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Why Did U.S. Journalists Love Him?
By Zalin Grant

I began to suspect that Pham Xuan An was a Viet Cong spy shortly after I arrived in Saigon. Around New Year’s 1965 I went to a party with a lot of journalists, where I met Beverly Deepe, a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. What Deepe told me about An I found intriguing. She had offered him a job as her assistant at a high salary. But An said he could only work part-time. He had other things to do.

Pham Xuan An (left) and his close friend Nguyen Hung Vuong circa 1955. An was already a communist spy. (Courtesy Rufus Phillips)

I’d met Pham Xuan An and noted that he did not appear to have independent means. Other Vietnamese of his education and class were scrambling to get jobs with journalists as translators and assistant reporters, called “legmen.” They were paid salaries they couldn’t match on the Vietnam economy. What else, I wondered, was An doing that was more important than working for Deepe?

Beverly Deepe wasn’t suspicious.  She was simply telling me of her frustrations at not being able to persuade him to work full-time. He was already known around Saigon as a top legman. She was a good journalist. With An helping her full-time, maybe she could win a Pulitzer Prize.

I was trained to be suspicious.  That came from the U.S. Army Intelligence School in Baltimore, where I’d spent a year after finishing infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia.  Besides, I was looking for a job as a journalist myself. That made me even more curious why An was playing so hard to get.

I had arrived in Saigon two months earlier as an officer in an undercover army intelligence unit after being trained as a Vietnamese linguist.  I was at the party trying to make contacts that could help me land a job.  I’d been a college journalist and a part-time reporter for the Associated Press my last two years at Clemson, where I covered the civil rights crisis.  I had a job waiting for me in the AP Charlotte bureau when my service tour ended. But I hoped to catch on as a war correspondent in Saigon.

At the U.S. Army Intelligence School
Fort Holabird MD—1964.

For a total of five of the next ten years I saw Pham Xuan An often, sometimes daily, and worked with him at Time magazine.  Since I was the only one in the bureau who spoke the language, I was sent to talk to his wife when he disappeared on his other business. A shy and sweetly polite woman, Thu Nhan always said she didn’t know where her husband was but assured me he would be back soon.

When An worked part-time for Beverly Deepe he had disappeared for days.  After he took a job at Reuters he was fired for pulling his unexplained disappearing acts. Now he was doing the same thing at Time. I was convinced he was a spy.

By this time, though, An had become the Vietnamese reporter best liked by American journalists, the darling of the Saigon press corps. I knew any questions I raised about him would be met with skepticism by other reporters.

I didn’t mind that.  What bothered me was the possibility that the Viet Cong might decide to take me down if I tried to bring him down. American and Vietnamese government officials in Saigon liked An too and considered him one of their own. He had worked for the CIA and also for Vietnamese Intelligence, known as CIO.

CIA and U.S. Military Intelligence seldom, if at all, ran independent operations that required long-term physical surveillance of a Vietnamese subject in Saigon. They worked through their counterpart organizations--CIA with the National Police Special Branch and CIO--MI through the Vietnamese Military Security Service. The Vietnamese organizations were riddled with VC spies. I knew any complaint filed against An would wind up with them, and he would learn about it within a day. I told only two close friends.

Years later when it became known that An was a communist spy, Beverly Deepe was the only Saigon reporter to react with anger, besides Wallace Terry, one of the friends I’d told, who had also worked with An.  She finally understood why An had refused to work for her full-time. She said she would never speak to him again.  Other journalists rushed to Saigon to interview An and to proclaim their friendship.

This is not to suggest that I was an ace spy-catcher.  In fact, at the same time my suspicions of An were growing, I was being taken in by a Central Committee member of the National Liberation Front, the highest-ranking Viet Cong in Danang. 

I had been reassigned to Danang to establish the headquarters for the buildup of army intelligence in First Corps, South Vietnam’s northernmost area. I was looking for a villa to rent as offices and sleeping quarters. Someone steered me to an English professor at a lycée in Danang.  He was building a villa, I was told, and though I found it odd that an English teacher would have that kind of money, I got in touch with him.
I was sent from Saigon to Danang to expand army intelligence in First Corps.  I rented a villa from the top-ranking Viet Cong. Da Nang—1965.

Ho An was a scholarly looking guy, glasses, thin, early forties.  He and I became “friends.” I rented his villa after he let me design American-style bathrooms for the house. I saw him often and we always talked politics. 

One of our conversations began to sound to me like a recruitment pitch.  I accused him of being a communist. Backing off, he said, “No, I am a socialist.”

Actually, as it turned out, Ho An ran the VC prisoner of war camps in First Corps and was known to American POWs as “Mr. Ho.” He was responsible for “Vietnam’s Worst POW Camp” (see War Tales), which I wrote about in my book SURVIVORS.  He later persuaded U.S. Marine prisoner of war, Robert Garwood, to defect to the Viet Cong.

Ho An and Pham Xuan An were about the same age and joined the communist party around the same time.  Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 in the Delta. He dropped out of high school to fight against the French and joined the communist party in 1952.

An was smart, no one could deny that. He began to learn English early on.  But his formal education was spotty. If he hadn’t undergone his transformation into spy, he probably would not have climbed very high in the communist organization.  He didn’t have the leadership qualities of most Viet Cong officers I later met. In today’s terms, he might be described as passive-aggressive. And he wasn’t an intellectual like my friend Ho An, although, I should add, he never pretended to be.

But An transformed himself into the best espionage agent of the Vietnam War, one of the top spies in history.  He did this by becoming the most Americanized Vietnamese in Saigon, which was the key to his success. 

American culture is more informal and easily accessible than French or Asian culture.  And the Vietnamese culture of Saigon, where the educated class was concerned, had aspects of both French and Asian formality.

Consequently, Americans were seldom at ease in dealing with Vietnamese.  In fact, Americans in that period were seldom at ease in dealing with any foreigners, except British and Canadians—and they too were considered slightly exotic.

An was the big exception. He acted and talked like an American.  He had an American sense of humor, self-deprecating, easy to laugh. He was charming and cheerful. The American persona came from his two years (1957-59) at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California.  He entered the school with the help of Edward Lansdale, the CIA officer he worked for in Saigon, who had arrived in 1954 after the French defeat.   

An studied journalism because he thought it would give him a good cover for his spy work.  His communist superiors agreed. They encouraged him to immerse himself in American culture.  While studying in California he improved his English.  He spoke the language well though not as fluently as other Vietnamese I knew.  But he read English perfectly which helped when he was taking notes from Time magazine’s confidential files to send to Hanoi.

American reporters, in general, never understood that An’s role as a journalist was his cover, nothing more.  They considered him to be the top political analyst in Saigon.  But even that was not true. Nguyen Hung Vuong, An’s close friend, was the best.  Vuong worked for The New Yorker as Robert Shaplen’s legman.  But Vuong was an introvert, opposite of the gregarious An, and was said to be overly fond of the opium pipe.  Few reporters knew or talked to him. 

After An was revealed to be a spy many American journalists rose to his defense. They declared that he had never slanted his reporting, he had always given them an objective analysis.  When talking to them, he had discussed the political and military actions of both Saigon and Hanoi in a perceptive and balanced way. 

That was true.

In one brief moment, An confessed to his biographer, Larry Berman, why he did that. For his book titled PERFECT SPY Berman had learned remarkably little about how his subject did his spying. An preferred to talk about his career as a reporter. He insisted that he was always an objective journalist because that was what he believed in with all his heart and soul.

But when Berman confronted him with a quote David Halberstam had given Neil Sheehan, An let his guard down for a moment when he tried to defend himself.  For the only time in his “journalist” career he told the truth.

Halberstam had said to Sheehan, who was writing a book, that An was a major figure in the war “because of the extent to which he influenced American journalists.”  An admitted that was true.  But he told Berman he had never deceived any American reporters.

“I was in a position to teach them,” An said, “because I could not let anyone ever suspect me. That is why I never engaged in disinformation, and only people with grudges make that charge. I had to be fair and objective or I would be dead.  It is that simple.”

It was also the reason, he said, why he avoided associating with anyone considered sympathetic to the communist cause and why he made a point of picking anti-communists as friends. An was obsessively cautious, which was why he survived when other VC intelligence agents were captured or killed.  Americans who thought they knew him only saw the side of An the Survivor that he let them see. It is that simple.

(Journalists who were so sure they knew him didn’t even know his name. He was born Nguyen Van Trung.  His spy name was Tran Van Trung. And his cover name was Pham Xuan An.)

An’s real job was to collect intelligence that could help his side kill Americans and drive them out of Vietnam. His first major success came after he made friends with David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and other reporters. He learned from them that an operation was being planned to attack a VC radio transmitter in the Delta, south of Saigon. Newly arrived American helicopters would be used in battle for the first time. The attack took place near the village of Ap Bac on January 2, 1963.

An alerted the Viet Cong that the operation was coming.  He helped them plan for it.  He taught them how to shoot down helicopters. The trap at Ap Bac was set by a political analyst who also proved to be a good military tactician. Five helicopters were downed, three Americans killed.

The Viet Cong victory at Ap Bac became famous in the history of the Vietnam War—for the U.S. and the Viet Cong.  An was awarded the Medal of Honor, communist style, along with the Viet Cong ground commander.

After the battle An flew on an American helicopter to see for himself.  Then he gave his analysis of the situation to reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, who were already skeptical of the war. In his considered opinion, An said, Ap Bac represented a major turning point. It was the first time a Viet Cong battalion had stood and fought a Saigon government battalion—and defeated them by using superior tactics.

“Ap Bac was the big picture that discredited the big picture [General] Harkins and [Ambassador] Nolting were projecting,” Neil Sheehan later wrote.  “We exploited the battle as much as we dared for this reason.”

David Halberstam (left), Malcolm Browne, and Neil Sheehan—1963.

In early 1965 An scored another big success.  He learned from the Time bureau chief that the U.S. was sending troops to Vietnam.  He gave Hanoi early warning, which won him another medal.

The Time chief was courting An to work for him. An was still playing hard to get. When An finally agreed to work for Time he fell into a goldmine of intelligence which would be of inestimable value to Hanoi for the rest of the war.

General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces, had the most liberal press policy of probably any general in American history. He tried to woo journalists by being open and candid. He told them classified information, with the understanding, of course, that it was either off-the-record or would be used only for background.

Time magazine of that era was not the faded flower it became.  It was the most powerful media organization in the world. Newsweek was a distant second. The New York Times and the Washington Post shared influence with Time but neither had its global reach. The TV networks were just beginning to expand their news bureaus. On a personal level, Westmoreland truly liked the Time bureau chief (as did I—he hired me), who was one of the best reporters to cover the war, solid and trustworthy.

Shortly after An began working for Time in the summer of 1965, General Westmoreland gave the bureau chief a detailed briefing on how many troops he had asked President Lyndon B. Johnson to send him to fight the war—when they would arrive and where they would be assigned.  His briefing covered every aspect of his force requirements from that moment until mid 1966. Such information might sound prosaic to a civilian.  But to a commander like North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap it was 24-carat intelligence.

The bureau kept two clipboards side by side with files to be transmitted by teletype to New York.  One clipboard held files of stories to appear in the magazine.  The other clipboard held the confidential files that the bureau chief sent for limited distribution to the magazine’s top editors in New York.  The files were based on his briefings by the U.S. Commanding General and the U.S. Ambassador and other high-ranking officials. No matter who the bureau chief was, this procedure for followed throughout the war.

I never saw An read the clipboard that held our files for publication.  I doubt he ever read a file written by me, and I led the bureau in the number of unassisted stories that appeared in the magazine in 1966.  But I saw him countless times reading the confidential files and taking detailed notes. He never took these notes when the bureau chief was in the office.

Whatever Westmoreland or the Ambassador told the bureau chief, it went to Hanoi within a couple of days—from Westy’s mouth to Giap’s ear. Westmoreland’s headquarters always gave us advance notice when a major military operation was scheduled to take place.  A teletype was usually sent to New York informing the editors about the operation and telling them how we intended to cover it.  That information, too, went straight to the Viet Cong. 

By the time the operation took place, the Viet Cong had usually fled. They were lying in ambush at some other unsuspected place.  It was clear that somebody had tipped them off.  Everybody thought it had to be spies in the Vietnamese military. The American military stopped telling the Vietnamese about their operations until the last moment.  But somehow the Viet Cong still learned in advance of the operations.

I had a courteous relationship with An.  It wasn’t close. I was never one of his acolytes who sat with him on the Continental Terrace having a drink and marveling at what they heard. An and his friend Vuong were the two most influential legmen. They met every afternoon at Givral’s coffee shop, across the street from the Continental, to work out their line which was passed on to other legmen and then to American reporters. 

Actually, Saigon politics wasn’t that hard to analyze. The 1963 Diem coup set off a chaotic power struggle between the older generals and the younger officers, which was never entirely resolved but finally tamped down after a cautious general named Nguyen Van Thieu was able to neutralize his more flamboyant rival, Nguyen Cao Ky. Thieu had the support of the U.S. Embassy. 

An had known the generals and other politicians for years.  So his analyses of their endless machinations were usually on the mark. That was his talent. He could place everything in historical context, whereas it was all Greek (or Vietnamese!) to American journalists, stuff they were hearing for the first time—which made An sound to them like a genius.

My break with An was not caused by a journalistic disagreement. It came when I put his secret life as a spy in jeopardy, in a way that could have got him killed. This happened in Cu Chi, a town 18 miles north of Saigon, in April 1970. Thirty-five years later An was still angry when he told his biographer about our trip to Cu Chi, although I don’t think he revealed the real truth to author Larry Berman.

“What did he say?” I asked Berman.  “That I was a son of a bitch?”

Berman laughed and said, “Something like that.”

I was in Paris in April 1970 when Sean Flynn, a photographer for Time, and Dana Stone, a cameraman for CBS, were captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.  Time and CBS asked me to return to Indochina to investigate their capture.

When I got to Saigon Time began arranging through President Thieu for a Vietnamese intelligence officer to work with me.  But I was anxious to get started immediately.  I asked An and Vuong to help me before the officer was assigned.  I wanted to drive to Tay Ninh, which was on the Cambodia border about 40 miles north of Saigon, just a few miles from where the journalists disappeared.

Pham Xuan An and Nguyen Hung Vuong told me they would be pleased to help.  We set off in a rental car.

To reach Tay Ninh we had to pass through Cu Chi.  When I saw the large number of refugees who had fled from Cambodia I decided to stop and try to pick up information from them.  An became upset.

“You said we were going to Tay Ninh,” he said angrily.

I was surprised.  I had never seen An angry. He was usually unflappable. What was there to be angry about? Vuong said nothing. He didn’t appear concerned.

“Oh come on, An,” I said.  “This will only take a few minutes.”

“But you said we were going to Tay Ninh.”

“I did.  But I changed my mind. Let’s talk to these refugees.”

They joined me as I walked through the crowds of refugees. But An was still visibly upset.  In fact, he looked pale.  I found it inexplicable.  But I decided not to push him further.  I broke off my interview and we continued on to Tay Ninh.  He barely spoke to me for the rest of the day.

Only years later did I understand why.  Cu Chi was the explanation for An’s disappearing act, the mystery I had wondered about—where did he go when he suddenly vanished? Though I didn’t realize it, I had stumbled on the answer. He went to Cu Chi by bus.

Cu Chi was the headquarters of his Viet Cong Intelligence unit. That was where he helped the VC and North Vietnamese plan their operations. He sometimes spent days at a time with them.

An’s headquarters was located in the tunnel network under Cu Chi. It remained a major Viet Cong center for the entire war. Ironically, I’d written the first story about the tunnels of Cu Chi and explored a section with the “Tunnel Rats” until we heard the sound of scurrying feet five meters ahead of us. After the war the tunnels were turned into a tourist attraction.

If any of the VC at Cu Chi had seen An with me they would have assumed I was CIA and he was a double agent, a spy for the Americans. Few journalists spoke Vietnamese but plenty of military intelligence and CIA agents did. It was not unlikely that he would have been killed as a traitor.

After our trip to Cu Chi An grew a mustache before he returned again. He shaved it off when he got back to Saigon. It was that kind of obsessive caution that saved him. With a mustache he wouldn’t be recognized as the guy earlier seen with the American. 

He knew I had gone back to Cu Chi with the Vietnamese intelligence officer who was assigned to me by Thieu. While we were there the CIO officer was recognized by a VC he had interrogated—which caused us to make a hasty exit, with the VC running after us, beating on the car.  That incident itself would have convinced the VC that I was an intelligence agent and An was working for the CIA.
Nguyen Tong (left) and I went to Chi two days after An was there with me.  A VC spotted Tong as an intel officer and ran after our car.

By late 1967 An had grown bolder as a spy but was still extremely cautious. He had the same care for detail that he had shown when he selected the woman who became his sole courier and contact from 1961-1975.  She was the one who ensured that his reports and film got to Cu Chi, where they were transmitted to Hanoi. 

An had met her earlier when he was a young spy.  His superiors assigned her to contact him.  Her code name was “Chi Ba,” which turned out to be a play on words.  Chi Ba in Vietnamese means maid. But it can also mean someone close to you like a sister if her name happens to be Ba.  In this case her cover was as a maid and her name really was Ba.  And she was as close to An as a sister. He entrusted her with his life. For a brief time, she worked with him at the Time bureau.

Nguyen Thi Ba was indistinguishable from the hundreds of Vietnamese women one saw on Saigon streets every day selling vegetables or cigarettes or black market goods.  She wore the standard outfit of such women—baggy black pants, white blouse, cheap sandals. She chewed betel nut like them, her mouth was smudged with red.

Ba was perfect for the role.  I doubt that I would have remembered her when I saw her photo in Berman’s book if I hadn’t talked to her and watched the interplay between her and An.

Ba was a feisty woman, late thirties, with a sharp tongue and a confident manner. I never saw An treat any other Vietnamese with such unusual informality.  She kidded him outrageously.  He replied with laughter. I didn’t know what their relationship was, but I knew it wasn’t employer/maid.    

An had arranged for Ba to work as the maid/cook at the Time villa, which was on Han Thuyen Street, 200 meters from Thieu’s Presidential Palace.  I didn’t meet her until after the Tet Offensive, when I returned to Saigon as a correspondent for The New Republic.

She spoke no English and seemed pleased to have an American she could talk to. She never actually said she was a VC but she told me that practically every male in her extended family had been killed either by the French or by the Americans. At minimum, she didn’t mind me knowing that she sympathized with the Viet Cong.

Ba had played an important role in the Tet Offensive.  She saved the life of An’s intelligence chief, Tu Canh, who led the attack on the Presidential Palace.  She was waiting in the maid’s shack at the rear of the Time villa that night.  When the attack failed, Tu Canh ran the length of two football fields to the villa, where Ba hid him until she could help smuggle him out of Saigon and back to Cu Chi.

Sometime in late 1969, while I was on a year-long overland drive from Singapore to Paris, the Time bureau was moved back to the Continental Hotel, where it had been located when I was first hired.  Ba’s services were no longer needed—at least not as a maid/cook. But she remained An’s courier the rest of the war. They arranged “accidental” encounters as she pretended to be a street vendor, which was how they operated before her interlude at Time. I never saw her again.

An was a raconteur, he loved to sit around talking, but he was seldom boastful.  The only exception I knew about came when he described Tu Canh to his biographer.  He seemed as awestruck as a kid over Tu Canh’s expertise with a pistol.  As An told it, Tu Canh was a better shot than Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. He was a gunslinger, a real American killer.

Tu Canh and Pham Xuan An became the communist heroes of the Tet Offensive in 1968.  They did the major tactical planning for the operation.  They rode around Saigon in An’s old French-made car deciding on infiltration routes and the best targets. Both of them won the communist Medal of Honor—An’s second—for their work on Tet.  An’s car and Tu Canh’s pistol are now enshrined in the Hanoi war museum.

On April 30, 1975 An watched as North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, ending the war.  He had been promoted to staff correspondent at Time. When American reporters fled he became in effect the bureau chief.  He continued to file stories to Time in New York until the North Vietnamese closed down the office.

Pham Xuan An watches as NVA tanks take over Saigon—1975.  (Courtesy Le Minh & Ted Thai)

An was no longer the lone wolf spy.  He was a lieutenant colonel in the Liberation Army.  He had to obey the chain of command like everybody else. And he immediately fell under suspicion for his association with Americans. 

An had filed his reports to Hanoi under the nom de guerre of Tran Van Trung.  He was considered such an important spy that his real identity was known only to a handful of top communists.  And now the caution that had saved him from being caught began to work against him. The victors who took over Saigon did not know him.

One can only speculate from this point on what actually happened to An. Apparently no one stepped forward to vouch for him and to tell of the great things he had accomplished as a spy.  Like everybody else, he was ordered to write his autobiography and to list all of his American contacts—which must have been some list, everyone from top generals and ambassadors to CIA officers and journalists.

The communists sent him to a reeducation camp. Apparently he wasn’t physically harmed but he was forced to listen to their interminable lectures about the triumph of communism and then to parrot what they had said back to them. He was allowed to return home after reeducation though remained under secret police surveillance for the rest of his life.

Eventually the Hanoi leadership decided to turn him into their celebrity spy, partly, I suspect, because of the continuing interest of American journalists.  He was promoted to major general and allowed to talk to reporters about his exploits. Two books were published about him after his death—Larry Berman’s  PERFECT SPY and THE SPY WHO LOVED US by Thomas A. Bass.

Major General Nguyen Van Trung aka: Pham Xuan An.

My own feelings about An were clear.  I had nothing personal against him.  I thought he had lived a consistent life. He was a good family man. He never seemed interested in material things beyond the pleasures he took in books, birds and dogs, and cock fighting.  He was polite to everyone. But I saw him as a professional intelligence officer, not as a journalist.

When I heard reports that An was ambivalent about the way Vietnam had turned out after the communist victory—which further endeared him to American journalists—I was not surprised.  Spies are usually ambivalent.  In order to do their job, they have to betray people they may actually like.

My admiration for him, I’m afraid, didn’t match up to other American journalists.  They said it was “his” country and that he was a patriot and a nationalist.  I thought he was no more deserving of those titles than his close friend Vuong, who fled to America because he recognized what the communists would do to “his” country.

And he was certainly no more deserving than Tran Ngoc Chau, a nationalist and patriot who got screwed by the Viet Cong, CIA, President Thieu, the Ambassador, and a U.S. journalist.  Yet Chau survived with his head held high and established a new and successful life for his family in California.

I thought An deserved to be lauded by the communists as a hero of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  He had done his job well. But I didn’t see him as an American hero.  So when an excerpt from Bass’s book appeared in The New Yorker in 2005 quoting journalists I knew as singing his praises, I wrote a letter to the editor, saying:

“It was one thing to have been against the Vietnam War—many of us were—but quite another to express unconditional admiration for a man who spent a large part of his life pretending to be a journalist while helping to kill Americans.”

Larry Berman, his other biographer, told me An was very upset by my letter. That might have sounded like an overreaction to some people. Who was I?  And what importance did a letter to a magazine really have, anyway? It would be skimmed or not read at all.

But I understood why An was so upset. He knew I was against us being involved in their civil war early on and that I had a great deal of sympathy for the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict.  My book FACING THE PHOENIX, which featured Tran Ngoc Chau as a nationalist and a patriot, had been translated and published in Ho Chi Minh City.  An had read the book. Even the communists gave it good reviews.

As An saw it, if anyone attempted to dismantle his carefully constructed legacy as the spy who loved Americans, it would be me.  He was confident he had most of the former Saigon press corps in his pocket. He had done a masterful job of helping to put American names on The Wall while winning their admiration. But I wasn’t buying that. And he knew it.  

Like his American friends always said—Pham Xuan An was a very good analyst.

Pham Xuan An was honored as a national hero by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam after he died September 20, 2006.  (Courtesy Nhan Dan via Dick Swanson)


Zalin Grant volunteered for Vietnam and served as an army officer.  A former journalist for Time and The New Republic, he is the author of four books on the Vietnam War, including FACING THE PHOENIX: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam. The book was also published without permission in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with some excisions of his criticism of the Communist Party.

Copyright © 2009 Pythia Press

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