A relevant epigram from Chapter Two, “Nations and Empires,” from <i>Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam</i>, by Frances FitzGerald:


“Tzu-lu said: 'The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?'

The Master replied: 'What is necessary is to rectify names. If names be not correct, language is not in accord with the truth of things. If language not be in accord with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.'”


From Chapter Seven, the United States Enters the War

“Westmoreland was a clean-living, upright, corporate vice-president, his professionalism tempered by a decency and good manners. In all, he made a perfect representative of the United States in Vietnam – with the perfectly representative blind spot that he neither understood, nor particularly cared for, the Vietnamese.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 361


From Chapter Eight, The Buddhist Crisis


[Committed to a commitment]


“The commitment of two hundred and fifty thousand American troops in 1966 was a commitment not so much to a government or to a political process as to the thirty thousand American soldiers and the millions of dollars the United States had already invested in Vietnam.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 378


“In the middle of April of 1966, the U. S. Embassy looked from the small safe island of the [Nguyen Cao] Ky government down into a vast of abyss of people who did not want them in Vietnam.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, pp. 382-383


From Chapter Nine, Prospero, Caliban, and Ariel


“For the past three months the world had watched the ludicrous spectacle of the largest power on earth occupying one of the smallest and hopelessly trying to unknot a civil war inside a revolution.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 390


From Chapter Ten, Bad Puppets


“But oddly enough, these statistics – and the destruction they more or less represented – did not seem to have any immediate consequence for the war. Despite all the bloody battles that year, the enemy actually increased its strength in the south. ... If the war was being won, then it was not being won quickly; indeed, it was taking a great deal longer than the administration officials had suggested the year before.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 406


“In an interview with Pham Van Dong, one American asked the North Vietnamese foreign minister how he could call the Saigon government an “American puppet” when it acted with such consistency against American interests. “Ah,” replied the minister, “it’s a puppet, all right. It’s just a bad puppet.”

From Chapter Twelve, The Downward Spiral


“There was timeless quality to the American effort – which is not to say that it was static but that it was constantly moving over the same ground. ... Only the faces of the young men and the numbers of hamlets changed year after year. For those who stayed in Vietnam long enough, it was like standing on the ground and watching a carousel revolve.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 453


“The American casualty figures combined with the apparent lack of progress towards the termination of the war had a most depressing effect on the popularity of the war in the United States.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 457


“In early 1967 Westmoreland gave a most complicated and interesting explanation for the rationale behind the President’s “ceiling” on the number of American troops. “If,” he said, “you crowd in too many termite killers, each using a screwdriver to kill the termites, you risk collapsing the floors or the foundation. In this war, we’re using screwdrivers to kill termites because it’s a guerilla war and we cannot use bigger weapons. We have to get the right balance of termite killers to get rid of the termites without wrecking the house.” To continue this extraordinary metaphor, the American force had managed to wreck the house without killing the termites; they had, further, managed to make the house uninhabitable for anyone except termites. In a different manner, they had made the [American-created puppet government] house unlivable as well.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 460-461 (Westmoreland quoted in Newsweek, 27 March 1967 – almost a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968


[aid absorption] Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 462


“Most Americans in Vietnam automatically discounted the ARVN “body counts” as fabrications, but they were not so willing to admit that the American tallies often reflected no more than Vietnamese dead and Vietnamese houses ruined – if that. The system put pressure on all military men to exaggerate or falsify statistics. 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.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, pp. 485-486


Facing an electorate that received the war largely with indifference or hostility, the President himself had very little latitude to alter his public stance and little interest in discovering the gloomy truths. The circle of self-interest created a complete circle of self-deception that began and ended in the office of President of the United States.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 488


“Like an Orwellian army, [the American soldiers] knew everything about military tactics, but nothing about where they were or who the enemy was. ... an almost metaphysical enemy who inflicted upon them heat, boredom, terror, and death and gave them nothing to show for it – no territory taken, no visible sign of progress except the bodies of small yellow men.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 495


“ ... the more fundamental dilemma of the highly mechanized American armed forces fighting a “people’s war” in a foreign country. The basic problem was, of course, that the U. S. official picture of “the Viet Cong” as an army and a coercive administration fighting over an apolitical peasantry was simply a misrepresentation of facts. In many regions – and those where the greatest U. S. military effort was made – the unarmed peasants actively and voluntarily cooperated with the Front troops, giving information, carrying supplies, laying booby traps. Where, then, was the distinction between “soldiers” and “civilians”? In many regions “the Viet Cong” were simply the villagers themselves; to “eliminate the Viet Cong” meant to eliminate the villages, if not the villagers themselves, an entire social structure and a way of life. It is in this context that charges of war crimes against the American civilian and military authorities who directed the war have a certain validity. In the first place, by the very act of sending American soldiers to Vietnam the U. S. command was denying many of its soldiers and field officers the very power of choice over killing civilians. It was making some civilian deaths inevitable. In the second place the U. S. command’s decision to use certain weapons and certain strategies insured that the number of civilian deaths would be sizable.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 499-500


“No one in the American government consciously planned a policy of genocide. The American military commanders would have been shocked or angered by such a charge, but in fact their policy had no other military logic, and their course of action was indistinguishable from it.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 502



“But by the beginning of 1968 it was precisely time that mattered to the American government in its attempt to save itself from something that might look like defeat. Whether Johnson ever had any greater ambitions, it now became clear that the original aims as explained to the American public no longer held. What had looked like an attempt to “save Vietnam from Communism” was rather an attempt to save American “prestige” around the world. But the time for that had already passed by. The leaders of other nations had already seen what a small and determined group of people could do to the United States and were in the process of drawing their conclusions. The American war effort had, then, become almost entirely solipsistic: the U. S. government was trying to save “American prestige” for Americans alone, to convince itself of American superiority.” Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake, p. 503


“What was interesting about the statement was the discrepancy between the impersonal bureaucratic language the official used to describe the American actions and the vivid, almost poetic description he lavished on the NLF. Doublas Pike similarly distorted the facts in his widely circulated monograph, “The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror.” p. 505


“Interestingly, Pike's “working definition” of terror was “the systematic use of death, pain, fear and anxiety among the population (either civilian or military) for the deliberate purpose of coercing, manipulating, intimidating, punishing or simply frightening the helpless into submission.” And by that definition the entire American bombing policy in Vietnam, North and South, was a strategy of terror. Even within the narrower definition of “terror” as an unconventional, clandestine act of violence – an assassination or a satchel-charge bombing – the Allies had been using terror deliberately for a number of years through professionally trained paramilitary units such as the Special Forces and the Provincial Reconnaissance Unites. As head of the Psychological Warfare section, Pike knew this as well as anyone in Vietnam. Only he, like many Americans who backed the Vietnam War, ascribed the best of motives to the Americans and their allies, while laying all the evil at the door of the enemy. It was the same kind of bad faith and bad consciencethat in 1967 inspired all the American rhetoric about “revolutionary development” and “building democracy” in Vietnam. It was the same kind of rhetoric that inspired the unrestricted use of violence upon the Vietnamese.” p. 506