By Sarah Stillman
Editor’s note: The life of political scientist Bernard Fall, the first soldier-scholar to predict an inglorious end for America in Vietnam, is remembered in a new biography by his widow. She speaks with Truthdig guest interviewer Sarah Stillman about the government’s lies—in Vietnam then, and in Iraq now.
When I recently stumbled upon Confucius’ ancient invective against armchair academics—“The scholar who cherishes the love of comfort is not fit to be deemed a scholar”—I couldn’t help but wonder: In the unlikely event that the grumpy old philosopher’s words were enforced through the barrel of a gun, just how many contemporary Western political scientists would be left standing?
Although your guess is as good as mine, I can assert one thing with confidence: If I had to identify a single 20th-century thinker who could save the fuzzy-sweatered clan from extinction on such an awkward occasion, my money would be on the late French political scientist Bernard Fall.
Sure, this unsung exemplar of rough-and-tumble scholarship met his tragic death almost 40 years ago, stepping on a land mine in Vietnam while conducting research for his eighth book on foreign interventions in the region. But Fall’s name is now witnessing a much-deserved resurrection among activists and counterinsurgency experts as our nation stumbles deeper into yet another catastrophic misadventure abroad, tripping over familiar phrases like “stay the course” and “light at the end of the tunnel” while the American death toll in Iraq climbs toward 3,000.
Against this Orwellian backdrop, Dr. Fall offers us a powerful model of wartime scholarship at its least comfortable and most courageous. Never content to pontificate on counterinsurgency from within the Ivory Tower, Fall traveled frequently to Vietnam to catalogue body counts, survey Vietminh tactics, and map fissures between official political rhetoric and what he liked to call “hard facts.” He then relayed his findings in a wide array of popular publications like The Nation and Foreign Affairs, as well as in scholarly books with telling names like “Hell in a Very Small Place” and “Street Without Joy” (the latter celebrated as “the definitive military history of the Indochina conflict” by the New Republic).
Regarded as the first theorist to publicly document why American troops were destined to repeat French failures in Vietnam, Fall paid the price for this title in ways that might have prompted Confucius to stroke his beard approvingly: He confronted jungle rot and dysentery during his tropical fact-finding missions (much as he had at age 16, fighting in the French Resistance against the Nazis), faced ostracism for his politics within some camps of the academy, and endured wiretaps and accusations of spying from the FBI.
But you needn’t take my word on any of this. If you’re eager for details about Fall’s larger-than-life biography or want proof of his recent popular comeback, look no further than a new memoir by his widow that hits bookstores this month, “Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar.”
Drawing upon 30 years of interviews and newly released U.S. government documents, Ms. Fall traces her late husband’s transition from waging guerrilla wars to theorizing them. She offers a compelling chronicle of Fall’s scholarship, tracking his escalating commitment to denouncing the Vietnam War and helping us to grasp why such a diverse array of government policymakers, public intellectuals and military leaders viewed him as a critical ally.
All this is sandwiched between accounts of Dorothy Fall’s own intimate journey as a painter, a mother and—come that untimely telegram in 1967—a mourner. As a result, the prose sometimes tiptoes dangerously close to the no man’s land between biography and memoir—not quite fine-toothed or rigorous enough to qualify as the former, but not quite juicy or literary enough to qualify as the latter. But oddly, this is precisely what many readers will grow to appreciate about Ms. Fall’s approach: Amidst the recent deluge of woe-is-me confessionals and scholarly biographical tomes denser than Grandma’s fruitcake, it’s refreshing to encounter a narrator who makes no attempts to woo us with her labyrinthine footnotes or wow us with a peek at the skeletons in her late husband’s closet. Instead, she simply aims to tell us an important story about her life with an extraordinary man who lost his mother to Auschwitz and his father to the Gestapo, who cradled a gun in the French Resistance and investigated Nazi war crimes as a teenager, who trudged through jungles and rice paddies to document foreign blunders in Vietnam, who won her heart with letters from the world’s most dangerous highway, and who suffered greatly to tell his version of the truth—ultimately paying with his life to issue a cry against hubristic U.S. interventions that echoes all the more urgently today.
The particular implications of this legacy for readers and thinkers in 2006 is exactly what Dorothy Fall and I chatted about over a plate of smoked salmon in her Washington, D.C., home recently: me, a college student familiar with war only through the pixels of a TV and computer screen, and her, a more seasoned veteran torn between her palpable commitment to political optimism and her grief at lessons left unlearned. As we continued our dialogue through a series of e-mails and chats in the days that followed, it occurred to me that the finger-wagging Confucius was right about more than just armchair academics: Wasn’t he the one who declared, “To respect your elders is the root of all humanity”?
Sarah Stillman: Listening to George Bush’s recent speeches on Iraq after reading your husband’s work, I got chills down my spine: Again, here we are, waging a war against a caricatured enemy we’ve greatly underestimated, and again, here we are, using flimsy logic to insist that victory waits just around the corner…. Does the war in Iraq have anything to do with why you wrote this book and what you hope it will accomplish? What drove your writing process?
Dorothy Fall: I wrote this book because I had to. I knew from the beginning—that is, shortly after my husband’s death in early 1967—that his was an exceptional, important story. Bernard was so prolific and produced so much material in his very brief life, and his story encompassed so many important themes of the mid-20th century. I wanted to write about how he felt he had a mission to inform [the public] about Vietnam, how important it was for him to see everything firsthand in order to report on it, to take risks. He was the first one who told us that we would not win in Vietnam and who explained why, which of course drew the ire of the U.S. administration….
When we went to war [in Iraq] in 2003, I felt it was even more urgent to get this manuscript done. Bernard’s story is relevant now because the same mistakes are being made in Iraq: We don’t understand the local culture, we have no idea of the history of that region—the place where civilization was born!—and, just like Vietnam, our leadership had no idea that we would be faced with a counterinsurgency. If [President Bush] had bothered to read or understand Bernard’s work, we might never have invaded Iraq. I think that Bernard’s story is a warning about what happens when our government completely ignores the information that was there and goes headlong into a conflict that we know nothing about.
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.
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!
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?
Dorothy Fall: Bernard’s legacy will always matter, just as truth matters. Without it we’d become a country vulnerable to despotic rulers. We’d be in danger of losing our constitutional rights. I feel there is that danger today. What Bernard wrote is relevant to all cultures who are struggling to overcome oppressors.
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.
Dorothy Fall’s new memoir/biography of her late husband, the celebrated political science professor Bernard Fall, tells the story of the first academic-cum-soldier who blew the whistle on the French and American credibility gap in Vietnam.