In 1965, Vietnamese reporter Pham Xuan An went to work for Time. A tireless writer, with an unerring sense for facts amid the fog of war, An became an invaluable source of information for American readers. But he was also a spy for the North Vietnamese. In 2006, Thomas Bass profiled An in The New Yorker -- he joins us again to explain his subsequent reporting and the resulting book.
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 earned his reputation as dean of the Vietnamese press corps through his many military sources, his strict work ethnic and his keen grasp of facts in the fog of war. By 1975, he was the magazine’s sole journalist in the country, maintaining the Saigon bureau single-handedly for the next year. But in the war’s aftermath, An eventually reported something else – a secret he'd been keeping for nearly 30 years. He was a spy for the North Vietnamese and had actually helped plan the Tet Offensive. Shortly before his death in 2006, An spoke to Thomas Bass for a New Yorker story that eventually grew into a book called The Spy who Loved US, a book published this month by Public Affairs. We also spoke to Bass in 2006, and he told us that An 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 taking information that was leaked to him. 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 A. Bass is a professor of English at the University at Albany. We originally spoke with him in 2006. This month, his book-length account of An’s spying will be published, uncovering more of this bizarre saga. Thomas, welcome back to the show.
THOMAS BASS: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You did a great deal of new reporting expanding on your original piece in The New Yorker. Among other things, you found out that he had not been awarded four medals by the North Vietnamese government, but sixteen. He was far more active than even you imagined.
THOMAS BASS: Well, this is the problem when you try to write the story of a spy. Pham Xuan An, he pretended that he was nothing other than a strategic analyst, that he looked at the war from a kind of Olympian distance, but actually he'd, in fact, been involved in choosing the targets to be attacked during the Tet Offensive. And that’s not strategic intelligence, that’s tactical intelligence. That’s actually the stuff that wins or loses battles. Then I discovered a long list of battles and military engagements and campaigns where he was, in fact, moving troops around in the field and sighting targets. And he was North Vietnam’s – one of their major military weapons in terms of winning the war.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, as a direct consequence of your piece in The New Yorker, a lot happened, including changes in your relationship with An himself before he died. The story came out. Then what happened?
THOMAS BASS: He and I had one final meeting after the long New Yorker article came out about him. We talked long into the night, as we often did. But at that meeting he told me he would never see me again. He told me that I was reporting his story from inside Vietnam, which was a kind of cryptic way of saying that I was revealing things in the West that people did not want revealed. And I was, of course, disappointed and hurt, but I also realized at that point that I was on to something important, that this was a story that I should continue reporting.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of friendship, as we've just heard in your original piece, various of An’s colleagues during the course of the war told you that, on balance, they still regard him as a friend, in some cases even a hero. He may have been a spy but he was really telling the North Vietnamese no more than he was telling the editors and readers of Time Magazine. Have those sources of yours rethought the way in which they cherish An’s memory?
THOMAS BASS: In a way, Pham Xuan An, he was such a successful spy that he not only had his first cover story, which was that he was nothing other than a reporter for Time Magazine, but he also had a second cover story, after his identity was revealed, that he was a friendly spy. He was a spy who always loved America. Well, the whole thrust of my book is that during the Tet Offensive, for example, he was involved in driving around Saigon and sighting the targets that would be attacked. Well, people were killed in those attacks. Pham Xuan An’s loyal friends, they don't believe me. They don't like this news. And there are those people who used to talk to me at great length about their friend Pham Xuan An, and now they hang up the telephone when I call, or they yell at me, or they refuse to take my phone calls.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Thomas, once again, thank you so much.
THOMAS BASS: A pleasure talking to you again.
BOB GARFIELD: The Spy Who Loved US: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game is available February 16th.