Pham Xuan An was born in the Vietnamese Year of the Cat, at the Hour of the Buffalo, on September 12, 1927, twenty miles northeast of Saigon, in the Bien Hoa psychiatric hospital. At the time, this was the only medical facility in Cochin China open to Vietnamese. As the firstborn son of a cadre superieur, an educated member of the colonial administration, An had the rare honor of receiving a French colonial birth certificate.
Originally from Hai Duong, the heart of North Vietnam, in the densely populated Red River Delta lying between Hanoi and the coast, An’s great-grandfather, a silver- and goldsmith, was recruited by the Nguyen dynasty to make medals for the royal court at Hue, in central Vietnam. An’s grandfather, who rose through the mandarinate to become a teacher and the director of a primary school for girls, wears one of these gold medals on his chest in the photograph which stands as the centerpiece of An’s family altar. Given to him by the Emperor, the large tulip-shaped medal, called the kim khánh, signifies that An’s grandfather held a rank equivalent to that of a secretary in the government. Later, An shows me a picture of himself as a baby with this medal hanging around his neck. I ask if he still owns it. “It was sent to Ho Chi Minh for the Gold Campaign,” he says, referring to the huge bribe that Ho paid the Chinese occupation forces in 1945 to persuade them to withdraw from North Vietnam after the Second World War.
An’s father, trained as an engineer at the university in Hanoi, worked as a cadastral surveyor, establishing property lines and tax rolls in Vietnam’s southern frontier. He laid out roads in Saigon and canals through the U Minh Forest, along the Gulf of Siam. While surveying in Cambodia, he met An’s mother, another emigrant from the North. She was an industrious woman whose second-grade education allowed her to read and write. The work of a colonial surveyor in what was then the wilds of South Vietnam involved press-ganging peasants into carrying chains through the Mekong marshlands and building towers in the jungle to establish sight lines. “When you do land surveying and build canals and roads, you see the poor Vietnamese workers eking out their living,” An says. “You see the French system of forced labor, beatings, and other abuses. The only way to oppose these abuses is to fight for independence.” He adds, “The Americans did the same thing in 1776. My family was always patriotic in their desire to remove the French from Vietnam.”…
… An fell in love with Saigon, which at the time was a lazy colonial outpost surrounded by rubber plantations. He spent hours along the Saigon River, swinging in the banyan trees and jumping into the water. He made friends with the workers in the Ba Son shipyard, who cast fanciful coins for him to play with. He rode the electric train to Cholon, the Chinese district, and then rode back to the movie theatre near the bridge at Dakao. Here he watched all the films with Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees as Tarzan. “It was a beautiful dream of freedom in the jungle,” An says of those movies. “I thought under Communism I would live like Tarzan. I put this dream into the revolution.”
“Look at Tarzan!” An exclaims. “What does he have? Only his loincloth.” This is Communism as a pure state of nature, a Rousseauian idyll. It is the high-school-philosophy version of Communism, which An acquired from books sent to students in the colonies by the French Socialist Party. “Yes, I am a Communist,” he says. “Communism is a very beautiful theory, the most human theory. The teaching of God, the Creator, is the same. Communism teaches you to love each other, not kill each other. The only way to do this is for everyone to become brothers, which might take a million years. It is utopian, but it is beautiful.”
An the political analyst knows that Communism was responsible for millions of deaths in the twentieth century, and he knows intimately the limits of the Communist regime under which he lives. But An the patriot made a choice when he was young to fight for an independent Vietnam, and the most effective force in leading this struggle against the Japanese, French, Americans, Chinese, Cambodians, and other invaders of his divided country was the Communists. “Here in Vietnam, which organization did you have to join in order to carry on the fight for your country?” he asks. “You had no other choice but to join the Communist Party.”
An was an eighteen-year-old high-school student at the College de Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, when he dropped out of school, in 1945, to enlist in a Vietminh training course. For more than a hundred recruits there were only fifty weapons, some left over from the First World War. Trainees had to pick up spent cartridges to make new bullets. Though he was involved in fighting first the Japanese and then the French, An dismisses this experience as little more than running errands. But a government Web site, recounting his activities as a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces, describes An as “a national defense combatant who participated in all battles in the western region of South Vietnam.”
By 1947, An had left his position as a platoon leader, involved mainly in propaganda, and moved back to Saigon to care for his father, who would have a lung removed and spend the next two years in the hospital with tuberculosis. An organized student demonstrations in Saigon, initially against the French and then against the Americans. He worked as a secretary for the Caltex oil company until, in 1950, he passed the exam to become a French customs inspector.
During the Tet New Year celebration in 1952, An was summoned into the jungle north of Saigon to meet the Communist officials who were setting up C.O.S.V.N.-the Central Office for South Vietnam. C.O.S.V.N. would lead the war against the Americans, who, even before the end of the First Indochina War, in 1954, were beginning to replace the French as the primary enemy. An was excited about this call to the war zone, where he hoped to join his sister, who had moved to the jungle three years earlier to become “the Voice of Nam Bo,” a radio broadcaster for the Communist network. An visited her sometimes, taking her food or medicine, and staying overnight in the Vietminh tunnel network, where the cooking fires were vented through termite mounds in order to evade the French spotter planes that flew overhead. (In 1955, An’s sister moved to North Vietnam to work for the state-run coal mines.)
An was disappointed to learn that he wouldn’t be joining his sister in the jungle but, instead, was being recruited to work as a spy in Vietnam’s newly established military intelligence service. “I was the first recruit,” he says. An found his new assignment ignoble. Spying is the work of hunting dogs and birds of prey, he says. “I had been beaten by the riot police during student demonstrations in Saigon, and I had no desire to be a stool pigeon or an informer.”
The first problem An confronted on slipping back into Saigon as a newly recruited spy was how to avoid being drafted into the French colonial forces. To practice the English that he was learning at the United States Information Service, he volunteered his services as a press censor at the central post office. Here he was told to black out the dispatches written for British and French newspapers by Graham Greene, a “troublemaker” who the French assumed was working for British intelligence during his frequent visits to Vietnam.
…This is where Colonel Edward Lansdale found An when he came to offer his services-and money-to Captain Giai. Lansdale, a former advertising man and an expert in psychological warfare, had been sent to run the C.I.A.’s covert operations in Vietnam. Arriving in the country soon after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Lansdale found G5 and the rest of the old colonial military apparatus in a shambles. They were totally demoralized, with no idea what to do with themselves, until Lansdale and his innocuously titled Saigon Military Mission began turning South Vietnam into a country, complete with an army, a President, and a flag.
Finding a promising student in the young Pham Xuan An, Lansdale and his colleagues began teaching him the tradecraft that he would employ in his next twenty years as a Communist spy. “I am a student of Sherman Kent,” An says, referring to the Yale professor who helped found the C.I.A. Strategic intelligence, Kent wrote in his classic text, “Strategic Intelligence for American World Policy” (1949), is a “reportorial job” based on studying the “personalities” of world leaders. “It must know of their character and ambitions, their opinions, their weaknesses, the influences which they can exert, and the influences before which they are frail. It must know of their friends and relatives, and the political, economic, and social milieu in which they move.”
(to be continued in two more instalments. This article, written by Howard French, is posted here in rememberance of Pham Xuan An, the only Vietnamese military general loved by the American and the best Vietnamese journalist, who died on September 20, 2006, just 8 days after his final birthday. I personally think Pham Xuan An is the best and the only Vietnamese journalist respected by his western colleagues).