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Book tells how the Perfect Spy saw Vietnam War

By Dave Jones on April 26, 2007 in University

One of modern history's most sympathetic, clever and ultimately luckiest spies, Pham Xuan An, successfully hoodwinked the CIA, U.S. journalist colleagues and the South Vietnamese establishment for more than two decades, according to a new biography by UC Davis political science professor Larry Berman.

The book, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent, came out April 24, published by Smithsonian Books.

Berman offers the portrait of a complex man whose humanity and loyalty to his U.S. friends vied with his passionate commitment to a free Vietnam. In telling An's story, Berman offers a view of the Vietnam conflict from a distinctly Vietnamese point of view.

"Like so many young people who joined the Viet Minh revolution to fight French colonialism, Pham Xuan An held a vision for Vietnamese independence and social justice," Berman writes in his book. "He fought for liberty and against poverty; as a spy he sought neither glory nor money for himself, but everything for the people of his homeland."

Berman, an expert on the U.S. presidency and the Vietnam War, first met Pham Xuan An in 2001 at a dinner party in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. The professor spent five years cultivating his subject and in the process discovered many ironic elements in An's life story:

  • He was the only agent sent by North Vietnam to the United States. He studied journalism at Orange Coast College, a community college in Costa Mesa, Calif., capped by a three-month internship at The Sacramento Bee. An said it was the happiest time in his life.
  • Throughout his espionage career, which began in 1950 and continued through the end of the Vietnam War in 1974, An went undetected, although he was well known throughout the CIA, South Vietnamese government and in U.S. journalism circles.
  • An created what Berman believes was the best and most informed list of sources in Saigon and gave North Vietnam an understanding of U.S. tactics and battle plans. He excelled at interpreting the information that he stole.
  • Despite his exploits and successes on behalf of North Vietnam, An fell under suspicion by the government's Communist leaders after the war. They worried that he may have been a triple agent because of his ties to U.S. and Vietnamese intelligence. He was placed under house arrest and died of emphysema in September 2006, never again leaving his country after his visit to the United States in 1958.

An's command of English was an essential key to his success. As a teenager during the Japanese occupation, he learned English from missionaries and then from members of the British Embassy. Beginning in the 1950s, "He was among the most proficient of the Vietnamese, thereby enabling himself as a valuable asset to the Americans and Vietnamese, building relationships with dozens of future South Vietnamese commanders and influential Americans," Berman writes.

Although An was a high school dropout, he became a well-read, educated man who pursued journalism, working at first for the South Vietnamese official press organ and quickly moving to the British news agency Reuters, and ultimately becoming a Time magazine reporter.

Along the way, he developed many deep and lasting friendships with Americans and their families. After his double-life was revealed, Berman found that many of his friends were surprised that he had been working for the enemy. Even so, Berman writes, "Hardly anyone rejected An when they learned he had been a Communist spy."

"An believed that he did not engage in any acts of personal betrayal against Americans," Berman writes. "He insisted to his last day that none of his American friends ever suffered personally or professionally because of what he did."

After the war, the North Vietnamese government named An a Hero of the People's Army, and he was promoted to general — one of only two intelligence officers ever to achieve that honor.

An maintained his humor even after he fell from grace with the Communist leaders. He told Berman that when he was promoted to a one-star general in 1990 for his espionage work, he told the leadership, "I was familiar with five armies -- the Viet Minh, the French, the Viet Cong, the Americans and the South Vietnamese -- that I should have five stars. I don't think they understood my sense of humor."

Berman's other books include No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam; Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam; and Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam.

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Dave Jones, Dateline, 530-752-6556,