Pham Xuan An Dies at 79; Reporter Spied for Hanoi
New York Times, September 22, 2006
By Dennis Hevesi
Pham Xuan An, who led a double life as a trusted reporter for Western news organizations during the Vietnam War while spying for North Vietnam, died Wednesday, 20 September 2006, in Ho Chi Minh City. He was 79.
His death, at a military hospital, was reported by his son Pham Xuan Hoang An, who told The Associated Press that Mr. An had emphysema.
As a reporter for Reuters and then for Time magazine, Mr. An covered American and South Vietnamese military and diplomatic events and was one of a handful of reporters admitted to off-the-record briefings by American authorities. Time made him a full staff correspondent, the only Vietnamese to be given that distinction by a major American news organization.
At the same time, however, Mr. An was delivering a steady stream of military documents and reports to North Vietnamese authorities, writing in invisible ink and leaving the material in containers at designated spots around Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
It was only after the war that correspondents like Frank McCulloch of Time, David Halberstam of The New York Times and Morley Safer of CBS News learned that their colleague had been a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army.
“He was among the best-connected journalists in the country,” Mr. Safer wrote in “Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam” (Random House, 1990), in which he devoted a chapter to Mr. An. “It was always An who would brief new correspondents; it was An whom even the competition sought when trying to unravel the hopelessly complicated threads of Vietnamese political loyalties.”
Mr. An proved invaluable to his spy masters. “I had access to all the Vietnamese bases and their commanders,” he is quoted as telling Mr. Safer in the book. “My superiors wanted to know the strengths of various units. They wanted estimates of the capabilities of commanders — who was corrupt and who was corruptible. They wanted all the political stuff, the same stuff you guys wanted.”
Mr. An was born on Sept. 12, 1927, outside Saigon. In 1944, when he was 16, he became a courier for the Vietminh, the Communist national liberation movement, which was then fighting the Japanese occupation of Vietnam. After the country was partitioned with the defeat of the French occupation in 1954, Mr. An, then an agent for the Communist government in the North, infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army. His South Vietnamese commanders later assigned him to work with the Central Intelligence Agency, and so he became a double agent.
In 1956, Mr. An received a State Department scholarship to attend Fullerton College in California, where he worked on the school newspaper and as an intern at The Sacramento Bee. A year later, he returned to Saigon to work part time for The Associated Press and then for Reuters. He worked for Time from 1965 to April 1975, when Saigon fell.
In the last days of the war, he persuaded American officials to fly several Vietnamese friends out of the country, saying they would be punished by the Communists if they were left behind. His wife and four children were also taken to the United States, but he remained. His family later returned. In April 1997, Mr. Safer and some former colleagues met at the Asia Society on Park Avenue in New York to discuss the legacy of Vietnam. Mr. An, by then a retired general, was denied an exit visa by the Vietnamese government.
His former colleagues had conflicting reactions to his dual life.
“He felt it was doing his patriotic duty by being an agent,” Stanley Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a reporter for The Washington Post, said at the meeting, “but we were his friends, and he had great admiration for the United States.”
Mr. McCulloch, the Saigon bureau chief for Time during the war, said: “It tore him up. If circumstances had been reversed, if hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese had occupied my land, I probably would have done the same thing.”
But Burton Yale Pines, a Time correspondent during the war, said he was shocked. “Worse,” he said, “I am embarrassed that I trusted Mr. An as enormously as I — and my fellow journalists — did.”
Mr. An had no regrets about his double life during the war. “The truth? Which truth?” he said in his interview with Mr. Safer. “One truth is that for 10 years I was a staff correspondent for Time magazine, and before that Reuters. The other truth is that I joined the movement in 1944 and in one way or another have been part of it ever since. Two truths — both truths are true.”
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