In 1965, Vietnamese reporter Pham Xuan An went to work for Time. He was a tireless writer, with an unerring sense for facts amidst the fog of war, and became an invaluable source of information for American readers. Turns out he was simultaneously an invaluable source of information for the North Vietnamese, moonlighting for more than 30 years as a spy. Thomas Bass profiled An last year in The New Yorker. He tells Bob about the spy who loved us.
BOB GARFIELD: For much of the Vietnam War, Time Magazine employed one of Saigon's most successful reporters, the first Vietnamese staff correspondent for a major U.S. outlet, Pham Xuan An. An had trained as a reporter in the United States and earned his reputation as the dean of the Vietnamese press corps through his many military sources, strict work ethic and keen grasp of facts in the fog of war. By 1975, he was the last remaining Time journalist in the country, refusing to evacuate and keeping the Saigon bureau open single-handedly for the next year. But, in the aftermath of the war, An eventually reported something else – a secret he'd been keeping for nearly 30 years. He was a spy for the North Vietnamese, using the same skills appreciated by Time to smuggle out intelligence for Ho Chi Minh. An died last month, but shortly before his death, he spoke to Thomas Bass, who interviewed An for a portrait in The New Yorker. He wrote that An, who secretly helped plan the Tet Offensive, was responsible for the deaths of Americans. But he did save the life of at least one, fellow Time correspondent Robert Sam Anson, who had been captured by North Vietnamese soldiers.
THOMAS BASS: At great personal risk to himself, An sent word Anson should not be killed. Anson was not killed. He was released, flew to Saigon, walked into the offices of Time Magazine and wrapped Pham Xuan An in a big bear hug and thanked him for saving his life. Anson didn't know that An had saved his life. He just suspected that he had. And Anson, to this very day, works with a photograph of Pham Xuan An over his desk.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the most interesting things about your piece is that while he was working as an agent for the North Vietnamese, he was doing pretty good journalism simultaneously. How can those [LAUGHS] two thoughts be held, you know, in your head at the same time?
THOMAS BASS: The secret to his success, he always maintained, was that he never told a lie, that he always told precisely the same story to people at Time Magazine as he told to the North Vietnamese. He was interested in analyzing the truth and understanding what was happening in that war, and he was taking information that was leaked to him, all sorts of reports and all sorts of stuff that simply came over the wire or through the office of Time Magazine. He would write it up, using secret ink, and then it would be run right out to the North Vietnamese, where Ho Chi Minh was reported to have clapped his hands and exclaimed that he had the feeling as if he were overhearing conversations in the U.S. Department of Defense, Pham Xuan An's reporting was so accurate and precise.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, at one point, someone in Time management asked if they had been duped by him. Said, well, no, on the contrary, we would have made fools of ourselves at various points had he not stepped in to explain that we had the story wrong.
THOMAS BASS: There are many reporters for Time Magazine, including their former bureau chiefs, who maintain that An saved Time Magazine from making lots of errors. Many of these mistakes were, in fact, information that Time Magazine was getting out of Washington, DC. Pham Xuan An knew better and could often correct its course. You know, there's this charge that's been lobbed against him that he, by definition, of course, must have planted disinformation in Time Magazine. Well, first of all, Time Magazine, by definition, was full of nothing but disinformation. It was stridently and ardently pro-war for many, many years. And I don't think that that was An's function at all. He tried to be as precise and accurate in dealing with the information as he could, which is what he learned when he attended school in the United States and studied journalism here.
BOB GARFIELD: How did he first come to be a spy for the North Vietnamese, and then how did he land the gig at Time?
THOMAS BASS: The North Vietnamese intelligence agencies arranged for him to study in the United States. When he returned to Vietnam, Pham Xuan An was put in charge of all of the Vietnam news agencies' foreign correspondents, so at that point, he was actually almost a quadruple spy. He had worked for French intelligence, he had worked for CIA, he worked for the South Vietnamese intelligence and he also worked assiduously, and throughout his life, for North Vietnamese intelligence. And his integrity and his news sense was so acute and noticed by so many people that he was hired by Reuters for a few years, and then Time Magazine hired him.
BOB GARFIELD: There were hints along the way that would have suggested, if you were paying very close attention, that An simply had too much information.
THOMAS BASS: There are examples of journalists actually being out in the field and following various campaigns, and coming back and chatting with An about these campaigns, and he would set them straight on what they'd actually seen, in a way that dumbfounded them. Several people noted this. Nick Turner, An's first boss at Reuters, was one of those people who noticed that An knew too much. Most people attributed his knowledge to CIA contacts. They never thought they were North Vietnamese contacts.
BOB GARFIELD: You spoke to his former colleagues. When it was revealed that he had been who he was, were they angry? Did they feel themselves betrayed? Shrug? What?
THOMAS BASS: I think there's remarkable understanding on people's part that An was simply caught at a particular historic moment, and the choice on his part to act as a patriot and a nationalist meant the United States was only an accidental enemy, like the Japanese, like the French, who had attempted to occupy Vietnam and had to be defeated. It was Pham Xuan An's hope that, after defeating the United States, that he could get back to what he cared about – that was, being friends with the United States. And then there are people like Peter Arnett, who feel that this is, as I say, a betrayal of the profession.
BOB GARFIELD: Arnett is not expressing some hypothetical point of disagreement. When you're a journalist and a spy simultaneously, you're putting all other journalists under suspicion and you are putting them all at risk of their lives, to say nothing of their credibility.
THOMAS BASS: You're absolutely right that every time journalists double as spies, it puts those of us in the profession at risk. But we should not pretend to any virtue here. Many spies have worked for Time Magazine. Of course, most of the spies who've worked for Time Magazine, at least the spies [LAUGHS] that we know of, were, in fact, working for the Central Intelligence Agency. There's that very famous example of Time Magazine Bureau Chief, Mr. Enno Hobbing, who was, in 1954, moved from Paris into Guatemala where he led the coup d'etat while working out of the offices of Time. Very rarely do people do both things well. Pham Xuan An is one of those rare examples of someone. He was a brilliant journalist, and, obviously, also a brilliant spy.
BOB GARFIELD: Thomas, thank you very much.
THOMAS BASS: Well, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Thomas Bass is a professor of English at the University at Albany. In his New Yorker piece on An, he wrote that the final tribute to An's journalism may be a scholarship fund, created by historian David McCulloch, for An's son to attend journalism school in the U.S. The fund has raised 32,000 dollars, and the list of contributors reads like a Who's Who of Vietnam War reporters. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Michael McLaughlin and Alicia Rebensdorf. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.