“Here is Pham Xuan An now,” Time’s last reporter in Vietnam cabled the magazine’s New York headquarters on April 29, 1975. “All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency. The office of Time is now manned by Pham Xuan An.” An filed three more reports from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the city. Then the line went dead. During the following year, with An serving as Time’s sole correspondent in postwar Vietnam, the magazine ran articles on “The Last Grim Goodbye,” “Winners: The Men Who Made the Victory,” and “Saigon: A Calm Week Under Communism.” An was one of thirty-nine foreign correspondents working for Time when the Saigon bureau was closed and his name disappeared from the masthead, on May 10, 1976.via A Glimpse of the World via Simon World
Recognized as a brilliant political analyst, beginning with his work in the nineteen-sixties for Reuters and then for the New York Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor, and, finally, as a Time correspondent for eleven years, Pham Xuan An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s cafe, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat”--the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’etat,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.
We now know that this is only half the work An did as a reporter, and not the better half. An sent the North Vietnamese a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink, but it was his typed dispatches, now locked in Vietnam’s intelligence archives and known to us only through secondhand reports, which will undoubtedly rank as his chef d’oeuvre. Using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service, An wrote his dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film, An’s reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. Every few weeks, beginning in 1952, An himself would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. The writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung-An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.
As Saigon fell to the Communists, An, like his fellow-correspondents, was hoping to be evacuated to the United States. Vietnam’s military intelligence agency planned to continue his work in America. The Politburo knew there would be a war-after-the-war, a bitter period of political maneuvering in which the United States launched covert military operations and a trade embargo against Vietnam. Who better to report on America’s intentions than Pham Xuan An? In the last days of the war, An’s wife and their four children were airlifted out of Vietnam and resettled in Washington, D.C. An was anxiously awaiting instructions to follow them, when word came from the North Vietnamese Politburo that he would not be allowed to leave the country.
An was named a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces, awarded four military-exploit medals, and elevated to the rank of brigadier general. He was also sent to a reeducation camp and forbidden to meet Western visitors. His family were brought back to Vietnam, returning a year after they left. The problem with Pham Xuan An, from the perspective of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was that he loved America and Americans, democratic values, and objectivity in journalism. He considered America an accidental enemy who would return to being a friend once his people had gained their independence. An was the Quiet Vietnamese, the representative figure who was at once a lifelong revolutionary and an ardent admirer of the United States. He says he never lied to anyone, that he gave the same political analyses to Time that he gave to Ho Chi Minh. He was a divided man of utter integrity, someone who lived a lie and always told the truth.
“An’s story strikes me as something right out of Graham Greene,” says David Halberstam, who was friends with An when he was a Times reporter in Vietnam. “It broaches all the fundamental questions: What is loyalty? What is patriotism? What is the truth? Who are you when you’re telling these truths?” He adds, “There was an ambivalence to An that’s almost impossible for us to imagine. In looking back, I see he was a man split right down the middle.”
In his 1965 book on Vietnam, “The Making of a Quagmire,” Halberstam described An as the linchpin of “a small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists and writers. An, he wrote, “had the best military contacts in the country.” Now that Halberstam knows An’s story, does he bear him any grudges? “No,” he says, echoing the opinion of almost all of An’s former colleagues. “It’s a story full of intrigue, smoke and mirrors, but I still think fondly of An. I never felt betrayed by An. He had to deal with being Vietnamese at a tragic time in their history, when there was nothing but betrayal in the air.”
15 June 2005
Time Reporter a North Vietnamese Spy
The New Yorker recently published a long profile of Pham Xuan An, a Time magazine reporter during the Vietnam War, who led a double life as a spy for the North Vietnamese. The author is Thomas A. Bass, an English professor at SUNY-Albany. It's a story that should have rated mention in Phillip Knightley's account of war reporting from Vietnam in The First Casualty, so perhaps Knightley was unaware of it.