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The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game

by Thomas Bass. Public Affairs Books, 2009, $26.95.

One of the first lessons in understanding the enigma of Vietnam was taught to me by a veteran Vietnamese photographer: “Don, you must always remember, a Vietnamese without secrets is nobody.” As a young freelancer for Time, I befriended a Vietnamese who knew and shared more secrets than any other, Pham Xuan An. “Ask An,” was the mantra around the office when discussing the best way to cover an upcoming military operation. An, hunched behind a small desk piled with papers, his German Shepherd at his feet, would always respond like a kindly school teacher, particularly to newly arrived freelancers learning the ropes. We suspected An had CIA connections, but never dreamed he would become known as among the greatest spies of the 20th century. It is difficult to put a yardstick on An’s craft of espionage when held up to the Rosenbergs, Kim Philby or Richard Sorge.

Veteran journalist Stanley Karnow was the first to report on An’s double life in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. In May 2005, Thomas Bass, author and professor of English and journalism at the State University of New York, published a detailed story of An’s life in The New Yorker. Before Bass could enlarge his research into a book, An informed him he was no longer authorized to speak to him. Permission for a magazine article was one thing, but a book for Bass was not to be encouraged.

Larry Berman published Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An in 2007 and both books are excellent biographies, based on skillful and exhaustive interviews with An. The Bass book contains fascinating insights and context on people and subjects that touched An’s life, from alleged French and CIA drug dealing to high praise for the work of Ed Lansdale’s operations. But one must ask: If An deceived every foreign journalist he ever met, how much did he deceive his communist handlers and, in his final years, did he deceive authors Berman and Bass? Even if, as An insisted, he never planted false information, how much of the truth did he leave out? While reading Bass’s compelling story about An’s exploits, a Vietnamese proverb comes to mind. “The tongue has no bones, it can be twisted in any direction.”

In September 2005, a year before he died of emphysema, Pham Xuan An sat before my video cam era for a last interview in English, still cheerfully smoking his Lucky Strikes. An knew his days were numbered. “I have always been a fatalist, my spirit is in balance,” he chuckled. “I have been enjoying my cigarettes for 52 years, but only suffered emphysema for three.”

Smoking was a mild hazard to his health compared to tripping between Saigon news offices and the tunnels of Cu Chi in his role as Agent Z.21. A well-chosen introductory quote from Graham Greene opens Bass’s book: “With his eyes open, knowing the consequences, he entered the territory of lies without a passport for return.”

An died in 2006, having never written a memoir. “I would have to name names,” he said. “And that’s not good. A lot of people helped me out of personal friendships. There is no reason to betray them now.”

Bass describes a scene from An’s funeral. “On display beside the open coffin, framed behind glass and pinned on a field of black cloth were An’s sixteen medals. The medals were said to be awarded for specific battles and campaigns which had been won thanks to An’s tactical engagement.”

It would seem that An had a hand in virtually every major victory of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces, including two pivotal ones: the battle of Ap Bac in 1963 and the Tet Offensive of 1968. At Ap Bac, Viet Cong forces managed to defeat the ARVN, who were supported by newly arrived American helicopters and artillery. The result shocked the U.S. military. An provided key intelligence to the VC on the forces they would face, and how to engage helicopters and personnel carriers.

In preparation for Tet, An spent two years guiding VC scouts to 20 key targets in Saigon. Bass calls Tet a modern move, a kind of “psyops ballet,” which could only succeed if given the right spin. An, it now appears, provided the intelligence, encouragement and strategy at Tet, as well as the press spin. He is credited with convincing North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap, as well as his western journalist colleagues, of the psychological impact of Tet; never mind that more than 40,000 Communist troops had been killed and the VC virtually decimated. Tet helped drive LBJ from office and General Westmoreland from command.

Bass writes that An also had a hand in tipping off his comrades to the U.S. 1st Cavalry’s strike against the North Vietnamese at Ia Drang and the ARVN invasion of Laos, and was key to the planning for the final push on Saigon in 1975. “He mapped the battlefield strategy and helped lay the trap that led to the Communist victory, and then he went out and got the story reported.” Bass backs up many of An’s military exploits through interviews with An’s accomplices.

An’s friends and foes alike believe he took most of his secrets to his grave. There are nearly 500 reports he wrote for his commanders, some more than 100 pages, sealed in the Politburo files on the war.

Oscar Wilde used to say, “One duty we owe history is to re-write it.” Because of extraordinary people like Pham Xuan An, history is an argument without end.


Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.