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The Unquiet Frenchman
Posted on Oct 3, 2006
Sarah Stillman: It’s funny you mention that hypothetical about Bush. In his 1995 autobiography, Colin Powell remarks: “I recently read Bernard Fall’s book on Vietnam, ‘Street Without Joy.’ Fall makes painfully clear that we had almost no understanding of what we had gotten ourselves into. I cannot help thinking that if President Kennedy or President Johnson had spent a quiet weekend at Camp David reading that perceptive book, they would have returned to the White House Monday morning and immediately started to figure out a way to extricate us from the quicksand of Vietnam.”
Let’s imagine President Bush had said “To heck with Camus” and put “Street Without Joy” on his summer reading list, all 408 pages of it. Would it have made a dent? Or is your husband’s legacy—the fact that his early warnings about Vietnam went unheeded by the U.S. government—ultimately a reminder that scholars in America don’t really have the clout to impact public policy or to catalyze real social change?
Dorothy Fall: Oh, but Bush would never have read “Street Without Joy”! He would never have understood it!
Sarah Stillman: Well, let’s play make-believe for a second. What do you hope he would get out of it?
Dorothy Fall: Yes, I was only joking, because it is actually not a scholarly book…. Bernard referred to himself as being a lowbrow. He wrote in a way that people could understand quite easily. “Street Without Joy” was an exciting adventure book, and yet it was filled with the crucial information that we needed to know to fight in Vietnam. It tells you what the French faced in the battle of Dien Bien Phu—how the Vietnamese were in a struggle for independence, as they had been throughout their history, and how they were winning on the ground despite French reports to the contrary. This is not unlike the situation we’re facing today.
And that reminds me: I’m sure one of the reasons that Bernard’s voice was ignored was that he was French. People said, ‘Well, that’s just sour grapes. Just because the French didn’t win in Vietnam doesn’t mean we can’t. We’re stronger and more powerful.’ There were a few other scholars who spoke out the way Barnard did - like Walter Lippmann and Gil Harrison, the editor of The New Republic—but not many. And the ones who did weren’t heeded.
Sarah Stillman: To be fair, it’s not as if your husband was entirely ignored by policymakers; he cultivated relationships with higher-ups like Sen. William Fulbright of Arkansas, and before he left for Vietnam, he told you, “Should anything untoward happen to me, go to see him” [meaning Fulbright.] In the four decades since Bernard’s death, the Republicans have invested millions into recruiting scholars to become part of the right-wing noise machine. Progressives have failed to develop an equivalent apparatus for winning the war of ideas and cultivating left-wing scholars. Are there any scholars you can think of who fill shoes similar to Bernard’s today? Who would Bernard be reading on Iraq, for example?
Dorothy Fall: Well, I’ve recently heard Tom Ricks speak, and he certainly goes at it from the same angle as Bernard—that we absolutely don’t know anything about the people of Iraq or about their culture. But he’s a senior Washington Post writer, a Pentagon correspondent. I don’t think we have anyone who has the qualities Bernard did, or who has specialized to the extent he had.
Sarah Stillman: Was Bernard’s willingness to speak ugly truths what earned him such a strange collection of confidants? I mean, how do you make sense of the fact that your husband was respected by such a motley crew—dining with antiwar journalists, consulting with top military men at Fort Bragg, and even wooing Ho Chi Minh into a rare interview? It’s not too often that one hears Colin Powell and Stokely Carmichael heaping praise upon the same man….
Dorothy Fall: Well, let’s remember, at the time, Colin Powell didn’t praise him. It’s only in retrospect. I can’t imagine that when he read it the first time, [Powell] said “We have to get out of Vietnam.” Back then, he was younger and just had to follow orders. And Stokely Carmichael was a student of Bernard’s at Howard. He also praised Bernard in his autobiography, “The River of No Return.” I think all those different people agreed with him because they realized, as the situation evolved, that he was one of the only ones equipped to tell the truth.
And why Ho Chi Minh? Well, Bernard was practically the only Westerner who went to Vietnam at that time, 1962. He was having an interview with a lower government official when Ho Chi Minh suddenly appeared—probably because he wanted to get his views out to the West. And he succeeded, because Bernard eventually published what Ho Chi Minh told him: that this was sure to be a long, protracted war, unlike the easy victory the U.S. was predicting.
When he returned home, Bernard tried to warn the country of what we were getting into. He published in The New York Times Magazine, writing on why the French mistrust us; he wrote on rice, and why it was so important to the Vietnamese—why their rice was like our oil today…. He wrote prolifically.
Sarah Stillman: But surely, his wide circle of confidants must also have had something to do with his charisma? I’m reminded of a great anecdote in the book’s foreword: how Charley Mohr, the New York Times reporter, once returned from a late-night operation in Vietnam only to find that the mess hall was closing down and wouldn’t feed him…. So apparently, Bernard waltzed into the room seconds later and dinner was immediately served for both of them. When Charley asked the mess sergeant, “But why did you feed him and not me?” the man apparently responded: “Because he is Bernard Fall and you are not.” Was that a typical Bernard moment?
Dorothy Fall: Oh yes, he was very charismatic. He had this joi de vivre—a genuine zest for life. He was very open, but also a very dominant personality. If he were in this room right now, he would hold forth….
My friend Myra MacPherson just wrote a book on [Bernard’s friend and renowned journalist] I.F. Stone, and she asked me, “When the two of them were in a room together, who dominated?” It seemed to me Bernard always did. He was very forthright and nothing stopped him from going into a situation and befriending people. Lots of people didn’t like him; they found him too aggressive, too conceited, which are terms I certainly felt when I met him. He talked about his great achievements. But that didn’t bother me: After all, he had them!
Sarah Stillman: I’d like to change the subject for a minute and talk about your own writing process. Most worthwhile book projects tend to begin with more questions than answers…. What were the mysteries you wanted to crack for yourself when this project began? Are there any questions that remain unanswered?
Dorothy Fall: Actually, the only questions I had were in fleshing out the details. I really didn’t have many mysteries to crack, but I discovered wonderful things once I started to do the research and write….One of my discoveries was the profound impact Bernard had on his students at Howard. He really never told me why he taught there [at a historically black college]—he said he was looking for a job, and they just happened to offer the best salary. But other people said that he worked at Howard because African-American people were people who had suffered and were the underdog, just like he had been growing up under the Nazi regime.
I do know that he loved the university and loved teaching there. This was the era when the African countries were gaining their independence, and he was teaching them about the postcolonial liberation struggles, which really opened their eyes. I think gaining this international perspective had some impact on their activism—for example, Stokely Carmichael, after learning about Vietnam through Bernard, later ended up going there himself and meeting with some of the leadership. Bernard really helped his students make the connection between the national civil rights struggle and the international liberation struggles.
Sarah Stillman: What about claims that Bernard’s death was more than a mere accident, that his death in Vietnam was somehow caused by U.S. forces as a result of his vocal opposition to the war? Was that one of the mysteries for you? Were you ever taken in by those conspiracy theories?
Dorothy Fall: Of course I’ve heard a lot of claims that he was taken out—that he didn’t step on a land mine—but I have the Marine reports from that. I had contact with a lot of people while I was writing this book. A military man was doing a report for his veterans’ group, and he got me the official report from Bernard’s death. Some people have asked: Knowing as much as he did, how could he make the mistake of stepping on a land mine? He stepped aside for a moment to take a photograph, he stepped out of line momentarily, and that’s what happened.
A very well-known French writer about Indochina wrote a huge piece in a French newspaper about whether Bernard was actually assassinated. But I concluded no. And that was not a large part of my research…. I was more interested in going through Bernard’s own writings, his correspondences from the 1940s, his documents from the Nuremberg trials, the Krupp documents—he kept everything! And all of these pretty much substantiated what I knew about him.
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