The Spy Of Saigon

December 13, 2007

The Spy Of Saigon
David A. Andelman, 12.11.07, 2:30 PM ET


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A review of Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent by Larry Berman, ($26 Smithsonian Books, 2007).

In November, 1974, in preparation for my departure for Saigon as correspondent for The New York Times, I traveled to Washington for some interviews, including one at the Central Intelligence Agency. I remember that conversation as though it were yesterday–in a small windowless room, with a 40-something gentleman whose name was never divulged. I remember it because it all came true.

At that time, the war in Vietnam was over–as far as America was concerned. South and North Vietnam had been created at peace talks in Paris, much like North and South Korea–nations that it seemed possible might exist for decades if not centuries, side by side, eying each other suspiciously but with neither anxious to blink first.

That was not the Vietnam my CIA interlocutor envisioned however. “I cannot tell you for sure when it will come apart, but it will,” he began. “Here’s what you must look for. First, there will be a small skirmish somewhere in the Central Highlands between the ARVN (our guys) and the Viet Cong. It will not be considered a very big deal. It will probably happen in a place like Phuoc Long or Ban Me Thuot, someplace in the Central Highlands. That will fall easily, then the whole province. Then Vietnam main force units will move down Highway One. They will meet little or no resistance. In days they will be at the gates of Saigon. It will all be over very quickly.” He leaned back, smugly, knowing he had shocked me. Frankly, I told him, I don’t believe it. Every expert I’d consulted believed it would be a slow, gradual erosion. The outcome was never in doubt. But certainly not in the two or three years I’d be based in Saigon. The CIA officer shrugged.

En route to Saigon, Jim Greenfield, The Times’ foreign editor, asked me to stop off in Phnom Penh to hook up with Syd Schanberg, who for years had been covering the Cambodian end of the war. “Just to get the hang of things in case you have to go in and spell him.” On Dec. 14, 1974, I awoke to hear the BBC on the shortwave announcing matter-of-factly the victory of Viet Cong forces in a small town in the Central Highlands–Phuoc Long. An isolated event, the news reader Pippa Harden was calmly proclaiming. I knew better. This was it. The balloon was going up. No one believed me of course, least of all my editors in New York who no doubt thought I had lost my mind.”

Still, by Jan. 7, all of Phuoc Long Province was in communist hands. And just as my anonymous analyst had predicted, North Vietnamese main force units were on the move. Next stop: Ban Me Thuot. On March 10, the attack on this village in the heart of the Central Highlands began. (The North Vietnamese were moving a tad more cautiously than my analyst predicted, holding their breath for a massive American response from B52 bombers, which never came.) Ban Me Thout crumbled in two days. Next stop Pleiku. By April 9, North Vietnamese troops were pouring onto Highway One, headed for Saigon. The fourth largest standing army in the world (the ARVN, armed by the United States) was crumbling by the hour.

In Saigon, everyone began heading for the exits. On April 29, 1975, those Americans still remaining in Saigon awoke to the strains of Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s “A White Christmas” on Armed Forces Radio. It was the signal from the American Embassy. Last chance. To the choppers. The communists were at the gates.

Inside those gates sat one man who, more than any other, had made this moment possible, as Larry Berman recounts in his riveting book, Perfect Spy.

For nearly 20 years An was North Vietnam’s master spy–and at the same time ace correspondent for, successively Reuters and Time magazine, functioning as well as a funnel of information for everyone from The New Yorker‘s Robert Shaplen to David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan to reporters from every American television network and correspondents from Australia to France. Along the way, he saved the lives of some, kept others from making catastrophic errors of fact and judgment–all the time, passing critical strategic and tactical information to those in the communist military hierarchy to whom he owed his true and ultimate allegiance.

The outlines of Phan Xuan An’s story are well known. He was “unmasked” within a few years of the North Vietnamese victory, lionized in the Vietnamese (communist) press, awarded a host of decorations and publicly promoted to the rank of General in the Vietnamese army. But here, for the first time, in his own voice and that of his family and closest friends, is the real life and times of An … or is it?

Dispatched by his North Vietnamese handlers in his 20s to study journalism in California, An’s lifelong mission was to study America and the Americans, learn what motivated them, learn of their actions and, by a deep understanding of their motives, anticipate their next move and the move after that. All this enabled the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese military to stay many steps ahead of anything the Americans could do to their country and whatever military might they could throw at them.

Yet at times it seemed, as Professor Berman astutely points out, that An was working at counter-purposes to his communist masters. During the fall of Saigon, he helped important members of the South Vietnamese government to escape and routinely failed or refused to pass disinformation to important American and other foreign journalists–disinformation that might have substantially influenced public opinion or indeed the course of the war itself.

Having lived in Asia for three years, the birthplace of my son 30 years ago, and maintained a lifelong fascination with the people, their cultures and society, I know that there are always in that part of the world stories within stories. Peel away layers, begin opening the boxes, ever smaller, within other boxes, and you will find more–but rarely all–of the truth. This is what Larry Berman has sought, quite effectively, to do. But he is a fine enough scholar of the region to admit that ultimately despite all his efforts and great talent that he brought to bear on this subject, there might still be secrets that An took to his grave with him. (He died of emphysema on Sept. 20, 2006, eight days after his 79th birthday.)

The questions that remain unanswered cut to the heart of the decades of war, first against the French then against the Americans, and the nature of the society it produced. Might An ultimately have served multiple masters–his own nation, first and foremost, but also the CIA (where he maintained many friends) or the American embassy? Certainly he served well and effectively Time magazine–the beneficiary of innumerable “scoops” from An who most considered by far the best informed journalist in Saigon for decades. But he was also a close enough friend of CIA head William Colby that this master spy asked to see An on both of his visits to Vietnam after the communist takeover.

In the end, Perfect Spy is far more than the much-told story of Pham Xuan An. It is the story of the enormous catastrophe that was Vietnam, the decades of errors in judgment and policy by a host of successive administrations on all sides, and ultimately the personal story of a compelling individual–a study of loyalty and friendship. While Professor Berman writes that An’s real loyalty was to his people and his country, perhaps as he also suggests, he owed his ultimately loyalty only to himself.

David A. Andelman, executive editor of, is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

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