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The Spy Who Loved Us
Pham Xuan An, a character right out of a Graham Greene novel, died in Saigon. An indispensable member of the Time Magazine bureau during the war, Pham was also a spy for the North Vietnamese. Then-Time bureau chief Frank McCulloch, the equally legendary newsman who hired Pham in 1965, and who now lives in retirement in California, provided the Asia Sentinel with this reminiscence.
He was sitting at a table in the Givral, a popular coffee shop on Tudo Street, Saigon’s main business thoroughfare, having a cup of coffee with Bob Shaplen, The New Yorker magazine’s longtime Southeast Asia correspondent and very possibly the best American newsman of all time to work that beat.
Shaplen kindly beckoned me, a new boy on the block, to join them.
“Frank”, he said,”this Pham Xuan An, a man you will certainly want to get to know better both personally and professionally. An, this is Frank McCulloch and he’s Time Magazine’s new bureau chief here.”
An and I shook hands, briefly, and I was a little chagrined at how how lightly our hands touched. Had I started my assignment in Vietnam by violating some subtle, unknown Vietnam protocol in the way I had met a local source important enough to drink coffee with Bob Shaplen?
An, taller than most Vietnamese men, suddenly stood up in one lithe, controlled movement.
“Please join us,” he said in perfect English. “The coffee is good.”
He smiled thinly and gestured at an empty chair at their table. I collapsed into it, delighted with my acceptance into Saigon’s upper circles.
The date was sometime in January 1964, when the U.S. commitment to South Vietnam’s fight against the communists ~ almost entirely the local Viet Cong then ~ was some 16,000 military personnel, all advisors to South Vietnamese combat units or support troops. No combat troops, although President Lyndon Johnson had begun to repeat the assassinated President John F. Kennedy’s assertion that the U.S. must meet communist aggression head on in Vietnam.
In the tumultuous days leading up to the arrival of the first U.S. combat troops ~ the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade ~ the arcane and sometimes vicious politics of South Vietnam became the overwhelmingly most compelling story for the growing U.S. and foreign press corps as South Vietnamese prime ministers came and went with bewildering speed and for incomprehensible reasons. An, still only a friendly acquaintance, was an invaluable source for the Time bureau. He consistently made sense out of the otherwise unknowable, and eventually it struck me that if I could persuade him to come to work for us, he would become an even more invaluable asset.
He was reluctant at first, and it was only after I had learned that he had attended journalism school at Fullerton State College in California and subsequently been an intern for California’s McClatchy Newspapers, and that I personally knew and respected both, that he mellowed and agreed to come on board as a “local” ~ as opposed to staff correspondent ~ employee.
In the bureau, An was polite, gracious and meticulous. He often would listen to his U.S. colleagues expounding with great certainty about the political or military developments in a given week, and then gravely state: “that is not correct.” And not only events of the time but subsequent history proved his version to be the correct one.
An was always a little nervous about how well he wrote in English for an assortment of hard-eyed, demanding and apparently unsympathetic editors in faraway New York, and was happiest when I could find the time to edit his copy personally. Other than being a trifle stilted, it was just fine ~ accurate, balanced and clear ~ and I constantly tried to reassure him of that.
So An went on to faithfully serve the magazine, myself, and four other bureau chiefs until the North Vietnamese Communist troops swept into Saigon and ended the war in the spring of 1975. And for a year after that, An remained on the magazine’s masthead as Time Bureau Chief.
It was long after the war had ended that I learned ~ I think in a column by Stanley Karnow, another superb Southeast Asia correspondent ~ that An was a communist spy throughout the war.
Was I shocked? Certainly.
Was I outraged? Absolutely not for two basic reasons:
1. I disagreed, and still thoroughly disagree with the political system that he chose to help convert his native land from a French colony into a modern nation, but the fact was, it was HIS country, not mine or any of the other Americans or other foreigners. Reverse the situation ~ put the Vietnamese in essential control of the U.S. and I’d have done the same thing.
2. Not once in the years he worked for me in the Time bureau did An ever slant or shade his reporting to favor the communists. Paradoxically, he truly loved the U.S. and it’s democracy, and he also vastly respected and treasured good journalism in the American context of that phrase.
Let me also add that had An ever sought to bend his reporting to the communists, it would have been spotted almost immediately ~ and both An and his communist bosses were smart enough to know that.
An’s role as a spy was simply to listen, and what he heard as correspondents came in from the military or political battlefields was frequently very different from the official U.S. line in Saigon.
And some of the specifics must have been valuable, too. For example, I personally reported early on that U.S. military commanders were planning to build up American forces to 545,000 combat and support personnel. The report was vehemently denied by the Johnson administration, but must have been valuable information for Hanoi as it planned its own build up for invasion of the South. (The U.S. build up reached the 545,000, but North Vietnam may have at least doubled that.)
And so now An is gone, a victim, finally, of the emphysema that plagued him for so long.
And if I may become personal, nothing has changed here. I still salute you, An, as a friend, a journalist, a complex and contradictory lover of democracy, a husband and father, and perhaps, above all, as a Vietnamese patriot who may, or may not, have placed his biggest bet on the wrong horse.