Pham Xuan An: 1927 – 2006
Time reporter, Viet Cong spy
`Remarkable’ double life as respected journalist and communist agent during the Vietnam War was kept secret until 1980s
WASHINGTON — Pham Xuan An, the Viet Cong colonel who worked as a reporter for U.S. news organizations during the Vietnam War while also spying for the communists, died of emphysema Sept. 20 in a military hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. He was 79.
Mr. An’s double life was kept secret for almost 30 years, until the 1980s. He was the first Vietnamese to be a full-time staff correspondent for a major U.S. publication, working primarily for Time magazine.
Although his job as a spy was to uncover and report the plans of the South Vietnamese and U.S. military, he was so good at collecting and analyzing information that he was considered the best Vietnamese reporter in the press corps. He said he did not lie, tilt the news or spread disinformation in the stories he filed.
“It would have been stupid to do that. He would have been found out in an instant,” said Frank McCullough, a retired newspaperman who was Time’s bureau chief in Saigon and who hired Mr. An. “He used the bureau as a listening post. He was an extremely sophisticated understander of not only Vietnamese culture but its politics.”
By night, he photographed intelligence reports that then were smuggled out of Saigon through the Cu Chi tunnel network. He disguised the film canisters as grilled pork wrapped in rice paper, according to one account, or hid them in the bellies of rotting fish.
“The most remarkable thing was how he was able to pull it off for such a long time,” said Larry Berman, whose biography “Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent” will be published in the spring.
“His closest mentors were [Col. Edward] Lansdale and [later CIA chief] William Colby. People were always showing him things to get his opinion and analysis because he was so smart.”
Mr. An was able to alert the communist troops to the impending buildup of U.S. troop strength in the mid-1960s, which the Pentagon denied when McCullough tried to report it in Time. Much of what the Viet Cong wanted was what the news media wanted, just in greater detail.
After the Americans left, Mr. An cabled Time’s headquarters as its last staffer in Saigon and filed three more stories as the North Vietnamese took over the city. In 1976, the bureau closed and Mr. An endured a year of “re-education” in Hanoi. He was suspected of becoming too close to Americans.
By 1990, as Vietnam was reopening to Western visitors, Mr. An was promoted to major general and was named a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces. CBS reporter Morley Safer and others began to report on Mr. An’s life as an undercover agent, and the New Yorker published a profile of him in 2005.
Born in Hai Duong, Mr. An dropped out of high school in 1945 to enlist in the Viet Minh, which fought for Vietnam’s independence from France. The Viet Minh anticipated that the American presence would grow after the French left and decided to train Mr. An as a spy. Inducted into the Communist Party in 1953, he volunteered as a press censor at the Saigon post office.
He could not avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, but using family connections, he got himself assigned to Lansdale, the U.S. colonel who ran the CIA’s covert operations in Vietnam, and began to learn spycraft. The Viet Minh raised money to send Mr. An to college in the United States, where he studied journalism for two years.
Summoned back to Vietnam in 1959, he began working for the Viet News Agency, then for Reuters. He became popular with newsmen, often sharing tidbits at Saigon’s street cafes.
Mr. An never expressed regret about his role, biographer Berman said.
“He didn’t believe we belonged in his country. He was a nationalist,” Berman said. “He felt this is something the Vietnamese had to settle between themselves.”