The Quiet Vietnamese

Pham Xuan An was a respected colleague of American reporters in Vietnam— and Hanoi’s most valuable spy.

For most of us who did time in Saigon covering the Vietnam War, a favorite spot was the old French colonial Continental Palace Hotel. It had history, character, and a strategic location in the heart of the cityit faced the old opera house, flanked the famous rue Catinat of French colonial days, and sat catty-cornered from the government press filing center.

The gracefully aging three-story building, with its potted palms, high ceilings, and slow revolving fans, had the decadent feel of a Somerset Maugham novel. It was, after all, where Graham Greene had come in the 1950s to researchand setThe Quiet American, his classic novel of American political navet about the Third World. There was a great inner patio at the Continental Palace for al fresco dining after the nightly curfew rang down. And, more importantly, it housed Saigons best bar, known to the cognoscenti as “The Shelf” for its openness to the streets outside. It was here that every manner of spooks, hacks, diplomats, and Hawaiian-shirted off-duty military types gathered daily to swap tall tales, recent rumors, and political gossip. They did all this while gazing out over chilled beers at the ever-fascinating theater of the absurd along Tu Do Street, which was what the old rue Catinat had been renamed after the departure of the French.

The Continental Palace and its immediate environs comprised a major center of news gathering. Not only did such sages of the war as the New Yorkers Robert Shaplen and the Chicago Daily Newss Keyes Beech make the hotel their base in Saigon, but Newsweek and Time had their bustling bureaus on its second floor. Most visiting media stars either camped out there on their way to visit with the generals and ambassadors or used the Shelf as their unofficial office and briefing center to double-check what they heard on their official rounds. It was on the Shelf at the end of a hard day at the front that one repaired for unofficial assignations to exchange information gleaned, sniff the air for newly planned political and military initiatives, or get hints of intended plots and coups.

But the real reason the Continental Palace was such an important center of news was that it was thereat the Time office, or just across the street in the Caf Givralthat one found a slight, gaunt, and unassuming U.S.-educated Vietnamese journalist named Pham Xuan An. Covering the war first as a freelancer for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor, then for the Reuters news agency, and finally, in the last ten years of the war, for Time, An was a legend among those seeking to understand Vietnam and its wars. Journalists, diplomats, and even the CIA agents who came to know and trust him considered An the single best-informed journalist in the country.

An briefed everyonefellow journalists, diplomats, and intelligence agents of all manner and nationalities. He was everyones interpreter of all things Vietnamese: its history, its culture, its belief systems, and its personalities, both past and current. He was a shrewd analyst of Vietnamese politics and wartime strategies. He was also very good company, a man of wit and charm.

By virtue of his position of trust and knowledge as well as his standing as a member of the U.S. press corps, An was also privy to everyone elses briefings, official and unofficial. Those who went to him for information also imparted their own. And what he didnt glean in conversations with the journalists, diplomats, and officials who came to sit at his table at Givrals, he got from attending official and often off-the-record briefings by South Vietnamese and U.S. officials as a staff member of Time or by reading the voluminous reports his fellow Time correspondents filed to their home office weekly.

All this access may have made An the most successful spy in history. When in 1973 the U.S. finally threw in the towel in Vietnam and fled Saigon by helicopter, An took over the Time bureau and filed several major stories about the Communist takeover of the country. Then, in 1976, he was identified as having been Hanois master spy in the south during the decades-old war and officially honored as a Hero of the Peoples Armed Forces, the newly united Vietnams highest military honor. By the time of his death in 2006, An had been promoted to general.

In the ten years of what Hanoi calls the “American War,” An filed 498 intelligence reports for Hanoi according to Vietnamese reports since the wars end. Sent out of Saigon clandestinely to the Viet Congs Cu Chi tunnels complex, the reports were relayed on to Hanoi, where they were personally read by President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. (Their strategic analysis was so well documented that President Ho is said to have once remarked, upon reading an An report, “We are now in the U.S. war room!”)

Much of the story of Ans life and times (and his duplicity) as related by Thomas Bass in his latest book, The Spy Who Loved Us, is not new. This is the second An biography written by an American in the past two years (the other being Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, by Larry Berman). Beyond the stories An told Bass during a series of interviews before his death, there is much material gleaned from two officially sanctioned biographies published in Vietnam in recent years, and the serialization of Ans life in several Vietnamese newspapers. What is new, however, is Basss thesis that An was not just a benign secret agent writing informed intelligence reports for the Vietnamese Communist leadership in Hanoi, but also an important military strategist and tactician who, while working in a position of trust and friendship with the Americans in Saigon, provided the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military with targeting and fighting guidance.

Bass depicts An as a classic Vietnamese nationalist opposed to the long list of foreigners whom Vietnam has had to fight for its independence over the millennia. An came of age at World War IIs end, just as the French replaced the Japanese as Vietnams occupiers. Like so many ardent nationalists, he joined the Communist Party in the early 1950s because it was the only party able and organized to fight the French.

His early training was as a platoon commander in the Mekong Delta. But his superiors quickly realized that his wit and intellect would better help the cause if he worked as a secret agent in Saigon rather than as just another guerilla in the bush. His career as a spy began as a lowly post office censor during the time when Graham Greene was filing his reports on the French war. By the time the French were defeated at Diem Bien Phu in 1954, An had been drafted into the South Vietnamese army and, through the good offices of an influential cousin, sent to work at the South Vietnamese military headquarters. Bass makes much of how it was at that job that An had his first important contacts with the Americans whom he would come to both admire and betray. With the French defeat, and the arrival in Saigon of the legendary Col. Edward Landsdale and his CIA sidekick Lucien “Black Luigi” Conein, the United States made its first intelligence forays into Vietnamese politics. An became the Americans local guide and protg.

Ironically, it was through Landsdale and Conein that An, the future master spy, began to learn the craft of spying and counterinsurgency that would eventually help lead to the U.S. failures in Vietnam. The two Americans taught him basic tradecraft and, more importantly, introduced him to the writings of Sherman Kent, the Yale professor and World War II intelligence guru who helped found the CIA, as well as other theorists of guerilla warfare.

But it was the foresight of Communist Party handlers that sealed Ans formation and future cover as a spy. After the French were defeated, it became clear to Hanoi that they would also have to fight the Americans for their independence. The party scraped together some money, and sent An to the United States to study their new emerging enemy.

An enrolled in Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, in 1957. As Bass relates, “An studied political science, American government, economics, sociology, psychology, Spanish and journalism.” He also wrote for the college newspaper, Barnacle, and graduated in the spring of 1959 with an associate degree in journalism. He then spent two months working as an intern on the Sacramento Bee, bought a car, and drove across the United States to New York City for a second internship at the United Nations. Then, in October, trained as a journalist and knowledgeable about the United States, its people, and its ways, he flew back to Vietnam, ready for work.

The rest, one might say, is history. He worked his way to a distinguished staff position at Time in the usual way of war correspondency: by beginning to establish a reputation freelancing for newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor that couldnt yet afford a full staff of reporters in Vietnam, then working for the wiresUnited Press International, and then
Reuters. He joined Time in 1964, just as the United States was sending its first troops into battle against the Communist forces of the north.

Most of Ans former colleagues in the U.S. press corps have defended him in the years since the war ended, insisting that he never let his spying get in the way of practicing honest journalism, and that he always remained an admirer of the United States. But Bass alleges that An had a more direct, hands-on role in the wara role that made him directly responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers. Bass maintains that Ans reports werent only for distant eyes in Hanoi, but frequently informed battlefield commanders on how to fight their American foes on the ground in South Vietnam. Bass says that this was the case, for example, in 1963, in the battle of Ap Bac, south of Saigon, where for the first time a major Viet Cong unit stood and fought a U.S.-advised South Vietnamese unit; the Viet Cong was able to down U.S.-supplied helicopters, using tactics recommended by An. And, more importantly, Bass writes in detail about how An drove a senior North Vietnamese intelligence official around Saigon on the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, personally selecting targets (such as the U.S. embassy) for attack.

This is a fascinating spy story about a fascinating and engaging manbut it is also much, much more. For Ans story reveals a great deal about how and why the Vietnamese Communists ended up defeating the better-armed U.S. force. It speaks to how little American officials, military and otherwise, really knew and understood, not only their opponents in the field, but also the agents planted among them. Most devastatingly, the U.S. failed to understand how shrewd and methodical a foe the Vietnamese were, to have trained and planted such an amazing spy in their midst, well before the United States had even committed itself to war in their land.

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