Fire in the Lake

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Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam is a book written by the American journalist Frances FitzGerald (1940-) and published in 1972 by both Back Bay Publishing and Little, Brown and Company.[1][2]


The first major book by an American on America in Vietnam, which she calls a "first draft of history", it argues that American values of freedom, democracy, optimism, and technological progress were inconsistent with Vietnam's values, culture, agrarian economy, and long bloody history, making the Vietnam War effort doomed from the start. The Vietnamese sense of government, history, politics, and war is completely different from the American one, as is their cultural tradition of ancestor worship and their belief in what constitutes effective government (i.e. the mandate of Heaven), yet the U.S. government never took these differences into account, leading to failure. "But the American officials in supporting the Saigon government insisted that they were defending 'freedom and democracy' in Asia. They left the GIs to discover that the Vietnamese did not fit into their experience of either 'communist' or 'democrats.' Under different circumstances this invincible ignorance…" "Whatever strategy the American government uses to carry on the war, it will only be delaying the inevitable."

The book discusses the U.S. government's ignorance of Vietnam's history, especially their determination to rid themselves of any foreign invaders, even if, as with the Chinese, it took 1,000 years, making them unable to see themselves as just more foreign invaders to the populace. The U.S. tendency to support thugs over patriots, to elevate to power those who will sell out their people for money rather than work with those committed to the well-being of their people is brought out, as well as how Ho Chi Minh was a U.S. ally during WWII, his hero was Thomas Jefferson, he was very pro-American at first, yet he was a nationalist and a patriot first, which meant from the U.S. perspective that he was not only unreliable but someone who had to be eliminated, throwing him into the arms of the Red Chinese. If the U.S. had overlooked his storefront Communism, they might have sent U.S. troops not to help Vietnamese fight Vietnamese while Mao Tse-tung pulled the strings hoping for later absorption of the whole country, but to fight Chinese on the Chinese-Vietnam border, which could have lasted to this day.

Spending 90% of its text on the lead-up to the Tet Offensive, it covers several topics including the Cao Đài monotheist religious sect in Tay Ninh, the corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, and "Nixon's War".

In her discussion of the Battle of Bong Son, she discusses the futility of body counts:

"Furthermore, as the only 'indicator of progress,' it suggested that death and destruction had some absolute value in terms of winning the war. That the enemy might continue to recruit, rearm, and rebuild (often with the help of people enraged by the American destruction) did not seem to enter into the calculations."

The book is one of the first to expose the functions of the shanty towns built up around U.S. bases as laundry, drinks, and prostitution.

Critical reception[edit]

The book won several literary awards including the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction,[3] the National Book Award in Contemporary Affairs[4] and the Bancroft Prize.[5]

The book was criticized for trying to form a "grand Vietnamese Gestalt" which "ironically" argued that the West did not understand Vietnam while using Western thinkers as justification for this claim. [6]


  1. ^ FitzGerald, Frances (1972). Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Back Bay. pp. 500 Pages. ISBN 0-316-15919-0. 
  2. ^ FitzGerald, Frances (1972). Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-28423-8. 
  3. ^ "General Nonfiction". Past winners and finalists by category. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved 2012-03-17.
  4. ^ "National Book Awards - 1973" (web). National Book Foundation. 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-03. .
    There was a "Contemporary" or "Current" award category from 1972 to 1980.
  5. ^ "The Bancroft Prizes; Previous Awards" (web). Columbia University Libraries. 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-03. 
  6. ^ "Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. By Frances Fitzgerald". Book Reviews—Southeast Asia. The Journal of Asian Studies 32 (3): 564–565. May 1973. 

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