Columbia Journalism Review

July/August 2005

Time Warp
By Terence Smith

At seventy-seven, Pham Xuan An looks frail in his white shirt and tie as he walks through the door of the Grand Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City to join me for breakfast on a bright Sunday morning in January.

It was my first trip back to Vietnam in thirty-five years. I had covered the country from 1968 to 1970 as the bureau chief for The New York Times. The first person I called when I got back to Saigon was An, who was a stringer and then a staff correspondent for Time magazine when I was there. He was the acknowledged dean of the Vietnamese journalists working for U.S. news organizations in Vietnam, and was one of the few who stayed behind when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. We hadn’t seen each other for three decades, and we both have aged, but when he strode across the Grand’s marble floor, the recognition was immediate. With my wife, Susy, and two American friends, we retreated to a small, glass-walled breakfast room off the Grand’s high-ceilinged dining room, drank coffee and talked for hours.

An has had a lung operation for his cigarette-induced emphysema — “Three packs a day for fifty-two years, not all that much, do you think?” — but he is the same irreverent, independent thinker he was during the war. I once tried to hire him, but he was wedded to Time, which valued him for his sophisticated political analysis and his incredible contacts. An seemed to know everything and everybody and he would cheerfully share what he knew with reporters from other news organizations over coffee at the Café Givral, the gossip central of South Vietnam’s wartime capital.

But Time, it turned out, was not An’s only employer. Three years after the war ended, French intelligence revealed that he had been an undercover agent for the Vietcong all along.

In fact, An had joined the Vietminh to fight the French in 1954, and had been assigned early on to the embryonic Vietnamese intelligence service. At various times he doubled as a part-time agent for the French Deuxieme Bureau, and tripled as an employee of U.S. Colonel Ed Lansdale’s Saigon Military Mission, a covert CIA operation. The one constant for An was the National Liberation Front. He maintains that even as he played his different roles, he was always a Vietnamese nationalist, dedicated to seeing his country unified under Vietnamese, not foreign leadership. He describes himself as a nationalist first, communist second. After the war, the Vietcong promoted him to general and decorated him as a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces.

Over breakfast at the Grand, I asked An how he reconciled his dual role in his own mind. He said that the information he passed northward was strategic, not tactical, and that it never directly endangered American lives. He also said he never planted stories in Time or elsewhere. “I was an honest reporter in everything I wrote,” he said. He argued that the only difference between being a spy and being a reporter was where you sent your information and who read it.

It is an interesting rationale, but I am not sure many American Vietnam vets would buy it, even today. After all, An reportedly got one of his medals for passing along potential target sites in Saigon for the North Vietnamese to hit during the 1968 Tet offensive.

I certainly knew nothing of his double role when I was there, and if his Time bureau colleagues thought he was too well informed, too prescient about upcoming developments, they didn’t say so at the time. Recently, I asked several of them if they had harbored suspicions, they said yes, but not much more than that. None of us would have been shocked had we learned the facts. As former Time correspondent Stanley Karnow recalled, “Saigon was full of double agents in those days and everybody had an agenda.” Especially in the declining days of the war, in the dispiriting period of “Vietnamization,” An’s double role was a metaphor for the duplicity that was all around us.

Today, An lives quietly in a house in Saigon’s 3rd district that the government leases to him for a few dollars a month. He seems untroubled by his past secret life, but he suffers the fate of anyone who has served two masters — he is not really trusted by either side. From 1975 to 1987, the authorities posted a guard outside his house. He was instructed by the Vietnamese government to avoid all contact with foreigners, but the ban was eased in 1988 after a friend at the foreign ministry secured permission for An to have dinner with Robert Shaplen, The New Yorker’s veteran Asia hand, who was passing through Saigon.

Still, the communist government has never really known what to do with him, An says. One year they sent him to a prestigious national political institute in Hanoi, but the effort at indoctrination failed to take. “They found me difficult,” he says with a smile. “I was always joking and they were so serious. Finally I told them it was too cold for an old man in Hanoi, and they let me come home.”

Terence Smith is media correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.