Pham Xuan An, the psyops intelligence agent, was beginning to acquire the “reportorial” method that he would later employ so brilliantly as Pham Xuan An the Time correspondent. “People usually have one career, while I had two, the job of following the revolution and the job of being a journalist,” An told the writer Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hai, who has published a Vietnamese monograph about him. “These two professions were very contradictory, but also very similar. The intelligence job involves collecting information, analyzing it, and jealously keeping it secret, like a cat covering its droppings. The journalist, on the other hand, collects information, analyzes it, and then publishes it to the world.”
As a quadruple agent moonlighting for France’s Deuxieme Bureau, working for his cousin’s indigenous Vietnamese intelligence organization and its C.I.A. sponsor, and reporting to his Communist handlers, An was beginning to live along the edge of his own personal nightmare. “I was never relaxed for a minute,” he says. “Sooner or later as a spy, you’ll be captured, like a fish in a pond. I had to prepare myself to be tortured. That was my likely fate.”
It was scant solace that most of An’s colleagues in G5 were in a similar predicament. “When we weren’t spying on each other, we smoked opium and played together as friends,” An says. “That was just the way things worked. I had to compartmentalize.” He acknowledges that it was hard to do. “But you can’t kill all the time. When the war was over, these were the people I would have to live with.”
It was Mai Chi Tho and Muoi Huong, An’s case officer, who decided to send him to the United States to be trained as a journalist. Muoi Huong, in an interview with the Vietnamese newspaper Thanh Nien, said that he got the idea to make An a journalist from Ho Chi Minh, who himself had worked as a reporter. It was the perfect cover for a spy, granting him access to obscure places and elevated people. The plan was approved at the highest levels of the Vietnamese Politburo, but it took several years to execute. An’s father was dying. An won a government scholarship which was rescinded and given to someone who was better connected. Then his visa was blocked by French-trained administrators who didn’t like the idea of sending a Vietnamese student to the United States. The Communist Party had a hard time finding enough money. Finally, Mai Chi Tho scraped together eighty thousand dong, which, at the time, was worth about a thousand dollars. This was sufficient to buy An’s airplane ticket to America and four new suits of clothing. An’s father died in his arms in September, 1957. A month later, An arrived in Costa Mesa, California, to enroll as a freshman at the local community college.
An was a thirty-one-year-old Communist spy, a retired customs officer, and a psywar specialist when he began studying at Orange Coast College, which had been recommended to him by an American adviser in Vietnam. He was possibly the first Vietnamese to live in Orange County. (It is now home to a hundred and fifty thousand Vietnamese.) Called Confucius by his classmates, An studied political science, American government, economics, sociology, psychology, Spanish, and journalism. He chaperoned eighteen-year-old coeds to the beach and spent a lot of time working on The Barnacle, the school newspaper, for which he wrote occasional articles, such as a movie review of “The Quiet American”-the first, anti-Communist version of Graham Greene’s book. Finding the movie potentially confusing, An recommended that it “not be shown in Vietnam.”
An describes his two years in the United States, which included internships at the Sacramento Bee and the United Nations, as “the only time in my life when I wasn’t anxious.” (His travels across America were financed by the Asia Foundation, which was later revealed to be a C.I.A. front.) He fell in love with America and he fell in love with an American, Lee Meyer, a lithe blonde who was his editor and writing coach at The Barnacle. “She knew I loved her, but I never told her,” An says. “We Vietnamese never tell what we really feel.” An’s sunny years in California were the darkest time in the history of the southern Vietminh, the Communists who had remained below the seventeenth parallel when Vietnam was divided in 1954. By 1959, as many as eighty-five per cent of these Vietminh fighters, numbering about sixty thousand, would be killed or arrested. An learned in a coded letter from his younger brother that Muoi Huong, his case officer, had been arrested and was being tortured. He also learned that he was being summoned home because the Vietminh-soon to be reborn as the Vietcong-were finally embarking on the armed struggle that would launch the Second Indochina War.
An vividly remembers standing on the Golden Gate Bridge in October, 1959, wondering what he should do next. In his pocket was an airplane ticket to Saigon. Rising below him in the harbor were the solitary tower and concrete walls of Alcatraz, the notorious island prison. He feared this was a sign of the fate that awaited him if he returned to Vietnam-years of prison and torture in the tiger cages of Vietnam’s own Devil’s Island. He had been offered a job teaching Vietnamese at the military language school in Monterey. He could travel to Cuba and try to get back to Vietnam through Russia. He could exile himself to France. Finally, An the loyal patriot, who had in his possession four suits that belonged to the Communist Party of Vietnam and should rightfully be returned to the people, boarded his plane and flew home to Saigon.
“I have two loves, like Josephine Baker,” he says. “I love my country, and I love the United States. When the war was over, I wanted them to get back together.”
On returning to Saigon, An was so frightened that he hid in his house for a month. Then, in a bold stroke, he used family connections to call on Tran Kim Tuyen for help. A former military surgeon, Tuyen was the brilliant, diminutive figure who ran South Vietnam’s intelligence network for President Ngo Dinh Diem and his younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. This vast C.I.A.-sponsored network of spies and clandestine military forces operated out of the President’s cabinet under the anodyne name of the Office of Political, Cultural, and Social Research. If Tuyen hired him, An figured he would be safe, at least for the moment, from arrest.
Tuyen put An in charge of the foreign correspondents working for V.T.X., the Viet News Agency. Many of them, with no training in the profession, had never filed a story as a journalist. An ordered them to write a story a week. They complained to Tuyen, saying that doing journalism would get in the way of their work as spies-their real job. Supporting An, Tuyen instructed his foreign agents to get “serious in your work” and start filing stories like the “professional pressman” An.
Tuyen fell out of power, after a failed coup, and An moved from V.T.X. to Reuters and from there to Time. Recognized as one of the most hardworking journalists in town, always ready to help his colleagues with informed opinions or telling anecdotes, An gave information in order to get it. Describing to Ngoc Hai the similarities between journalists and spies, An said, “Their food is information, documents. Just like birds, one has to keep feeding them so they’ll sing.”
(to be continued and concluded. Source: The Spy Who Loved Us, by Howard French)