The Spy Who Loved Us The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, Thomas A. Bass (Public Affairs, NY, 2009).
This is the fascinating, even amazing story of the life of Pham Xuan An, arguably one of the greatest spies of all time, and certainly one of the most successful. Exceptionally intelligent and wonderfully personable, this Vietnamese newsman was widely regarded as the most knowledgeable person in Vietnam during the war and was sought out by other reporters for his information. He knew and collaborated with virtually all of the most import American newsmen. An actually spent two years in California being trained in American journalism, became a reporter for Time magazine, returned to his country and provided the world with the best and most up-to-date accounts of the war in that troubled nation. He was featured in Time magazine and was highly regarded by all. It was not revealed until after the war that An had been a Communist spy for at least fifty years.
Being a reputable newspaper reporter in Saigon most of the time, and also having secret ties with the communist north, An was in a position to know what was happening and believed on both sides. He hobnobbed with American and European reporters, seemingly knew everyone, and because of his personable nature and natural ability as a conversationalist he was always able to discern what the U.S. position was and what we were going to do next. He became an expert on American psychology as well, and as he spoke English, he was an enormous asset to the Communists. When the Tet offensive failed militarily, for example, An recognized it had succeeded psychologically and would change the American outlook on the war. Because he was so knowledgeable about virtually everything he had to be constantly careful not to blow his cover, and walked an extremely difficult and sensitive line for many years. He offered advice to American and other reporters as well as to the communists. Interestingly enough, he pretty much always told the truth to both sides, knowing how each side would react and use the information he provided. Even after he was exposed, most Western reporters refused to believe he had ever deceived them. An also managed to intervene on occasions in order to save the lives of individuals captured by the Communists, often those Americans he regarded as personal friends. Paradoxically, he loved America and Americans even though he fought against them. He believed that after the war Americans and Vietnamese would become friendly once again and that the war was a temporary mistake and should not have been necessary. An did not seem to hate his enemies but, rather, seemed to understand that human nature often led people to do bad things. When asked about the Mai Lai massacre he replied: “Human beings have two parts, an animal part and a human part. Sometimes the animal nature is so strong that you lose your reason. The Vietnamese do this to the Vietnamese. They don’t know whether they are brothers or enemies. Even God cannot explain it.”
If An did not hate Americans he was not so generous to the French. It was against the French that An first became involved as a patriot. He loved his country and valued independence far more than he liked either the French or the Americans. At the time, Communism seemed to offer a solution to the French occupation of his country (he seems to have also had a sort of overly romantic notion of Communism and how it would be to live under it). It seems he admitted to only one episode in which he actually bore arms against anyone and that did not amount to much. But his information was so valuable to the Communists it was largely responsible for their unusual success against the overwhelming American superiority in arms. When An was given an honorary military burial his medals were revealed, fourteen of them in all, and each one marked an important victory against the enemies of his country. During his lifetime he fought constantly for independence, from France, the U.S., and China. He did not seek nor acquire any personal fortune, what little money he had he saved to be used to support his wife and children after he was gone (he believed he would be eventually exposed, put in prison and tortured). Happily, he avoided such a fate and died at 79 a hero to his country.
Pham Xuan An was truly a remarkable man for any time or place. Although Thomas Bass interviewed him many times, read his articles and articles about him, interviewed many who knew him, and pursued his story diligently, it is unlikely that the full story of his achievements will ever be known. He was a modest man, I believe he did what he believed he had to do, was not necessarily proud of all he had to do, and preferred it be left largely unknown.