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.
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