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Frances FitzGerald

Frances FitzGerald

Frances FitzGerald (born 1940) wrote one of the most influential books on the Vietnam War to appear while the conflict was still in progress.

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.

Nevertheless, Fire in the Lake is a partisan book that aims to show the NLF in the best possible light. Despite admitted shortcomings, the Communists are portrayed as fundamentally decent, faithful, and true lovers of the peasantry and champions of the people. At one point FitzGerald says that in NLF controlled areas farm production actually rose. This might well have been true in selected cases, but North Vietnam, had crippled agriculture by ruthlessly imposing collective farming upon their unhappy peasants. That this would happen in South Vietnam too when the Communists won was a foregone conclusion.

Critics also resented her argument that because free elections have no place in Vietnamese culture, the absence of them means nothing. People who honor authoritarian regimes have always argued, as FitzGerald did, that voting is not a part of the national heritage in question, or that decisions are arrived at by consensus, making disputed elections unnecessary. FitzGerald pointed out that in South Vietnam the Communists were trying to attract support and respected local sentiments accordingly. What she didn't say, and perhaps did not believe, was that in North Vietnam, where the Communists were in power, they ignored public opinion. In 1973 the North's present was the South's future, a tragedy for both regions.

FitzGerald devoted the other half of her book to the evils of South Vietnam's various anti-Communist regimes and the folly of America's support for them. American intervention in South Vietnam was a ghastly mistake, not because the NLF was a band of political saints, but because, owing to the outrageous corruption and incompetence of the ruling elite in Saigon, there was no way to save the country.

FitzGerald's next book, America Revised: History Textbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979), is a trenchant critique of this debased educational medium, though to some readers it appeared that what FitzGerald objected to most was that textbooks did not give what she saw as the correct version of American history. The contrary objection was raised by her third book, Cities on a Hill: A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures (1987), which described four different communities ranging from a retirement village in Florida to the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Oregon. Though her intent was to explore the effect of the 1960s on American culture, some critics held that while her book was delightfully descriptive, as analysis it did not seem to go anywhere.

Thus, in the years after Fire in the Lake appeared Fitz-Gerald continued to write, producing books that invariably strike reviewers as well-written and thoughtful.

Further Reading

For additional FitzGerald writing on Vietnam see "Life and Death of a Vietnamese Village," New York Times Magazine (September 4, 1966) and "The Tragedy of Saigon," Atlantic Monthly (December 1966). Probably the best full-length book on the Vietnamese conflict is Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History (1983). □

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