During the Vietnam War, Time reporter Pham Xuan An befriended everyone who was anyone in Saigon, including American journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, the CIA's William Colby, and the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale—not to mention the most influential members of the South Vietnamese government and army. None of them ever guessed that he was also providing strategic intelligence to Hanoi, smuggling invisible ink messages into the jungle inside egg rolls. His early reports were so accurate that General Giap joked, "We are now in the U.S. war room." For more than twenty years, An lived a dangerous lie—and no one knew it because he was a master of both his jobs.
After the war, An was named a Hero of the People's Army and was promoted to general—one of only two intelligence officers to ever achieve that rank.
In Perfect Spy, Larry Berman, who An considered his official American biographer, chronicles the extraordinary life of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating spies. In doing so, he offers a new perspective on a war that continues to haunt us.
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Larry Berman has written four previous books on the war in Vietnam: Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road To Stalemate in Vietnam; No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam and Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent. He has been featured on C-SPAN Book TV, Bill Moyers' The Public Mind and David McCullough's American Experience. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fellow in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He received the Bernath Lecture Prize for contributions to our understanding of foreign relations and the Department of the Navy Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper Research Grant. Berman is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and Founding Dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
All the American journalists in Saigon knew Pham Xuan An, a ubiquitous
presence in our midst, a fixture at Givral's -- the café on Tu Do Street in the center of town where the gossip was thick enough to pick up with chopsticks -- and one of the best Vietnamese explainers of Vietnam to Americans. Soon after I arrived in Saigon in March 1969, Robert Shaplen, the New Yorker's Asian correspondent, advised me to get to know An because he knew everybody. I followed Shaplen's advice. Every American news organization with a Saigon bureau had one or more Vietnamese journalists on retainer to help us hapless correspondents, almost none of whom spoke any Vietnamese or knew the country's history and politics. Most of these people labored anonymously, but because he was so good and so useful, An's employer, Time magazine, put his name on its masthead and treated him as a full-fledged correspondent. But An, a garrulous charmer, was eager to help everyone, not just Time correspondents. He always seemed available for a conversation. One of his biggest assets was his excellent English. In the 1950s An had studied journalism and politics at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. Today Orange County is a center of Vietnamese-American life, with hundreds of thousands of residents who came from Vietnam or were born to those who did, but An used to joke that he had been the first Vietnamese to live in the county. There he mastered the English language and learned a lot about Americans, too.
An's many successes in life grew from his ability to please people who could help him, including the South Vietnamese government officials who decided to send him to California. When I first knew him, he seemed like a classic example of a Vietnamese type: a resourceful entrepreneur who could make his way by making the right friends. But all of us who worked with him had to radically revise our impressions in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that the An we knew had been an invention. An, it turned out, had been working throughout the war, and back to the 1940s, for the communists. He was a spy -- the perfect spy, as Prof. Larry Berman of the University of California at Davis argues. After reading this book, it is difficult to dispute that characterization. An had many American friends who were or became famous writers, from Shaplen and David Halberstam to Neil Sheehan and Stanley Karnow, but for reasons he has taken to his grave, it was Berman in whom he confided the aspects of his secret life that none of us previously knew. The two met in Saigon -- now technically Ho Chi Minh City, though still Saigon to the natives -- in 2001. They became friends and then collaborators on this book.
Berman is no literary stylist. John le Carré could have turned this story into something Smiley would have envied; Berman tells it in Joe Friday fashion. Nor did An ever relinquish control, and Berman readily acknowledges that An held back some of his secrets. An also put events in the best possible light. That said, this is an extraordinary story, one that offers new explanations of several key events of the war. In each case, we learn of a critical role played by Pham Xuan An. Because everyone believed that An was an anti-communist Time magazine correspondent, he had extraordinary access to information from both Americans and South Vietnamese. He used this access ingeniously. Three examples:
Early in the war, before the arrival of U.S. combat forces, American advisers to the South Vietnamese helped the army of President Ngo Dinh Diem devise new tactics for fighting Vietcong guerrillas with the assistance of American helicopters, potentially a powerful weapon in a guerrilla war. An learned all about the new tactics from South Vietnamese and American sources and conveyed details to his masters in the North. The generals in Hanoi helped Vietcong commanders develop countertactics that were tested in one of the most important battles of the early war, at the village of Ap Bac just 30 miles south of Saigon. In January 1963, Vietcong forces clobbered the South Vietnamese in that engagement, shot down five U.S. helicopters, killed three American advisers and wounded five more. An's information had been critical.
In late 1967, An's masters told him their secret plans to launch the Tet Offensive early in 1968. He thought this was a bad idea -- he doubted the South Vietnamese people would join the "general uprising" the communists hoped the Tet attacks would provoke. But his job was to help prepare for the attacks, so for days he scouted out potential targets in Saigon, looking for soft spots in the city's defenses. He boldly brought his commander into the city and showed him around, introducing him as a bird collector and dealer (An collected birds himself) from out of town. The intelligence they gathered helped the communists infiltrate forces into Saigon for the offensive.
A third key moment came in 1975, when the North Vietnamese doubted they could march to Saigon uncontested. They thought it would take several years longer to lay the groundwork. An helped persuade them that the situation was ripe to take the initiative; of course, he was proved right.
The conquering North Vietnamese marched into Saigon and won a hard-fought victory, but they never really trusted Pham Xuan An. He was "re-educated," used as a consultant to explain American actions, but never entrusted with a serious job. The North Vietnamese must have suspected his revolutionary credentials. They were right to do so. An liked Americans and American ways too much to ever be a loyal Marxist-Leninist. I returned to Vietnam in 1994 and had two long conversations with An, then frail but still alive to the world around him. He said he was happy to talk but asked me not to quote him by name. I wanted him to discuss the American war and its consequences for Vietnam and for us, but An was bored by those topics. "You won World War III," he said a little impatiently, obviously referring to the Cold War. "So you lost a skirmish here -- so what?" Was he sad about that outcome? I thought not. An's cause was the unification and independence of Vietnam, not Marxism-Leninism. He had been frustrated by his own fate in the unified Vietnam, but the outcome of "World War III" seemed to suit him fine. An died in September 2006, of emphysema. Nearly 80, he'd been a chain smoker for half a century.
Berman's book appears 32 years after the war, yet, amazingly, adds significantly to our understanding of what happened. Students of American failures -- who have had so much new material to ponder -- will be richly rewarded by reading this book. So will le Carré fans -- not for its style but for its remarkable substance.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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