Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent
By Larry Berman
In the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Pham Xuan An is a cult hero and the subject of two officially sanctioned books and a 10-part television documentary produced by Ho Chi Minh television in 2005. An's battered Renault is enshrined in an Army museum along with the pistols his comrade Tu Cang used to kill two American officers. When An died last September, Vietnam proclaimed two days of public tribute before a funeral with full military honors. He is buried beside other spies in special area of Ho Chi Minh City national cemetery.
There is even a character who represents Pham Xuan An in the 2002 remake of The Quiet American, starring Michael Caine. The film was a big hit in Vietnam where An is the communist equivalent of royalty. He got all those honors by helping the Communist regime prevail, and for being responsible for thousands of American deaths.
An joined the Communist party in 1953, at the tail end of the Stalin Era. "I followed what they told me to do," An helpfully explains. The Party wanted him to choose journalism and learn American culture, in order to become a better spy. According to Larry Berman, Pham Xuan An was motivated only by the "noblest of goals for Vietnamese nationalism." An fought "for liberty and against poverty," according to Berman, a political science professor at UC Davis and author of three books on Vietnam.
An became a spy, Berman explains, "when Communist Party leaders recognized that the United States was well under way in a process of replacing the French colonialists in Vietnam." Actually, the emerging colonial power was the Soviet Union, whose expansion the United States was trying to contain.
According to Party bosses, An was the only agent they sent to America, where he attended Orange Coast College, then became something of a celebrity while interning at the Sacramento Bee. He struck up key friendships and learned the culture well before Communist Party bosses ordered him back to South Vietnam. There his language, networking and schmoozing skills proved a strategic asset for the VC major cause: unification of the country under a Soviet-backed Communist dictatorship. An's many contacts provided him with classified information, which he never had to steal. His reports put the Viet Cong right in the U.S. war room.
To Berman's credit, he includes the judgment of An's Time colleague Zalin Grant who said in a 2005 letter to the New Yorker that after enjoying access to briefings by generals Westmoreland, Abrams and ambassadors Lodge and Bunker, on operations and strategy, An would disappear, "presumably to brief his comrades in the tunnels of Cu Chi. I have always questioned the American journalists who insist on romanticizing An. It was one thing to have been against the Vietnam War – many of us were – but quite another to express unconditional admiration for a man who spent a large part of his life pretending to be a journalist while helping to kill Americans."
Berman concedes An's actions brought suffering and death to many, "albeit in indirect ways." As Berman told the Sacramento Bee, "He spied just for his country. Whether he was an enemy or not, I consider that a noble thing." An claims that he never knowingly hurt anyone and was just defending his country. That will come as little consolation to relatives and friends of those with names on that long black wall in Washington. Perfect Spy is a sack dance on their graves.
According to Berman, the VC won the battle of Ab Bac because of his An's work. The United States withdrew troops in 1973 and in 1975, the Russian tanks of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon. Though grateful for his work, the new regime thought An had too much contact with Americans and submitted him to a "detoxification" process before making him a big star. Berman doesn't go into it, but the new Stalinist regime in Vietnam was more repressive than its Soviet sponsors, without liberty but with plenty of poverty. (Readers might want to consult The Vietnamese Gulag by Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff, and various Amnesty International reports.)
No detail here about the "re-education" camps, and nothing about the fleeing boat people, though An supposedly tipped some off to the best ocean currents and shipping routs. One doubts it, along with his claim that, "If I had known during the war that we would just be trading the Americans for the Russians, I'd have stuck with the Americans.
Berman's fathomless credulity buys it all but maintains some sense of mystery. Why, for example, was the son of a Pham Xuan An, a key Communist spy, allowed into the United States at a time when visas were hard to get? An Phem, who had also studied in the USSR, graduated from the University of North Carolina then went to law school at Duke on a Fulbright fellowship. Perfect Spy includes a photo of Ah Phem posing in Ho Chi Minh City with President George W. Bush.
Berman suggests this is a question that might never be answered, but he does settle others. Perfect Spy goes the extra mile to serve up a worshipful regime-approved treatment of a dutiful Communist Party member, a Vietnamese general, an agent of totalitarianism, and a man responsible for thousands of American deaths. That is how he should be remembered, not as a friendly guy who thought seals' testicles were an aphrodisiac and became known as the best trainer of fighting cocks in Saigon.
Some people fake their deaths but Pham Xuan An faked his life. He fooled many American journalists and leftists, because they wanted the same things, including American withdrawal. Perfect Spy succeeds at showing adversaries of the United States just how easy it is to spin American academics and journalists.
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