“Fire in the Lake”:  Forum on Frances Fitzgerald’s 1972 book The Vietnamese and the Americans - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History

“Fire in the Lake”:

Forum on Frances Fitzgerald’s 1972 book The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam



Editorial Introduction


1972 book cover

Still reflected upon with uncertainty, the Vietnam War remains a tragic and controversial failure in American history. As American involvement intensified during the late 1960s, atrocities slowly unfolded overseas and protest quickly escalated at home.  In 1972, before the withdrawal of American troops, Frances Fitzgerald published Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Throughout the book the young journalist strongly denounced American involvement in the war, providing over 400 pages of cultural analysis to argue that the American government overlooked ancient Vietnamese history and subsequently waged a fundamentally ineffective war. Before the fall of South Vietnam, Fitzgerald even predicted the eventual victory of the communist-nationalist forces of North Vietnam in 1975.Fire in the Lake received widespread critical acclaim and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Now, over four decades later, the debate continues amidst ongoing reinterpretations of the legacy of the Vietnam War.  The essays in this collection explore the various historical implications of Fitzgerald’s considerable contribution to historiographyfrom the perspective of the next generation of readers.  Brought together, they demonstrate that though the conflict is over in time, its impact still looms in history and memory.




Ashes in the Wake: Frances Fitzgerald’s Enumeration of America’s Disillusionment in Vietnam


Eric A. Curry

Armstrong State University



the author, photo
from nyihumanities.org

Frances Fitzgerald’s book strives to answer why the United States had already lost the war before it had officially ended.  Instead of focusing on the military history or tactics of the conflict, Fitzgerald’s work emphasizes cultural history in order to explain the Vietnamese and American experiences during the conflict.  As a Westerner who had been to Vietnam, Fitzgerald witnessed the direct consequences of American military, political, economic, and social policies as implemented on the ground. Arguing that the United States lost the war due to its failure to effectively navigate the established Eastern culture and values inherent in Vietnamese society, Fitzgerald’s book is intended to enlighten its Western audience with the dynamics of Vietnamese society, and to a larger degree, explain how American policy and dogma failed to harness those dynamics.



Derived from the classic Chinese text, I Ching (The Book of Changes), Fitzgerald’s title, Fire in the Lake, signifies a cleansing fire that burns away corruption and vice.  The cleansing fire represents revolution as it relates to the Eastern belief of the “Tianming” or “Mandate of Heaven.”  After one leader loses the mandate, revolution ensues; civilization is destroyed and fragmented in the process; and then when the mandate is restored, society is able to rebuild anew with a clean slate.  This concept has saturated Vietnamese society for centuries as its historical background consists of numerous foreign occupations under the Chinese, French, Japanese, French (again), and Americans.  Therefore, in order to make Westerners cognizant of the longevity of the Vietnamese struggle for independence and by extension, a form of national identity, Fitzgerald attempts to breakdown Western understandings of communism, the Vietnamese people, and traditional Eastern values.  Breaking down these misconceptions and misinterpretations presents Fitzgerald with a blank canvas upon which she paints a meaningful and unique portrait of both the Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam.


Therefore, the essence of Fitzgerald’s work strives to bring Western-oriented readers into better understanding and harmony with traditional Eastern values espoused by filial piety, ancestor worship, and the concept of the mandate of heaven.  Fitzgerald accomplishes this task by arguing that in order to truly dissect the American experience in Vietnam, Western scholars must first consider issues regarding Vietnam judiciously, pragmatically, and holistically.  Furthermore, Fitzgerald reasons that if US policymakers considered Vietnamese matters with such delicacy, instead of relying upon Johnson’s and McNamara’s callous and dry cut calculations, traditional Eastern social constructions could have been effectively manipulated in order to further American objectives.  However, Fitzgerald later reveals that the United States was unable to do this due to its presumption of Communism as a monolithic entity—completely overlooking the ramifications of events such as the Sino-Soviet Spilt (which Nixon and Kissinger eventually grasped and seized the opportunity to play China and the Soviet Union off on one another).


While the typically Western colonizers such as the British, French, and Americans endeavored to modernize parts of Asia, a clashing between Eastern and Western values quickly arose.  The values expounded in Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist philosophies diametrically opposed Western ideologies such as capitalism, modernization, and individualism.  After decades of European intervention in Asia, and particularly French activities in Vietnam, the United States never appreciated the importance of Eastern principles that permeated nearly all facets of Vietnamese culture and lifestyle.  These traditional Eastern principles were fragmented by Western attempts to bring Vietnam into modernity, and as a result, local social conventions, economies, and politics became disjointed after coming into contact with the modernized colonizers.


Her emphasis on cultural history also reveals the various “states of mind” and motives of specific individuals, policymakers, and communities acting as agents in the Vietnam conflict.  This is why Fitzgerald spends a great deal of her book discussing various viewpoints held by the Vietnamese.  Whether examining the NLF (National Liberation Front for South Vietnam), ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam), or the numerous cultural, economic, and social distinctions between life in North Vietnam as opposed to life in South Vietnam (in particular Saigon), Fitzgerald tries to bring Western-minded individuals into the universe of Eastern-thinking people. 


An example Fitzgerald posits is the American’s failure to identify the cultural, economic, and politically significant role villages played in Vietnamese society.  As cultural hubs, villages were central to the Vietnamese society and this enabled the NLF to propagate the icon of the village onto a national level as a beacon that fostered communal and nationalist sentiments. As Fitzgerald explains, “The problems of the village were, finally, national problems, and the NLF alone among the southern political groups offered a solution on a national scale” (179).


However, Fitzgerald tends to depict the NLF rather romantically, arguably even placing the Viet Cong on a pedestal.  Nonetheless, her narrative is chiefly concerned with exposing how US attempts to modernize, industrialize, and democratize Vietnam alienated members of the NLF in the first place, but also how these efforts corrupted the people of South Vietnam—particularly the residents of Saigon.  Therefore, Fitzgerald’s interpretation of, “the arrival of American regulars in Vietnam [as] a demonstration, if such was necessary, of the failure of a decade of American policy in Vietnam” (260) indicates continuous and failed attempts by the US to enact Western policy to govern an Eastern people.  A capitalist society that promotes individualism and worships at the altar of the self, trying to establish control over a culture that values community and comprises people that speak a language, which lacks a word for “I,” would indeed prove to be an inharmonious and conflicting effort for both parties.


This causes Fitzgerald to explore the effect that thousands of American troops arriving in South Vietnam had upon the culture, economics, and politics in the region.  Although many Saigonese survived and prospered through accommodation, Fitzgerald concludes that these events corrupt the people and pervert the culture. Compared to the village life, the heartbeat of Vietnamese society, Saigon was so far removed from the countryside that it created a disconnection between the two diverging sects of society.  While the source of identity in the majority of Vietnam remained the village “dinh” or “ancestral spirit,” increasingly Saigon’s identity became warped and confused as the city reeled from its exposure to modernity.


Fitzgerald portrays the American leadership as out of touch with the situation on the ground in Vietnam. She asserts that various misconceptions regarding the NLF and North Vietnamese as members of an extreme Marxist camp ultimately prompted American involvement in Vietnam in order to uphold its policy of containment and prevent the Domino Theory from transpiring.  Consequently, Fitzgerald affirms that if the United States truly grasped the repercussions of the Sino-Soviet spilt and extrapolated it to the Vietnamese and their struggle to remain out of the Chinese sphere of influence, as well as the influence of any foreign power, the United States might have realized that the NLF was using Marxism only as a tool in its struggle for independence and national identity.


Accordingly, Fitzgerald indicates that, “the Vietnam War was not a civil war; it was a revolutionary war that had raged throughout the entire country since 1945” (146).  Failure to understand this lesson and the lessons of other nations that engaged in interventionism and counterinsurgency operations denotes a system of self-interest that “created a complete circle of self-deception that began and ended in the office of the President of the United States” (365).Hence, the American effort to modernize, industrialize, and democratize Vietnam was subverted and destroyed not only by the NLF and North Vietnamese, but primarily by its own ignorance of Vietnamese culture, society, customs, and traditions.



Fire in the Lake: A Misrepresentation of Vietnamese History


Danielle Fialkowski

Armstrong State University


In her book, Fitzgerald writes one the most detailed and helpful accounts of Vietnamese culture and history of her time, however, it is not without flaws. She makes generalizations about the Northern and Southern Vietnamese citizens, and uses simplistic reasoning for difficult and entangled Vietnamese customs.


The first part of Fitzgerald’s book is about the Vietnamese and their way of life. For someone who does not have knowledge of such a subject, this segment is difficult to get through. The author assumes that the reader has some background information about Vietnam history, and she therefore hits the ground running. Her study is detailed, but to the point of confusion. She continuously jumps from one period of time to another, and leaves it up to the reader to keep all the details in line. When Fitzgerald discusses Confucianism and the importance of the religion to the Vietnamese, she writes in a detailed fashion and makes the reader connect the various dots of her incoherent argument.


The recurrent themes explored are the father-son relationship dynamic in Vietnam, and the connection to land that the Vietnamese find sacred. She returns to these ideas because they help demonstrate why the Americans were unsuccessful in Vietnam, but she fails to convey a deeper understanding as to why they are important. Often in the first portion of the book, Fitzgerald writes something about the Vietnamese and expects the reader to accept it at face value. She does not expand on the reasoning behind such Vietnamese customs. She writes something that is of her own opinion, and expects the reader to accept it as fact simply because she has written it in a book.


This lack of explanation is also connected with the absence of scholarly research. One gleaming example is her treatment of General Nguyen Khanh, who she states was born in the North, but then contradicts herself on page 249 when she states, “General Khanh’s mother had owned a bar for French soldiers in Dalat,” which was located in South Vietnam. Another research mistake came later when she said that Dr. Pham Khac Suu was in “his nineties and… elderly” (257), but in reality he was in his fifties when Fitzgerald was writing her book. Once these mistakes are noticed it is hard to see the book as a reliable source of information. When facts are so clearly ignored, or not researched, it discredits her arguments for the entire book. It plants doubt in the reader’s mind about her research and writing when they are able to pick out such discrepancies in her book.  


Fitzgerald is grossly biased, and it is clearly shown in the second half of her book. She depicts how South Vietnam was completely corrupted by the American presence, asserting that the South turned its back on tradition, and became modern and industrialized. She ignores the fact that a Communist leader had come to power, and that he was also changing the traditions of the North. She sympathizes with the North and slants her argument toward the pro-northern, pro-Communist state. She cannot show the “effect of the American presence and the war of Vietnamese society” when she only writes about the South. Therefore, she does not achieve the goal she states in the preface because she leaves the North out of the argument. She gives very little insight into how the North was affected by the American presence. Her bias toward the North discredits everything she says about the South because she is blinded by her sympathetic feelings. When she says that the South was corrupted because of the move toward modernization it makes the reader wonder if it really was corrupt, or does she just believe that because the North did not modernize, and therefore never understood the reason the South changed.


As a whole, the author is not consistent with her description of Vietnam. After spending the entire first half of the book describing the Vietnamese culture and traditions, she then depicts the two regions as completely unrelated. This can be confusing for the reader because after over two hundred pages of history about the nation of Vietnam as a whole, the country is then treated as two different entities. Certainly actions were taken that did indeed separate the two countries from one another, but both factions had the same history. Each region held the belief that land was sacred and that one’s village defined who s/he was. Furthermore, all Vietnamese sons had the same image of and respect for their fathers. The nation was divided by political differences, but that does not mean that Fitzgerald should ignore the North. She changed her tactic from describing how Vietnam was once a homogenous nation to showing just how splintered it became.


Frances Fitzgerald tried to write an in-depth study of Vietnamese culture and tradition, along with the effects that the American presence and war had on them, but failed. She has a highly slanted view on the outcome of the war, and blames the American presence and South Vietnam for the issues that arose during as well as after it. Although the book is well written, it is riddled with ambiguity, mistruths, and bias.



J’ai Assimilé: A Perspective on Frances Fitzgerald’s Cultural Interpretation


Victoria Do

Armstrong State University


France Fitzgerald arrived in Vietnam in 1966, a time of great disillusionment for the American public. The American government was in the throes of the Cold War, defending democracy against the threat of a global communist takeover.  The American involvement in Vietnam was thus pitched to the American public under this guise.  Evidence to the contrary however started to emerge as the atrocities unfolded and filtered through the headline media. Vietnam, supposedly under threat of a violent invading communist invasion of terror turned out to be, as Fitzgerald relays, a peasant country in the midst of an unremitting nationalist revolution.  What is worse, the Americans were losing dreadfully.  Officials in Washington lied to the American public about its Vietnam policy at a very terrible human cost and Fitzgerald set out to pull back the curtain of misconception about the Vietnamese in this book. She gives an in-depth and perceptive treatise grounded in Vietnam’s ancient and colonized past.  Despite her use of overbearing social-psychology theories, Frances Fitzgerald vividly places the history of South Vietnam in much needed cultural context to reveal the Vietnam War as the inevitable consequence of immoral destruction by dominating outside forces.


The havoc wrought by Americans in Vietnam is now well cited.  At the time of writing though, Fitzgerald lays out the gross logical errors committed, as was painfully obvious only to innocent eyewitnesses initially.  Washington claimed to be supporting a government of South Vietnam but it was in fact waging a hugely inefficient military counterinsurgency with disastrous collateral damage.  The sweeping economic support funds were disproportionately funneled in to the military without creating any meaningful foundation for nation-building or independent development.  In the face of this, the corrupt South Vietnamese puppet regimes rendered themselves ineffective.  Humanitarian concerns were egregiously overlooked as well.  Chemical weapons, excessive bombing, and body count defined the unprecedented mode of warfare aimed at attrition.  Large amounts of refugees were displaced from their ancestral homes further burdening the relief resources and the war effort.  The worst part that Fitzgerald powerfully conveys is how this increasingly led to a volatile political build up that spiraled downward due to the constant policy renewal and optimistic denial emanating from the American mission in Saigon and Washington.  The welfare of the Vietnamese became inconsequential in that unfortunate mindset.


Fitzgerald unpacks this mindset to show how misguided it was and how seriously the nature of the circumstances of the subjugated country was overlooked by the Americans regarding Vietnam.  Ultimately, she portrays the Americans as blubbering, crusading, imperialistic, western barbarians cranking out a military industrial machine with no regard.  To offset this, she portrays the Vietnamese as introverted, holistic, traditional, Asian peasants desperate to preserve the only idea of community they can fathom.  She does this with the poignant journalistic verve necessary to accomplish this classically ambitious task of west versus east, progressive versus circular, new versus old.  Most significantly, this sporadically reductionist dichotomy does successfully cut across the prevailing one of democratic good versus communist evil during the Cold War that characteristically constrained the public discourse and mental framework at the time.


Fitzgerald thus thoroughly reorients the targeted American reader’s comprehension by completely framing her argument in Confucian philosophy, generously quoting the I Ching as it was, according to her, traditionally handed down to the Vietnamese from distant Chinese ancestors. The construct of filial piety that expands out from the family to society is inherent to understanding the world view of the average Vietnamese individual as relegated to a specific place in a collectivistic culture.  She most insightfully explains this as it is expressed in the linguistically determinate pronouns; people refer to each other according to their relationships and consequently conceptualize each other along those indicative lines, hence the vague absence and concept of the individual I pronoun.  Where Fitzgerald seems to overreach her authority on the subject is in her appropriation of the Mandate of Heaven to numerous events.  She relays it as an authoritarian religious ideology that confines its followers to a closed all-inclusive system which, while in various historical periods may have been true to varying degrees, runs the risk of her personally making claims for an entire group’s beliefs as static and doomed to ignorance and ancestor adulation.  She also fails to see the difference in observation that would manifest between the Confucian experiences of being formally schooled as a mandarin compared to that of growing up illiterate in a village.


Nonetheless, the agrarian communal dynamic proves paramount in comprehending the renewable strength of the Vietnamese nationalist force rooted in the villages. Vietnam was and still is a country largely built on agrarian villages comprising a deeply inculcated way of living amongst its people. This in many ways is visible in Confucian values that cemented in a communal hierarchy that likewise tied villages to the land of their ancestors creating autonomous locales preserved over enduring generations of family lineage.  This demographic then came to represent the historical legacy and majority of the population.  Fitzgerald aptly makes this connection between the people and their land that is wholly significant to the developments of the Vietnam War.


Thus with the arrival of the French, the foreign political forces of colonialism profoundly disrupted the Vietnamese social fabric in a way that set a new class of elites, namely Catholics, landlords and civil servants, up to fail upon the arrival of American forces.  In reaction, other sects emerge creating lots of tension, a Pandora’s Box, as Fitzgerald often calls it.  Essentially implanting westernized institutions in the cities, the French imposed an economic network that exploited the Vietnamese of the countryside.  Fitzgerald makes this city-village rift nascent, explaining the plight of the peasants in full detail, but at the shameless expense of the Saigonese. There is no denying the factual evidence for the corruption, incompetence, and eccentricities of the individuals that would before long define the bureaucratic totalitarians that would govern the GVN (Government of the Republic of Vietnam), specifically the Ngo family.  But Fitzgerald outdoes any stereotypical caricatures of ARVN laziness and arrogance, to repeatedly describe the entire city of Saigon’s inhabitants and the Ky-Thieu command as feeding parasites, blind to their cultural heritage, prostituting themselves as the dependents of big, strong, imperial protectors.  Having cornered her view into a monolithic version of what constituted Vietnamese behavior Fitzgerald cast the assimilated Vietnamese as damaged based on exclusion from her understanding.


The drawback to the framing of the Vietnamese’ cultural dynamics as definitively one Confucian way is that even from a benevolent standpoint it errs on the same basis of superiority that it sets out to criticize.  Fitzgerald uses the metaphor of Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel—characters from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to demonstrate the working power struggle of imperialism.  Prospero is the imperialist, in this case the French and/or the Americans; Caliban is the servant, the general Vietnamese population; Ariel is the assimilated moderator, the Saigonese.  Putting people into these groups thoroughly shows the oppressive nature of the colonizer-colonized relationship so much so that it disregards any one group’s evolution over the long, drawn out course of the war that involved generations of contact with western dominance well into the pluralistic modernity of the 20th century, an aspect that makes this war unique.  She also employs theories from the like of Franz Fanon, Sigmund Freud, and Otare Mannoni and references Paul Mus liberally, all of which further adds to the possibility that this image of the Vietnamese may be largely constructed and only applicable when narrowly useful.


Fitzgerald overlooks the historical inevitability of cultural change taking place in nuanced and complex ways, with the prime exception being her especially well-crafted analysis of the National Liberation Front (NLF).  Fashioning Marxism and Leninism into a strong organizational model, the NLF masterfully found a way to systematically earn the allegiance of the Vietnamese countryside.  Fitzgerald’s detailed elucidation of the NLF cell structure management and the kiem thao behavioral training make this book worth reading as it reveals the sheer force of efficiency and facility that the GVN and US were up against, or rather mired in.  Additionally, she is able to meld this image with the communal village sociology to show that Vietnam was in essence primed for this type of movement.  Had the due investigation thus been done about the Vietnamese, prior to the deaths of millions of civilians and soldiers, it would have been apparent to foreign anti-communist missions that they were constructing their arguments without actionable facts.


With respect to the NLF, the revelation of its impressive negotiation of political indoctrination is arguably diminished by Fitzgerald’s abstractions into Confucian ideology.  Her argument that the cleansing revolutionary fire, from which the title gets its meaning, is an unstoppable wave of historical precedent would still stand, perhaps more so with the acknowledgement that all Vietnamese, not just the NLF acted of their own unique agency and volition and not mindlessly operating under a subconscious ideological construct towards unanimity.  Ultimately it raises the larger question about the decision to filter world events through a lens of cultural relativism.  The Buddhist sect for example, of an ancient and philosophical tradition, fought for a specific and atypical cause that collided with government rule and television news media in unpredictable and almost sacrilegious ways.  This demonstrates the importance of balancing cultural idiosyncrasies against their detailed historical context.


The Vietnam War still incites much heated debate as to its nature and causes but Frances Fitzgerald starts her afterword by stating that decades after writing the book she feels no inclination to amend any content of Fire in the Lake as it is a book that is “the product of a particular time in history and in the life of their author, and the time can’t be recaptured” (443). This places it squarely in the historical canon as a stirring and prescient primary source about the disillusionment and discovery of a young American journalist speaking out about the Vietnam War before it was even concluded.  This fact surfaces in her limited historical perspective that unintentionally treats the Vietnamese as anthropological subjects for study instead of historical actors, though this writer is admittedly biased and has the advantage of hindsight.  A more useful construction of the argument could have compared the democratic, military-industrial based powers to the communal, agrarian, colonized one.  Overall, Fitzgerald successfully conveys the American enabled war atrocities with awareness to the Vietnamese perspective that is still missing from the historical discussion about the Vietnam War.



About the authors

All the three authors are senior history students set to graduate in May 2014 from Armstrong. Danielle will begin the MA in Teaching program at Armstrong to pursue a teaching career in history. Victoria also hopes to one day become a history professor; her many favorite things include watching science documentaries, learning about different cultures, and baking cupcakes. Eric will soon start his adventure as an English language teacher in Shanghai, China.


Recommended citation

Eric A. Curry, Victoria Do, and Danielle Fialkowski, “‘Fire in the Lake’: Forum on Frances Fitzgerald’s 1972 book The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam,Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 4, no. 1 (April 2014).



Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little Brown, 1972. ISBN 0679723943.

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