Cong units, but intelligence said that the targets were military bases; the base at Khe Sanh was thought the most likely target. But the first grand battle was at Dak To, a total surprise to the U.S. and the South, as were later attacks on the cities. In part because of intelligence failures the First Tet Offensive was a surprise and a temporary setback for the U.S. The temporary VC-NVA occupation of Hue and Saigon was a public relations disaster for the U.S. and a mortal disaster for the citizens of Hue. Fitzgerald argues that the NLF was a very disciplined force trained to understand that it relied on popular support and that doing harm to village peasants was anathema. The NLF was targeted in its use of terror: it identified individuals who stood in its way and targeted them individually, always aware of possible collateral damage. The South was less disciplined and its violence was more random; the more liberal use of terror and execution, bringing it to entire villages that were NLF-dominated, turned the sympathies of southern peasants against South Vietnam and toward the NLF. The one departure from this was in Hue, an early victim of Tet. The Viet Cong who occupied Hue went on a killing spree that was recently described in the book Hue: 1968. Five thousand citizens (FitzGerald says 3,000), most who had little political attachments, many who had simply worked for the South Vietnam government, were brutally murdered and cast into mass graves. Ultimately Tet was a military defeat for the Viet Cong made worse by the necessity to throw NVA units into the effort as U.S. countermeasures grew. But the North Vietnamese view that political victories and military victories were both important was born out in the end: the U.S. suffered a political defeat as domestic public opinion shifted against the war. There is much more in this book, but space prevents its coverage. Anyone interested in the Viet Nam War should read this. Five Stars.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jay Wright

    This is an excellent work on the society in Vietnam and why the US did not have a chance. While it shows that militarily, we were winning, it shows that failures in the winning the war meant that Vietnam was unable to field a competent government in the South. The Viet Cong did not lose because the US and its allies offered no viable alternative. Quite frankly, there appears to have been no way to win this one. Three are great insights into the Eastern mind. Loved it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    From vietnamwar.net "Frances FitzGerald was not quite 32 years of age when her first book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972), was published to immediate and extraordinary praise. Fire in the Lake was hailed for its "stunning clarity" by one reviewer and as "one of the best descriptions and analyses of Vietnam ever published in English" by another. TIME magazine was impressed that she had achieved "so fresh a blend of compassion and intelligence," and even the From vietnamwar.net "Frances FitzGerald was not quite 32 years of age when her first book, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972), was published to immediate and extraordinary praise. Fire in the Lake was hailed for its "stunning clarity" by one reviewer and as "one of the best descriptions and analyses of Vietnam ever published in English" by another. TIME magazine was impressed that she had achieved "so fresh a blend of compassion and intelligence," and even the conservative National Review, which loathed it, predicted accurately that her book would "become gospel for the anti-war movement." The young woman whose career had just taken such a remarkable turn was a journalist with a remarkable family and personal background. Her father, Desmond FitzGerald, was a deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an expert on Southeast Asia. Her mother, Mary Endicott Peabody FitzGerald Tree, was a former American ambassador to the United Nations. FitzGerald herself had graduated from Radcliffe College with a BA, magna cum laude, in 1962. Five years later she won the first of many honors, an Overseas Press Club award for best interpretation of foreign affairs. FitzGerald prepared herself for the work to come by visiting Vietnam twice as a free-lance journalist, for a total of 16 months, and by studying Chinese and Vietnamese history and culture under Paul Mus, to whom, as also to the memory of her father, she would dedicate Fire in the Lake. Its publication resulted not only in superb reviews but in a whole series of honors including a Pulitzer Prize for contemporary affairs writing, a National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize for historical writing—all in 1973. The Vietnam War was still strongly affecting America's political and cultural life at this time, and a good book on it was bound to win unusual attention. The Bancroft Prize, for example, is normally given to a professional scholar rather than a journalist. But while the times partly explain her book's success, FitzGerald had earned it also, not by disclosing new information, but by viewing Vietnam from a different perspective. More than half of her book was devoted to explaining how the National Liberation Front (NLF or the Viet Cong, to most Americans) had adapted itself to Vietnam's unique culture and traditions. As she explained it, Marxism did not clash with local values. Rather, it was highly compatible with Confucianism, the basis of Vietnam's way of life, with the Communist party replacing the emperor as the source of wisdom and leadership. FitzGerald greatly admired the NLF. Although she acknowledged that it had committed atrocities and that land "reform" in North Vietnam entailed considerable brutality, she minimized the NLF's actions. Her book is not even-handed by any means, but for a work of advocacy is reliable."

  19. 4 out of 5

    Julian Friend

    Parts of this are extremely satisfying. Her understanding of the Buddhist resistance is lucid...from its early verve to its suicidal dissipation. Her use of the Prospero and Caliban analogy is very compelling. Parts get tediously mired in detail. Good on her for being thorough, but some of this stuff doesn't age so well. Vietnamese politics is not so interesting when dissected so, and she is at times redundant. She's remarkably impartial in describing American behavior, but less so when Parts of this are extremely satisfying. Her understanding of the Buddhist resistance is lucid...from its early verve to its suicidal dissipation. Her use of the Prospero and Caliban analogy is very compelling. Parts get tediously mired in detail. Good on her for being thorough, but some of this stuff doesn't age so well. Vietnamese politics is not so interesting when dissected so, and she is at times redundant. She's remarkably impartial in describing American behavior, but less so when describing the Vietnamese-American relationship. Perhaps she strived too hard to appear impartial, and thus ends up being an advocate for the Vietnamese. Let's just call it what it is. In a minor example of this, she takes a doctor to task for calling the Vietnamese ungrateful. He had volunteered his services in a village and then, after helping several members of one family, asked if he could have a beer. He was told that he could buy one for the price that all Americans paid. This frustrated him. The author chides him for failing to see the contradiction in his own attitude (offering free help....which actually wasn't free: gratitude was expected), or his very presence as a sign of all the problems in Vietnam. However, the author fails to mention that the host was also projecting the macro problem onto a singular situation (this doctor = america). In this case, the objectification was happening from both sides, and the failing in both attitudes should be pointed out.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    This book is superb. I hesitated for a moment to give it five stars because it's so dense that at times I had to motivate myself to keep plowing through, but how could an in-depth analysis of the cultural, political, economic, military and other aspects of the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnam in the Vietnam War era not be heavy reading? I'd never heard of the book or of Fitzgerald before (not my fault, he says hopefully: I was born in 1983), but picked it up in advance of a 3-week This book is superb. I hesitated for a moment to give it five stars because it's so dense that at times I had to motivate myself to keep plowing through, but how could an in-depth analysis of the cultural, political, economic, military and other aspects of the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnam in the Vietnam War era not be heavy reading? I'd never heard of the book or of Fitzgerald before (not my fault, he says hopefully: I was born in 1983), but picked it up in advance of a 3-week visit to Vietnam. As I passed through places like Saigon, the Mekong Delta, and Hue, it was fascinating to look up from the pages of my book to see just how much has changed in the intervening years. For anyone wanting a better understanding of the Vietnam War -- and a better perspective on the folly and hubris Washington and the Pentagon still demonstrate in Iraq and Afghanistan today, read this book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Tripp

    An outstanding book of history that remains relevant years after it was published. Fitzgerald skewers the American approach to war in Vietnam. She shows how poorly the country understood the war it was fighting. They misunderstood the role of the S Vietnamese government, the role of ARVN and the motivation to join the NLF. In a severe case of mirror imaging, they acted as if the Vietnamese were just itching to turn into Junior Americans. The subservient role is critical, as the the Americans An outstanding book of history that remains relevant years after it was published. Fitzgerald skewers the American approach to war in Vietnam. She shows how poorly the country understood the war it was fighting. They misunderstood the role of the S Vietnamese government, the role of ARVN and the motivation to join the NLF. In a severe case of mirror imaging, they acted as if the Vietnamese were just itching to turn into Junior Americans. The subservient role is critical, as the the Americans undertook essentially colonialist attitudes. The relevance should be quite clear. This book could be turned slightly to be an indictment of US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Doug Hyden

    Rereading this magesterial treatment of the Vietnam War. It has the reputation of being one of the best books on the war despite its having been released 3 years before the war "officially" ended. It remains the best book on the war I've ever read (with Noam Chomsky's Reconsidering Camelot coming in second).

  23. 4 out of 5

    Evan

    It's hard to rate this book - it's very well written, and engaging, and thought-provoking. But it's really really long, and not as timely as it was when it first came out. At the time, I'm sure I'd rate it higher, but now it's a book I put down, having exhausted my interest in the inner workings of small Viet Nam villages in the 1960s after 400 pages.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kenneth

    This impressive, magisterial book on the Vietnam War seems like a suitable end, for now, to this particular reading phase of mine. It's quite a remarkable book and incredibly information-rich but you pay a price: it's very dense and not a straightforward read. It does strike me as entirely worthy of its Pulitzer.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Willem

    Fascinating read even after more than forty years since publication. In 1972 the author couldn't foresee the disappointment and misery (not to mention death toll) the take-over by North Vietnam would later cause. So politically it seems sort of naive left wing, although the rest of the book, the historical and cultural content is very sophisticated.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Peter Podbielski

    Forty years ago in 1978 I first read "Fire in the Lake." This remains a disturbing reread. Fitzgerald's outline of American's failures in Viet Nam can easily apply to this nation's approach to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Dismal and disconcerting.

  27. 4 out of 5

    P.

    Absolutely fascinating. I'm glad I didn't look at the title page prior to completely reading the book -- my "priors" might have changed my reading of the book had I realized when it was written. I can certainly see how this informed the design of the eponymous game by GMT.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Adam Koebel

    1) Confucianism is so alien to the way my western brain thinks. 2) The Vietnam war was some fucked up shit in ways I didn't even know. Like, surreal culture-ignorant ways. 3) This book was dense as fuck.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Shawn

    It is difficult for me to review books where I profoundly disagree with the arguments and conclusions of the author. On the one hand I do not want my political biases to downplay what the author has presented well such as her arguments, her language and the organization of the book. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and has largely formed the typical consensus of American public appear on the Vietnam War. It was well received and now is a s standard text. Unfortunately, I was not impressed. Ms. It is difficult for me to review books where I profoundly disagree with the arguments and conclusions of the author. On the one hand I do not want my political biases to downplay what the author has presented well such as her arguments, her language and the organization of the book. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and has largely formed the typical consensus of American public appear on the Vietnam War. It was well received and now is a s standard text. Unfortunately, I was not impressed. Ms. Fritzgerald argues that JFK and Johnson were both mistakenly obsessed with the “Domino Theory” regarding the spread of Communism throughout South East Asia. I certainly agree the Domino Theory did not come to pass as feared but I do not think this outcome was a clear in the 1960s as it is today. The domino theory had occurred in that same geographic region as recently as 1942 with the Japanese reaching the border of India. It is tough to take her argument seriously that no “thinking Person” would consider the reoccurrence of a modern “domino theory” as remotely plausible. North Vietnam was the most well equipped and militarily capable nation is Southeast Asia. They had extremely close trade and intelligence relations with Russia and China and the Communist Party was firmly in charge of that nation. The People’s Liberation Front or VC was disciplined and highly motivated. The Republic of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand certainly had much to fear. In reading this book it is hard to see if Ms. Fritzgerald ever felt the VC or North Vietnamese were guilty of war crimes. She actually states the VC was consistently nice to the villagers. What???!! Their units operated at night and employed terror as a standard tactic. Rice procured at gunpoint sustained the Việt Cộng. Squads were assigned monthly assassination quotas Government employees, especially village and district heads, were the most common targets. But there were a wide variety of targets, including clinics and medical personnel. Notable Việt Cộng atrocities include the massacre of over 3,000 unarmed civilians at Huế, 48 killed in the bombing of My Canh floating restaurant in Saigon in June 1965 and a massacre of 252 Montagnards in the village of Đắk Sơn in December 1967 using flamethrowers. Việt Cộng death squads assassinated at least 37,000 civilians in South Vietnam; the real figure was far higher since the data mostly cover 1967-72. They also waged a mass murder campaign against civilian hamlets and refugee camps; in the peak war years, nearly a third of all civilian deaths were the result of Việt Cộng atrocities Ami Pedahzur has written that "the overall volume and lethality of Vietcong terrorism rivals or exceeds all but a handful of terrorist campaigns waged over the last third of the twentieth century". This book has some admirable quality such as pointing out the deteriorating social fabric of a nation embroiled in a lengthy war, however it is biased and one sided. The reader learns little of the chronology of the fighting and few battles are discussed. I am a bit shocked that Ms. Fritzgerald could claim to have such insight into the nation when she could not even speak or reading Vietnamese. That is probably why her reasons and insight between difference between Chinese and Vietnamese politics are so clunky. The book ends in just prior to the Paris Agreement and the withdrawal of US troops. Brought to the negotiating table by Nixon’s massive bombing campaign of the North, a cease fire was agreed upon and then the US withdrew after reaching a status of forces agreement with the South. The US Congress reneged on the status of forces of agreement and Nixon was unable to expend political capitol because he was beset by Watergate. The North broke the Cease Fire and invaded defeating Saigon and instituting a reign of terror. The new People’s Republic of Vietnam installed the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and continued the violence in Laos. After the Killing Fields, Pol Pot unwisely invaded Vietnam and the People Republic Army had him deposed. China and Vietnam engaged in a brutal and ultimately inconclusive border war that pushed Vietnam to normalizing relations with its former enemies. After the fall of the Soviet Union Vietnam has probably become the closest American partner still claiming to be Communist. None of these circumstances were considered possibilities in Ms. Fritzgerald’s book because she was not analyzing the Vietnam War but pushing her own vision of American Imperialism on the events in South East Asia. It is obvious she did not interview that floods of refugees created by the “nice” VC. I will continue to read books on the war but I will stick to academic historians such as Max Hastings or Mark Bowden.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rhuff

    This still remains the best journalistic product of the American invasion of Vietnam and Indochina. It was the first detailed account of the wars failure to see print in the mainstream press. Until then major media had either followed the State Department and Pentagon line, or split the difference. The anti-war or war-critical opposition was effectively marginalized as pinkos or worse, until so much stuff had hit the fans no one could dodge it. Frances Fitzgerald logically demonstrated, point This still remains the best journalistic “product” of the American invasion of Vietnam and Indochina. It was the first detailed account of the war’s failure to see print in the mainstream press. Until then major media had either followed the State Department and Pentagon line, or split the difference. The anti-war – or war-critical – opposition was effectively marginalized as “pinkos” or worse, until so much stuff had hit the fans no one could dodge it. Frances Fitzgerald logically demonstrated, point by point, using available evidence ignored by official commentary, how a war to save the Vietnamese from Communism became one to save American prestige for itself, and thus self-destructed. It was the logic of colonialism, even racism: as she stated, tactics of artillery bombardment rather than ground patrols in populated areas or chemical warfare were not used in liberating Europe during WW II (just as atomic weapons were also reserved for “barbaric” Asians who could not value human life.) The major strategic weakness of her book is that it could not be published until 1972, when the war had ground to a halt. Its perceptions had no possibility of influencing policy planners, and indeed no longer mattered to a lost cause. Even the Back Bay edition’s back cover blurb hedges the message, describing “how America utterly and tragically misinterpreted the realities of Vietnam.” It was more than that: a willful blindness, based on the desire to construct its own reality out of thin air and impose it by force. It was this self-deception that led to self-defeat. In “saving” Vietnam from the “totalitarian Stalinists” of the Communist bloc, it imposed a devastation worse than anything any Communist regime would have dared inflict; in the name of freedom, democracy, rule of law, and nation-building, as always. Another criticism I have is Fitzgerald’s lengthy digressions into Vietnamese traditionalism as shaping its social expectations. As she admits, the Vietnam of the 1950s was already emerging from this village-Confucian system. The attitudes and beliefs she describes are no different *in kind* than the Western traditionalism of – for instance - Georgian England of 200 years ago, when individualism and revolution began challenging the sense of “all in their place under Heaven.” She is echoing the reductionism of French intellectuals, her original mentors to Indochina, and falls into all their clichés. Time was not kind to her predictions. The South’s NLF did not emerge as an independent force: it was subsumed in the North’s “Anschluss” exactly as (ironically) another satellite regime, East Germany, would be 15 years later. And also ironically the free-wheeling culture of Saigon - despite its cosmetic name-change - would in turn swallow the puritan North. The individualism, profit-seeking and Westernization introduced by the Americans would prove too “corrupting.” In this way the US actually “won” the war after all. This new edition ends with her return to unified Vietnam after the cold war, when consumerism and tradition emerge from the shadow of Uncle Ho. Here she falls into the triumphalist trap common to the period, seeing little of value in the “failed regime.” Vietnamese communism did not “break down” as such, but was a victim of its time as was the GVN before it. These new external pressures have also not been for the best in Vietnamese society, despite promises made by bright-eyed zealots believing they know “the end of history.” She also slights the underpinning of a US military-industrial complex kept employed by war; this corruption was also conveniently overlooked by American policy wonks, civilian and military, dependent on this same cash cow while blaming the Vietnamese for dependency and greed. But Fitzgerald’s book remains a powerful indictment of the fatuous vanity that led the United States to launch its “show war” in Indochina. This is why I have such little use for the de rigueur bashing of the Khmer Rouge by Western academics: another side-stepping of the West’s own mass violence inflicted, as always, for the victim’s own good. One would suppose - after this book's widespread reception, its devastating insights into the "Vietnam mentality" - someone in Washington would think twice about new such adventures and interventions. However, the Reagan years erased what conscience remained in the American neo-cortex. It's only grown worse since. The kind of critique Fitzgerald makes here is now unthinkable in an era of worshipping boots, no matter whose ground they tread.

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