Returning to a place we've never seen

Frances FitzGerald, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Fire in the Lake," says Americans still get Vietnam wrong because we can't stop looking at our collective American navel.

By Fiona Morgan
Published April 28, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 book "Fire in the Lake," Frances FitzGerald showed that the U.S. lost the Vietnam War because it never understood the country it was fighting.

FitzGerald's most recent book, "Way Out There in the Blue," depicts the political forces that led to the triumph of President Reagan's unworkable Star Wars missile defense program.

In an interview this week with Salon News, FitzGerald looks back on Vietnam with the eyes of a perpetual student of the region and suggests that Americans must try to understand Vietnam as a place, rather than a battlefield, to understand why U.S. policies backfired.

What are your thoughts on the Vietnam war, looking back?

What happens in this country is that we become so focused on our own problems, and we've really never seen it from the Vietnamese point of view. This remains true in the coverage of the 25th anniversary -- it's endless gazing at one's own navel. There have been some very good pieces in the New York Times and so forth, but so little attention paid to Vietnam. Vietnam means a war to many people, not a country.

One magazine, which will remain nameless, asked me in January to do a piece on the 25th anniversary. I said to them, "Well, I'm going to Vietnam in March, wouldn't you like a piece?"

"No," they said. They wanted a piece about the United States.

Frankly, I don't think the 25th anniversary is anything much more than a number. This reconsideration, the debate about the Vietnam War, went on for years afterwards. It's kind of stopped now, some time ago really. I don't mean by that that there's a total consensus on what it meant, but the sharpness of this debate, which was terrific throughout the '70s and into the '80s, has really died down.

What after-effects of the war did you observe while you were in Vietnam this year?

I think I only had about two or three conversations about the war the whole time I was there. People are interested in what they're up to now. In the jungles the war damage was really considerable, and it's a real ecological disaster that has been exacerbated by populations pressures in Vietnam now. But in the countryside you wouldn't know the war had ever been there. You wouldn't know it had happened.

What was your impression of the country this year, vs. when you had been there before?

I was there in 1993, and otherwise not since 1974. This trip I spent a great deal of time in the villages, including the villages of North Vietnam, which I really didn't know. That was really fascinating because the North is the center of Vietnamese culture for historical reasons. The villages are very different in the North than they are in the South. They look like fortresses in the sense that they are surrounded by the hedge of bamboo. It's like the difference between New England towns and towns out West, historically. In New England, you'd have a settlement all in one place and the farms outside it. Elsewhere you'd have the farmer's house and his own land surrounding it. The social structure is very different as a result. In the North, people worship their ancestors back to the 15th generation. In the South, it's only the third.

Nowadays, they're very much going back to their older traditions. When I was there, there were all of the village celebrations in which people would dress up in traditional dress, great processions and prayers to the genie of the communal house, or the dinh. The importance of history is so great in the North. Most of the genies are former Mandarins who fought the Chinese from the 10th century on, and sometimes former kings. At one of these celebrations I met a man who spoke French, who told me the entire history of the village from the time of the Tran Dynasty on.

People are very rooted to their past. Nothing has changed in that way at all. In fact, since the renovation which started in '86, the whole communist apparatus in the villages has pretty much disappeared. There's a government of course, but everybody used to be organized in work teams and so forth. Now the organization is traditional all over again. If you're a tourist, it's very hard to tell you're in a communist country. You can tell you're in a country with a one-party state. But apart from that, the free market has simply taken over.

Given that the Vietnamese people have such a long sense of history, how do they look at the American war?

It's just another incident to them -- resisting foreign invaders. And it's very much -- and it was at the time -- attached to this tradition of resistance against the Chinese and against the French. I went to the war museum, and there is a section on the American war. But for the North, in many ways, the more dramatic part was the French war. There is an entire extraordinary layout and film of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. There's nothing that dramatic in terms of the American war, in part because there was never such a set-piece battle. But you can see it, in that war museum or in the minds of villagers, or in the way they treat the war, it's just another one.

I understand enough Vietnamese to understand what people say about me as I walk through these villages. They would say, "Do you think that's a Russian? Or a French woman? Or an American?" And I would say, "American." People would come over and be curious and it would be very friendly.

No one expressed any anger toward you as an American?

Absolutely not. I think there are three reasons. One, the American war was just another one in this procession. Secondly, they won in the sense that they succeeded in their war aims, so you don't feel badly about those that you've essentially driven from your country. Thirdly, half the population is under 25 and doesn't remember it at all.

I had very much the same experience when I went to Hanoi in 1974. Then, the government made a real point of saying, "We are not fighting the people of the United States. We are fighting the U.S. government and its policy." I found no antagonism even when walking around alone, even at that time.

I realize that in your work, you are really looking at Vietnam and its culture. But how do you view the effects of the war on American society?

It affected the military, I tell you, quite profoundly. They certainly learned a lesson about fighting civil wars in other people's countries. The after-effects are certainly still with us. Look at Kosovo -- not an American troop on the ground. Also, they're skittish about sending troops into conflicts where they feel they do not have the entire American people behind them. Obviously if this country were threatened that would be another story.

In many ways the Gulf War took the sting out of what they may have seen as a defeat. It was not a defeat for American arms. Really it was a defeat for the Saigon government which we of course created and helped to prop up. But the essential issue was whether that government could be a government or not. American troops were in many ways irrelevant to the outcome, because you can't fight a war, which is a revolutionary war, without [providing] an alternative.

Is there anything that our involvement in Vietnam accomplished, or anything that it could have accomplished if certain circumstances had been different?

No, I don't think so. History is history. We should have known by 1965 -- and in fact the estimates were very pessimistic at that time -- essentially the other side had won by 1965. How do you reverse that? You can't. This is what [revisionist author of "Vietnam: The Necessary War"] Michael Lind gets so wrong. [Our involvement] was an attempt to undo what had already been done, and the attempt simply created an incredible amount of suffering for millions of people. There were millions who died in that war. And of course, the wounded are still walking around in Vietnam. The landscape doesn't show it, but the older people certainly remember it and certainly remember who they lost.

On our side, there's a waste of all those lives. I think it wouldn't have happened, again, if we hadn't been so focused on our own internal political debates and -- as a country, not just as a government -- paid more attention to what the real situation in Vietnam was. We tend to see it in terms of some vast geo-political whatnot. Here we are stopping a domino. Has anybody considered that Vietnam had been fighting China for all those years? Furthermore, with the American war over, it went back to fighting China? The whole domino theory is crazy.

So you would say that all along, and even now looking back on it, the reason we misunderstand the Vietnam War is that we only look at it from an American perspective?

And also to look at it as a military issue. We couldn't have done very much about it. I was staying in one very, very nice hotel [in Vietnam], and I woke up one morning and I thought, where am I? I'm in a free-market economy. And I thought, supposing we'd tried that, what we're trying now -- invasion by our economic system and by talking about democracy. We couldn't have saved the Saigon government, but I think we could have brought Vietnam around much quicker if we'd done it that way.

Is there any other angle from which you think we should look at the war, in hindsight?

I think it's wrong to describe Vietnam as a tragedy, because tragedies involve a fatal flaw. If there was a fatal flaw, it was in our own perceptions and view of the world at that time. The war was devastating, but a tragedy in the classical sense is something else than a horror. I guess I would urge people to go there and see for themselves. It's a very pleasant place to visit these days.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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