May 28, 2015
The Unquiet Frenchman
Posted on Oct 3, 2006
Sarah Stillman: Speaking of Bernard’s documents, part of his singularity was his ability to read public records against the grain and challenge the official narrative put forth in political rhetoric and mass media accounts. Does this have anything to do with why David Halberstam calls him an “action historian”?
Dorothy Fall: Probably. When Bernard traveled to Vietnam the first time, while the French were fighting, he went to see a French military man who showed him a map and said, “Well, there are just a few little Communist enclaves scattered here and there, but generally we have the countryside under control.” But when Bernard would discuss this with his Vietnamese colleagues [at the university there], they would all laugh and say: “No, no, no! The Communists rule that area!”
And so Bernard did something ingenious: He said, well, if the Vietnamese government is really in control, let’s see what the taxes indicated. And so he went to the Vietnamese tax collection office in Hanoi and studied the village tax rolls and realized, “Gee, well, they’re not being paid in this village, or in that one, or in that one. Then who are they paying taxes to?” Obviously, someone other than their French-supported national government!
Then he did the same with the schoolteachers. Teachers in Vietnam were assigned by the central government, but he discovered that the same places that did not pay taxes also weren’t being assigned teachers from Hanoi. So he came back and had one map of the areas the French said they controlled, and another based on the data he’d collected. The French had a map of white with little red dots, and he had one that was practically all red. This was in 1953, and a year later the French had been driven out!
Square, Site wide
Then, in 1957, he was in Vietnam when Ngo Dinh Diem was president, again claiming that the situation was totally under control. But Bernard would read the paper and note that there was a village chief being killed here and one being killed there. This was just a matter of reading the newspaper systematically! But he would see that these men were being replaced by Communist cadres. And again, he drew a map and showed that, indeed, the Viet Cong were infiltrating in the south.
So, the lesson is that there are ways of using your head and reading public documents that can reveal something other than what you’ve been led to believe.
Sarah Stillman: On the one hand, you write about Bernard’s bawdy sense of humor and mention a few things that make my inner feminist recoil: the fact, for instance, when he gave you a gold wristwatch to celebrate the birth of your first daughter, he remarked, “It would have been diamonds if it had been a boy.” On the other hand, where many political scientists of his day ignored the gendered impacts of war, Bernard always seemed to ask, “Where are the women and what’s happening to them?” At the age of 19, working as a research analyst for the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, he fought for the rights of forgotten young women working as slave laborers for Krupp’s empire. He dedicated an entire section of “Street Without Joy” to discussing the women of Vietnam. Could you call your husband an early feminist, or would that be too kind an account?
Dorothy Fall: A number of the women I spoke to said that the thing about Bernard was that he always treated women as equals, in terms of intellectual discussion. He respected us as human beings, didn’t treat us like people who were not as intelligent. He brought into the Howard faculty at least one woman; he liked women, as a Frenchmen. He liked women as equals, as friends.
But, he wanted to have a son. That was part of the male chauvinist aspect. Although today, men might not put it so blatantly. He wanted a son to substantiate his maleness. But he wasn’t someone who ever would consider going to a football game. I wouldn’t say he was macho.
Sarah Stillman: Many of the book’s most poignant moments address the emotional struggles of being married to a “soldier-scholar” who is also having a love affair with Vietnam—and a very dangerous love affair, at that. What was it like to be the academic equivalent of a military wife? In what ways do you think this book will resonate with today’s military wives?
Dorothy Fall: Well, they might recognize that their husbands have to leave to go on military duty, but the difference is that Bernard did not have to leave—he was 40 years old, beyond the age where he would have to fight a war.
But just like a military wife, I really dreaded when he announced that he was going to Indochina. The very last time, the children and I went along to Hong Kong, so at first I thought it would be an adventure. Military wives face this kind of relocation much more often than I did, at least in times of war. So I think you’re right—they might be a part of my audience, although I don’t know how to find them.
Sarah Stillman: Over the course of your relationship, how did you change Bernard?
Dorothy Fall: He became much more mellow, less dogmatic, less overbearing—he was quite overbearing! If you met him, he would just rattle off all this information in a very self-assured manner, and it was very surprising. And over time, he became more concerned about me and the children, even though he did leave us. I never had political conversations with him—I listened. I was very retiring, never spoke up, never had any ideas of my own—at least not aloud.
Sarah Stillman: How did he change you?
Dorothy Fall: When I met him, I was this girl from Rochester who wasn’t very sophisticated. He showed me the world, exposing me to people I would never have met ordinarily: the heads of countries, real decision-makers and influential people who were affecting our lives.
When he became sick, I moved us all into a house and took over. That was a different time that you are unfamiliar with: I come from the era of the ‘50s, when women were homemakers. It was very unusual for women to work, and I was looked down upon because I lived in my suburban home to go twice a week.
During the women’s movement, I found my voice. In 1973 I started to work full-time and became deputy art director of a magazine, and my whole persona changed. Raising children and being self-sufficient was really what changed me.
Sarah Stillman: You’re new to the book circuit and will be giving your first talks this month. What’s the question you’re secretly dreading people will ask you?
Dorothy Fall: I’ve been very open and honest in this book, and have tried to be objective so that Bernard would not appear a saint, which he was not. There is no question I dread. If I can’t answer a question because of lack of knowledge or ability, I’ll admit to that.
Sarah Stillman: And what’s the question you’re secretly hoping for?
Dorothy Fall: I’m hoping they’ll ask me why this book is important, why they should buy it and read it, why it’s relevant to our world today!
Sarah Stillman: OK, then: Why is this book important? Why does Bernard’s legacy still matter, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
If Bernard were alive today, he would use his expert analytical abilities to help us understand what is happening in the conflicts the world is facing—in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan. I believe he would be outraged.
New and Improved Comments