Frances FitzGerald, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972; New York: Vintage Books, 1973)

A relevant epigram from Chapter Two, "Nations and Empires":

"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.'"

"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." p. 361

From Chapter Eight, The Buddhist Crisis

[Committed to a commitment - the Sunk Cost Fallacy]

"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." 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 abyss of people who did not want them in Vietnam." 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." 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." 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." 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." 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." p. 460-461
(Note 8: Westmoreland quoted in Newsweek, 27 March 1967 – almost a year before the Tet Offensive of 1968

[aid absorption] "The U.S. aid had grown beyond the point of absorpbion." p. 462

"The Saigon government had turned over on its back to feed upon the Americans" p. 480

Chapter 13 – Prospero (pp. 481-506)

. . .

"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." 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." 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." 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." pp. 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." 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." 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 [emphasis added]. 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 conscience that 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

Chapter 14 – Guerrillas (pp. 507-517)

“But the war was actually as out of the control of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese of the GVN had no choice. At the same time, they had no commitment to the future that was being decided for them. As they saw it, the only course of action that lay open to them was a refusal of choice, a passive resistance to all the demands made upon them. According to the same official reports … The second rumor was an answer to what for many Vietnamese was the most puzzling question of all: why, with all of its great power, had the United States not won the war already? To counter this with the argument that it’s a Vietnamese war,” the American report continued, “falls on deaf ears, as many of these people feel it’s now a war between the US and the communists.” p. 517 . . .

Chapter 15 – The Tet Offensive (518-534)

"To many American officials in Saigon, Tet was not an end but a beginning." p. 534

Part III

Chapter 16 – Nixon's War (537-566)

"By the fall of 1968 much of the American public felt that the issue of the war had been settled. With the withdrawal of President Johnson from the presidential election the American peace movement had, as one analyst said, come as close to overthrowing the government as can happen within the American system. ... The train of events seemed irreversible. Nixon came to the presidency with a promist to end the war, and most Americans believed tht he would end it, if only because it was for nothing." pp. 537-538

"But the war did not end. It expanded and grew bloodier. In the first three years of Nixon's administration fifteen thousand Americans were killed In that same period the GVN armed forces lost more men than they had lost in the three previous three years and more than the total of American dead in Vietnam. In those three years there were more civilian casualties than there had ever been before -- that is, Laotians and Cambodians as well as Vietnamese civilians. In 1970, two years after the start of the peace talks in Paris, the Vietnam War became the Indochina War with major battles in three countries. ..." p. 538

How was it possible? It was possible because the American government did not want to face the consequences of peace. It was, after all, one thing to wish for an end to the war and quite another to confront the issues upon which the war had begun. President Johnson had wanted to end the war; so, too, had President Kennedy. But to end the war and not to lose it. This distinction was crucial, and particularly crucial after all the American lives that had been spent and all the political rhetoric expended. Nixon, perhaps even more than his predecessors, felt that he could not take the responsibility for "losing the war." "Johnson got us into the war quietly, now we are trying to get out of it quietly," said Henry Kissinger..." But the time for Senator Aiken's solution had long since passed: the issues were all too clearly formulated. To withdraw support from Saigon and allow the Thieu government to fall would be, by Nixon's definition, to "lose the war." There remained the hop of winning it, and failing that, of not losing it until sometime after an American withdrawal from Vietnam." p. 538-539

"Politically unable to recharge the war to meet the specifications of the Joint Chiefs for a quick military victory, Nixon adopted a policy of scaling down the participation of ground troops while increasing every other form of military pressure on the enemy. His aim was still to force Hanoi to accept an American-supported government in Saigon, and his strategy was still that of attrition. In fact his policy involved little more than a change in tactics -- and a change that orginated not with him but with Presidant Johnson in the summer of 1968." p. 539

"The centerpiece of this policy was "Vietnamization," the ironic name for the slow withdawal of American ground troops and the buildup of Vietnamese armed forces to fight an American-directed war in their stead. It was, of course, the same strategy the French officials had attempted in 1950, when the war began to seem too expensive and too politically divisive for their country. And it was the same strategy that led to the situation the United States took over in 1954. Still, as was not the case with the French, the Americans dominated South Vietnam militarily. At the height of their strength in 1968-1969, they had the troops, the air power, and the money to maintain the Saigon government over a number of years, even with a schedule of troop pullouts. Most important of all, Nixon found a measure of support for his policy in the United States. As was calculated, the American troop withdrawals cut the middle-of-the-road "doves" off from the peace movement, for it indicated to them that Nixon intended to end the war. At the same time Nixon's assurance that he would not abandon the South Vietnamese convinced many "hawks" that he had found a way to win the war without using American ground troops. Nixon's campaign promise to "end the wary and win the peace" was perfectly ambiguous." pp. 539-540

"... most of the non-Communist "opposition groups aspired only to replace the Thieu government and take control of the American aid." p. 560

"The Americans did not want a change of policy, and though they wanted a contested election -- a facade of electoral democracy -- they judged a change of men too dangerous at that moment in history." p. 561 "The traffic in heroin was the final, and perhaps the blackest, irony of the war. The heroin came largely from Burma and Laos. Much of it was processed in or near Vientiane by those people for whose sake (it was to be supposed) the U.S. government was demolishing the rest of Laos. It came to Vietnam either by air drop from Vietnamese or Lao military planes, paid for by the U.S. government, or through the customs at Tan Son Nhut airfield. The Vietnamese customs inspectors earned several dozen times as much for not inspecting the bags and bundles as for inspecting them. When the American advisers attempted to crack down on their "counterparts," they discovered that the two key customs posts were held by the brothers of Thieu's premier, General Tran Thien Khiem. ... As this "freely elected government" would not prosecute the customs officials (heroin, the Vietnamese said, was "an American problem," the heroin continued to enter the country unimpeded. Once in Vietnam it was sold openly in the streets and around the American bases by young war widows and children orphaned by the American war. Finally, the heroin, unlike anything else the Vietnamese sold the American soldiers, was of excellent quality -- white as ivory and of such purity that it would cost a small fortune to support a habit of it on the illicit market of the United States. Such was the reve3nge of the Indochinese who, Nixon had claimed, "trusted in" the Americans. And such was the reward of the U.S. government to the soldiers who served its cause in Vietnam. p. 564-565

    "The United States might leave Vietnam, but the Vietnam War would never leave the United States. The soldiers would bring it back with them like an addiction. The civilians may neglect or try to ignore it, but those who have seen combat must find a reason for that killing; they must find a reason for that killing; they must put it in some relation to their normal experience and to their role as citizens. The usual agent for this reintegration is not the psychiatrist, but the politician. In this case, however, the politicians could give no satisfactory answer to many of those who had killed or watched comrades being killed. In 1971 the soldiers had before them the knowledge that President Johnson had deceived them about the war during his election campaign. All his cryptic signals to the contrary, he had indicated that there would be no American war in Vietnam, while he was in fact making plansfor entering that war. They had before them the spectacle of a new president, Richard M. Nixon, who with the one hand engaged in peaceful negotiations the the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China and with the other condemned thousands of Americans and Indochinese to die for the principle of anti-Communism. To those who had for so long believed that the United States was different, that it possessed a fundamental innocence, generosity, and disinterestedness, these facts were shocking. No longer was it possible to say, as so many Americans and French had, that Vietnam was the "quagmire," the "pays pourri" that had enmired and corrupted the United States. It was the other way around. The U.S. officials had enmired Vietnam. They had corrupted the Vietnamese and, by extension, the American soldiers who had to fight amongst thh Vietnamese in their service. By involving the United States in a fruitless and immoral war, they had corrupted themselves." p. 565-566.

Part III

Chapter 17 – Fire in the Lake (567-590)

Instead of helping the Saigon government to stand on its own, the Americans made it more and more dependent upon them, economically, politically, militarily. And now the Americans were threatening to withdraw their support, leaving their "allies" as helpless as puppets to control their own destiny.” p. 577

. . .

“... Some millions of Vietnamese have now lived in cities for five, ten years or more; a half a generation of their children has grown up without ever watching a rice plant harvested. A certain number are used to the luxuries of the West and the freedoms of a Western dominated city. The life of the peasantry is almost as foreign to them as it is to Americans, and yet they lack the very foundation upon which American society rests. These new city people have no capital – most of the money the United States invested in Vietnamese officials and businessmen had flown to safer investments abroad – and they have no industrial skills. They are not producers, but go-betweens who have engaged in nothing but marketing and services. The American war has altered them and rendered them helpless.” p. 579-580