What would Frances FitzGerald say today? Her Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award/Bancroft Prize for History-winning book Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972, ISBN 0-679-72394-3) was published in 1972. The U.S. still maintained a military presence there, and Nixon was still in power. Today’s visitors to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City are hard-pressed to find any outward sign of communism among the mercantile establishments that define inner Saigon.
Today, those reading this landmark book do so primarily to understand Vietnam prior to the ending of the American War. FitzGerald’s study is exhaustive, perhaps too much so, as she tends to belabor many of her main points along this 554 page highway. Her writing style is on the dry side, and this is no quick read. What makes this book compelling is her explanation of Vietnamese society in all its permutations: country vs. city, old vs. new, communist vs. traditional, north vs. south, and Buddhist vs. Catholic, to name a few. Corruption is at the heart of her description of South Vietnamese politics, accelerated by the vast sums of money imported into the country by the United States. It defines a cookbook for the failure of a policy intended to save a country from a political philosophy disliked by a foreign power, in this case not a colonialist entity (Vietnam had nothing the U.S. wished to purloin or import).
She predicts that Vietnam would unite under one political philosophy, although she wasn’t sure of its make-up, and one gets the feeling she might have been surprised by the maelstrom of the helicopter evacuations from atop the U.S. embassy. If the Western reader wishes to attempt to understand Vietnam, this book remains important, although it’s over 40 years old. Vietnam today is a fascinating mixture of avarice, traditional culture, mercantilism, corruption, and yes, communism (try to start a business, you’ll see what we mean). It’s unique, wonderful, and frustrating, and FitzGerald’s book provides a still-relevant explanation of what makes the country tick. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.