Military Myths & Legends: The Perfect Spy
By LtCol Mike Christy-TogetherWeServed Dispatches
Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an ever better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a fountain of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. He was also a masterful double agent, an inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the 1980s, when he was honored in his homeland as a national hero and revealed to have the rank of Colonel. He ranks as one of the greatest spies of the twentieth century.
As a reporter for Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor and Time magazine, An covered American and South Vietnamese military and diplomatic events and was one of a handful of reporters admitted to off-the-record briefings by American authorities. In appreciation for his dedicated work, Time made him a full staff correspondent, the only Vietnamese to be given that distinction by a major American news organization.
An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s café, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat” – the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’état,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in Revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.
At the same time, An was delivering a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink to North Vietnamese Politburo authorities in Hanoi, using an ingenious series of dead-letter drops. He was also using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service to write dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film disguised as egg rolls hidden inside rotting fish, his typewritten reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. In addition, every few weeks beginning in 1952, An would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy.
An’s role was so precarious that of the 45 couriers and agents responsible for getting his intelligence to the Communists, 27 of them were captured and/or killed. His writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung – An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.
Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 just north-east of Saigon in Binh Truoc in what was then French Indochina. As the firstborn son of a government surveyor establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier,An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.
At the beginning of World War II, France was swiftly conquered by Nazi Germany and the governing of France and the colonial French Indochina passed to the Vichy French government, a Puppet state of Nazi Germany. At the same time, Japanese forces invaded Vietnam. The Vichy government relinquished control of Hanoi and Saigon to Japan, and by 1941, Japan extended its control over the whole of French Indochina.
In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned home from China and founded the Viet Minh – a communist-dominated independence movement – to fight both the Japanese occupiers and the Vichy French. Assisting him in his guerrilla warfare was his most trusted and devoted Lieutenants; General Vo Nguyen Giap, a brilliant military strategists, and Pham Van Dong.
During the Japanese occupation, An dropped out of school at the age of 16 to become a courier for the Viet Minh. He also participated in several battles against the Japanese before training as a French customs inspector.
In April 1945, Ho Chi Minh met with members of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and offered to provide intelligence to the allies provided that he could have “a line of communication with the allies.” The OSS agreed to this and later sent a military team to train Ho’s men tactics for fighting jungle warfare.
With the Allied defeat of Germany and Japan ending World War II in 1945, the occupation of Vietnam by the Japanese also came to an end. With their departure, the French restored colonial control over Indochina in 1946. But the desire for independence from French domination had taken over the country and Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh launched a long and bloody guerrilla war against French colonial forces that lasted for eight years.
In 1952, An became an undercover spy for the Communist Party of Vietnam working as a censor for the French colonial government. One of his first tasks was to black out Graham Greene’s journalistic dispatches: the French authorities were convinced that Greene worked for British intelligence – which, indeed, he sometimes did.
On May 22, 1954, the French rule over Vietnam came to a dramatic and bloody end at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Under the skilled leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap, Viet Minh forces overwhelmingly defeated the French, thus ending 67 years of French colonial occupation of French Indochina.
At the International Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, the French government and the Viet Minh made an agreement that effectively gave Communist-domination in North Vietnam above the 17th parallel and a U.S. supported government of South Vietnam below the 17th parallel. For one year, South Vietnam was ruled by Emperor Bao Dai until his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, created the Republic of Vietnam. Soon an insurgency, backed by the North, developed against Diem’s government. The conflict gradually escalated into the Vietnam War.
An could not avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, but using family connections, he got himself assigned as an aide to Col. Edward Lansdale (who later retired as a U.S. Army Major General), the famous American counter-insurgency officer and former member of the OSS who played an instrumental role in early U.S. support for the fledgling anti-communist regime in Saigon in the late 1950s. It was working with Lansdale and his collogues where An learned the spycraft he would employ in his next twenty years as a Communist spy.
In 1957, the Communists secretly decided to pay An’s passage to America to study and train to be a journalist to cover for future spying. For two years he studied journalism at Orange County College in Costa Mesa, California. Upon graduating, he served an internship at the Sacramento Bee newspaper. He adored the United States and almost didn’t return to Vietnam, especially after his case officer was arrested and tortured. Once he had returned, he contacted another family friend, Tran Kin Tuyen, who was the intelligence chief of South Vietnam under President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Tran Kin Tuyen put him in charge of the Vietnamese intelligence officers who were working for a government news agency, but he quickly moved on to Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor and then, in the mid-1960s, Time Magazine, where he stayed until April 1975 and the fall of Saigon.
As the American presence in the Vietnam War became more involved, An befriended everyone who was anyone based in Saigon, including such noted journalists as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, the CIA’s William Colby, Charlie Mohr, Frank McCulloch, David Greenway, Richard Clurman, Bob Shaplen, and other highly respected war journalists, plus the most influential members of the South Vietnamese government and Army. None of them ever guessed that he was also providing strategic intelligence to Hanoi.
An spent two years assisting Viet Cong scouts in targeting key sites to attack during the surprise 1968 Tet Offensive. He advised the Communists to ignore the Treasury, where only cash salaries were dispersed and instead urged them to focus on the Court House, which had a huge stash of gold bars captured from numerous smugglers and stored there for their frequent trials. The Renault car they used to crisscross Saigon is now on display in the Museum of Military Intelligence in Hanoi. It later emerged that the two people who were awarded North Vietnam’s highest military award were the commander at the battle of Ap Bac in 1963, and Pham Xuan An for his role in the Tet Offensive in 1968, the two most pivotal turning points in the protracted war in Indochina.
With Communists forces moving toward Saigon in1975, An persuaded American officials to fly several Vietnamese friends out of the country, saying they would be punished by the Communists if they were left behind. His wife and four children were also taken to the United States, but he remained behind to care for his sick mother.
“Here is Pham Xuan An now,” he cabled Time magazine’s New York headquarters on April 29, 1975, as their last reporter in Vietnam. “All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency. The office of Time is now manned by Pham Xuan An.” An filed three more reports from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the city. Then the line went dead.
Shortly after the fall of Saigon, An was interrogated by the communists and put under house arrest to ensure he had no further contact with Westerners. Although he was treated with some suspicion by members of the Politburo, the intelligence services regretted that he had not gone to the U.S., where it was thought he could have alerted the new government to any counter-revolutionary moves by America. But, as he was suspected of being “corrupted” by capitalism after decades of living in South Vietnam as a spy in close contact with the Americans, the Viet Cong sentenced him to a year-long imprisonment in a “soft” re-education camp near Hanoi.
It was only after the war that correspondents like Frank McCulloch of Time, David Halberstam of The New York Times and Morley Safer of CBS News learned that their colleague had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army. What’s perhaps just as striking in the story of Pham Xuan An is the good will his former colleagues still feel toward him.
“He was among the best-connected journalists in the country,” Safer wrote in “Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam,” in which he devoted an entire chapter to An. “It was alwaysAn who would brief new correspondents; it wasAn who even the competition sought when trying to unravel the hopelessly complicated threads of Vietnamese political loyalties.”
“He felt it was doing his patriotic duty by being an agent,” Stanley Karnow, An’s friend and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a reporter for The Washington Post, “but we were his friends, and he had great admiration for the United States.” An also told Karnow that his years in America “were the best years of my life.” An, Karnow said, admired the communists as nationalists, “but their ignorance and arrogance have only given us misery.”
Frank McCulloch, the Saigon bureau chief for Time during the war, said: “It tore him up. If circumstances had been reversed, if hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had occupied my land, I probably would have done the same thing.”
David Greenway, who worked for the Time during the period, was a close friend and would regularly bring An exotic songbirds from Hong Kong and Bangkok markets for his large collection. Greenway recalled him as a shy, affectionate and kind man who was very smart.
“He was an intellectual, dog-lover, bird-lover, a chain-smoker, super smart guy, and we thought a great reporter,” said Peter Ross Range, who was Time’s Saigon Bureau Chief in 1975. “ButAn was also a little strange. He would disappear for days at a time and nobody had any idea where he was. Now, of course, we know where he was at least part of that time.” That would, of course, be his trips to meet with the Politburo in North Vietnam.
Though his four children and wife evacuated to the United States at the end of the war, he soon summoned them to come home, something An told his friend Stanley Karnow “was the stupidest thing I ever did. Around that time, suspicions began to arise among his American friends. By the 1980s, those suspicions had been publicly confirmed: An was honored in his homeland as a national hero.
An never told a lie, so he was able to keep his own story straight. He was also able to maintain the respect of his colleagues. Many of his Time friends met with him on return trips to Vietnam, and several – including Stanley Cloud – later helped raise $30,000 from An’s friends to send his son to study in the U.S., but An himself was denied a visa to attend a conference in 1997 in New York.
“He was a great man. A great man,” Cloud, said, reflecting on that period. “When I found out, I was surprised but I wasn’t astonished, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t think he ever purposely gave us misinformation. That’s how he survived. He’d have been killed if he did,” echoes Roy Rowan, a long-time Time and Life staffer who worked in Saigon for the magazine at the end of the war. Rowan recalls a three-hour-long, highly emotional conversation during which he tried to convince An to save his own life by evacuating with the rest of the staff. An declined, insisting he was staying behind to care for his ailing mother.
His biographers have also been unable to find evidence that he spread falsehoods. “I was hoping to find evidence that the stories had been slanted, but I couldn’t find it,” says Larry Berman, author of the biography “Perfect Spy” – a book about An’s life adventures – said that it’s not surprising that, 40 years later, the story of Pham Xuan An is not seen by former friends as a tale of betrayal. “An loved America, appreciated the free press, was respected by his colleagues – but he loved his own country more, and wanted it to be independent,” Berman said. Today, Berman believes most Americans see the war the way that An did, agreeing with him that it would have been better for the Americans to go home.
“An thought, naively, that when the war was over it would be just like the end of the American Civil war, where Lincoln said “with malice toward none,'” Berman said. “People hold onto him as a symbol of war, but really he’s a symbol of peace.”
In fact, it seems more likely that having a spy on the staff helped Time cover the war more accurately. Cloud recalls a time during the Paris Peace Accord negotiations when Newsweek’s Saigon bureau chief bragged about having the details of the peace plan; Time asked An to see what he could find so that the magazine wouldn’t get scooped. An brought back the outline of the plan. The story that Time ran that week, Cloud recalls, was more accurate than Newsweek’s.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that even though An appeared to have been careful not to endanger his colleagues – he intervened in at least one case to keep a Time correspondent safe – the information he was able to provide to the North was not without military value. “Could his information have led directly to the deaths of American soldiers? And if so, should we be rethinking our love for Pham Xuan An?” asks Peter Range. “Personally, he was a great guy – but he’s out creating situations which could have killed young men from our side and of course that’s what he was supposed to do. And if that’s what he was doing, you need to think about that.”
Still Range stands by An. When he learned the truth about his former colleague, he felt “disbelief, shock, but not anger,” he says. “Everything was upside-down. So the fact that this turned out to be upside-down seemed like another one of the strange anomalies of the time.”
His family returned to live with him in Vietnam in the late Seventies, although his daughter lives in the U.S. He was certainly loyal to many non-Communist friends. Robert Sam Anson, a former Time journalist and now a writer, discovered that it was through An’s anonymous intervention that he was released from captivity after being taken by North Vietnamese soldiers while on a story during the 1970 Cambodian invasion.
An was given the rank of Colonel when first revealed to the world as a spy, later promoted to brigadier general, and then to major-general. He never lost his belief in the justice of the Communist cause but was torn between his love of the U.S. and the totalitarian nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party. He was convinced in 2002 that he was only kept in service so that Vietnamese intelligence could keep an eye on him.
An had no regrets about his double life during the war. “The truth? Which truth?” he said in his interview with Morley Safer. “One truth is that for 10 years I was a staff correspondent for Time magazine, and before that Reuters. The other truth is that I joined the movement in 1944 and in one way or another have been part of it ever since. Two truths – both truths are true.”
In 2005, the New Yorker published a nearly10,000 word profile of An, in which he remarked that he was not yet ready to die: “There’s nowhere for me to go. Hell is reserved for crooks, but there are so many of them in Vietnam, it’s full.”
Pham Xuan An – a Lucky Strike chain smoker – died from emphysema at a military hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006 at the age of 79. He was given a hero’s funeral.