Saturday 23 September 2006

The Spy Who Loved His Enemy

“Here is Pham Xuan An now,” Time’s last reporter in Vietnam cabled the magazine’s New York headquarters on April 29, 1975. “All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency. The office of Time is now manned by Pham Xuan An.” An filed three more reports from Saigon as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the city. Then the line went dead. During the following year, with An serving as Time’s sole correspondent in postwar Vietnam, the magazine ran articles on “The Last Grim Goodbye,” “Winners: The Men Who Made the Victory,” and “Saigon: A Calm Week Under Communism.” An was one of thirty-nine foreign correspondents working for Time when the Saigon bureau was closed and his name disappeared from the masthead, on May 10, 1976.

Recognized as a brilliant political analyst, beginning with his work in the nineteen-sixties for Reuters and then for the New York Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor, and, finally, as a Time correspondent for eleven years, Pham Xuan An seemed to do his best work swapping stories with colleagues in Givral’s cafe, on the old Rue Catinat. Here he presided every afternoon as the best news source in Saigon. He was called “Dean of the Vietnamese Press Corps” and “Voice of Radio Catinat”-the rumor mill. With self-deprecating humor, he preferred other titles for himself, such as “docteur de sexologie,” “professeur coup d’etat,” “Commander of Military Dog Training” (a reference to the German shepherd that always accompanied him), “Ph.D. in revolutions,” or, simply, General Givral.

We now know that this is only half the work An did as a reporter, and not the better half. An sent the North Vietnamese a steady stream of secret military documents and messages written in invisible ink, but it was his typed dispatches, now locked in Vietnam’s intelligence archives and known to us only through secondhand reports, which will undoubtedly rank as his chef d’oeuvre. Using a Hermes typewriter bought specially for him by the North Vietnamese intelligence service, An wrote his dispatches, some as long as a hundred pages, at night. Photographed and transported as undeveloped rolls of film, An’s reports were run by courier out to the Cu Chi tunnel network that served as the Communists’ underground headquarters. Every few weeks, beginning in 1952, An himself would leave his Saigon office, drive twenty miles northwest to the Ho Bo woods, and descend into the tunnels to plan Communist strategy. From Cu Chi, An’s dispatches were hustled under armed guard to Mt. Ba Den, on the Cambodian border, driven to Phnom Penh, flown to Guangzhou (Canton), in southern China, and then rushed to the Politburo in North Vietnam. The writing was so lively and detailed that General Giap and Ho Chi Minh are reported to have rubbed their hands with glee on getting these dispatches from Tran Van Trung-An’s code name. “We are now in the United States’ war room!” they exclaimed, according to members of the Vietnamese Politburo.

As Saigon fell to the Communists, An, like his fellow-correspondents, was hoping to be evacuated to the United States. Vietnam’s military intelligence agency planned to continue his work in America. The Politburo knew there would be a war-after-the-war, a bitter period of political maneuvering in which the United States launched covert military operations and a trade embargo against Vietnam. Who better to report on America’s intentions than Pham Xuan An? In the last days of the war, An’s wife and their four children were airlifted out of Vietnam and resettled in Washington, D.C. An was anxiously awaiting instructions to follow them, when word came from the North Vietnamese Politburo that he would not be allowed to leave the country.

An was named a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces, awarded four military-exploit medals, and elevated to the rank of brigadier general. He was also sent to a reeducation camp and forbidden to meet Western visitors. His family were brought back to Vietnam, returning a year after they left. The problem with Pham Xuan An, from the perspective of the Vietnamese Communist Party, was that he loved America and Americans, democratic values, and objectivity in journalism. He considered America an accidental enemy who would return to being a friend once his people had gained their independence. An was the Quiet Vietnamese, the representative figure who was at once a lifelong revolutionary and an ardent admirer of the United States. He says he never lied to anyone, that he gave the same political analyses to Time that he gave to Ho Chi Minh. He was a divided man of utter integrity, someone who lived a lie and always told the truth.

“An’s story strikes me as something right out of Graham Greene,” says David Halberstam, who was friends with An when he was a Times reporter in Vietnam. “It broaches all the fundamental questions: What is loyalty? What is patriotism? What is the truth? Who are you when you’re telling these truths?” He adds, “There was an ambivalence to An that’s almost impossible for us to imagine. In looking back, I see he was a man split right down the middle.”

In his 1965 book on Vietnam, “The Making of a Quagmire,” Halberstam described An as the linchpin of “a small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists and writers. An, he wrote, “had the best military contacts in the country.” Now that Halberstam knows An’s story, does he bear him any grudges? “No,” he says, echoing the opinion of almost all of An’s former colleagues. “It’s a story full of intrigue, smoke and mirrors, but I still think fondly of An. I never felt betrayed by An. He had to deal with being Vietnamese at a tragic time in their history, when there was nothing but betrayal in the air.”

Ho Chi Minh City-or Saigon, as it is still commonly called-is a single-mindedly commercial place. Lined with pushcarts and venders selling everything from soup to CDs, the streets are roaring rivers of Chinese two-stroke motorcycles. The exhaust fumes are so thick that Saigon’s famously beautiful women have started covering their faces with scarves. “We are all Muslims now,” says Viet, my Honda man, on the back of whose motorcycle I travel around the city.

Approaching An’s house-a villa in District 3, a densely settled neighborhood near the train station-we pass an intersection full of motorcycle-repair shops and come to a street that specializes in selling tropical fish, including the Siamese fighting fish that An admires. I tug on the bell that hangs on his green metal gate. The dogs start barking, and I peer through the grille to see An shuffling down the driveway. A wispy figure, he wears a striped short-sleeved shirt with a ballpoint pen in the pocket, gray trousers flapping around his legs, and rubber sandals. He arrives winded but smiling, and greets me with a handshake that involves only the tips of his fingers. He was recently admitted to the hospital with a collapsed lung, the result, perhaps, of a lifetime of smoking Lucky Strikes, but General Givral, with his full-toothed grin, looks, at seventy-eight, as puckish as ever.

I had last visited An in the early nineties, while writing a book on Amerasians-the children of American soldiers and their Vietnamese lovers. When it was published, I sent him a copy, and I sent him other books when mutual friends visited Vietnam. An knew that I was interested in hearing his story. He was a gracious host to the visitors who were allowed to see him after Vietnam adopted doi moi, its version of perestroika, in the late eighties. He would spend hours explaining Vietnamese history and culture. But there was one subject on which he was silent: his life as a spy. It looked as if he would be a sphinx to the end, whether out of loyalty to his friends or fear of government reprisals. In January of 2004, though, I received a message that he might finally be willing to talk, not in formal interviews but in friendly conversations…

… An has pendulous ears, a high, square-domed forehead, close-cropped dark hair, and lively brown eyes. His left eye is slightly larger than the right, as if he were simultaneously taking both the long and the short view of the world’s affairs. In the pictures of him from the fifties, showing him wearing narrow suits, white shirts, and black trousers, An looks like one of the nice, clean-cut young men who joined fraternities and mastered social drinking. He was taller than the average Vietnamese, a scrappy young boxer and swimmer, who once thought, after failing his school exams for the second year in a row, that he might have to become a gangster. He doesn’t want to talk about himself, he says-there is too much to remember. “It’s too difficult. And too long. And I am old.” Then, leaning forward, he begins talking about himself, recalling in minute detail scenes from fifty years ago. He gesticulates with his fingers, which are long-boned and nearly translucent with age. He shapes the air in front of him as if it were a doughy ball, taking a punch at it from time to time. He divides his remarks into Confucian triads and pentads or draws a flowing curve that represents one of the deesses, the protective goddesses to whom he credits his success in life. An can talk for hours about world events, drawing parallels, for example, between Vietnam and the Iraq war (he says techniques first developed in Asia have been moved to the desert) or evaluating the world’s intelligence services (“The Americans are masters at gathering intelligence, but they don’t know what to do with it”).

(to be continued. Source: an article by Howard French of A Glimpse of the World. I post it to this blog for you readers to read for fun. Enjoy it, and have a nice weekend.)